Misrata’s ‘miracle’: One of the worst-damaged cities in Libya’s 2011 revolution, the port has become a symbol of ambition and recovery – but how much of its success is based on the ruthless bullying of regional rivals?

Businessmen confer in shimmering hotel lobbies, a brand new mall is packed with shoppers and manicured trees line public streets. But that dynamism also has its darker side

Misrata

There still are buildings on this Libyan city’s main drag that look like Swiss cheese from months of bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces three years ago.

But while much of Libya stagnates and festers amid post-war politicking, protests and factional violence, Misrata – possibly the worst-damaged city in the country’s 2011 revolution – is moving on and up. New restaurants and hotels have popped up among the bombed-out apartment blocks and thousands of local entrepreneurs stand ready to make it big.

The instability plaguing the country was evident today, when Jordan’s ambassador was kidnapped in Tripoli by masked gunmen who attacked his car and shot his driver.

Undeterred by violence elsewhere in Libya, European and Turkish businessmen confer with their Misratan counterparts in the shimmering hotel lobbies here, 131 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. On Friday nights, a brand new mall is packed with shoppers – including families queuing for a chocolate fountain – and local authorities have manicured the trees along public streets. “Misrata is known for its ambitious people,” said Mohamed Ali Nari, the owner of the mall, which opened in February. “They are always on the move.”

But that dynamism also has its darker side. In recent months, other Libyans have increasingly labelled Misrata a bully. In March, militia fighters based in the port city attacked an eastern militia seeking to sell an illicit cargo of oil by launching missiles at the tanker at sea. The Misratans set off days of bloody fighting with another eastern militia when they moved to capture eastern territory – a battle that ended, at least temporarily, when tribal leaders warned it would start a civil war.

Misrata’s militias have also sparred repeatedly with rival militias in Tripoli. Misratans brag that their dozens of militia forces – all former rebels – are more disciplined than those of other Libyan cities and work together under a respected local hierarchy. In recent weeks, local leaders have sent fighters to southern Libya to occupy a former Gaddafi stronghold and negotiate a border security arrangement with desert tribesmen.

A scene of destruction in Tripoli , 2011. Misrata is one of the only Libyan cities where citizens say their fortunes are looking up after the revolution (Getty) A scene of destruction in Tripoli , 2011. Misrata is one of the only Libyan cities where citizens say their fortunes are looking up after the revolution (Getty)
The city’s critics say the Misratans are moving into the south to ensure their control over vital oil facilities there.

And Misratan politicians also led the recent charge in the country’s elected parliament to oust the longest-standing post-war prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who has since fled to Europe.

“I was the person who got others to go out against Zeidan,” said Anwar Salwan, one of Misrata’s most prominent businessmen, who also wields broad authority among the city’s well-armed fighters.

Libya is awash in weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenals – now spoils of war for the former rebels who toppled the longtime leader. But Misrata may have the largest collection, Libyans say. And that has made it a fearsome force in a country that has increasingly deteriorated into city-states and tribal territories competing for resources and power.

“Everybody has stuff. It’s difficult to find a house that doesn’t,” said Ayman, a 27-year-old former rebel and militia fighter who would give only his first name, standing amid his father’s tank collection – one of which the family is trying to engineer to operate via remote control.

Ayman’s 21-year-old brother has a separate collection of six trucks with mounted machine guns, parked in the back yard among the livestock. Their cousins cruise around in trucks recently seized in battles with another militia 120 miles away.

It is unclear whether any of Misrata’s weaponry is being sold abroad. Residents say it is not, but they also concede there is zero government oversight here – as in most of the country.

A Qatari businessman who has sold military equipment to groups in Libya said in an interview last year that he was offered Misrata-based missiles for purchase. “There is one party in Misrata that has 200 missiles,” he said, adding that he turned down the offer because the merchandise was of poor quality.

“The government still hasn’t set up. There is no real head of state,” said Mr Nari, who imports goods for his mall and biscuit factory through Misrata’s port. Mr Nari and other businessmen said the port operates with virtually no regulation from Tripoli.

Others said that the Gaddafi-era customs authority continues to function, but taxes incoming goods arbitrarily. “Misrata is its own state. Their militias are not under the control of the central government or anyone’s control,” said Salah Mohamed, a fighter from a rival eastern militia that seized control of a string of oilfields and ports last summer and has clashed with the Misratan fighters for control in recent weeks.

But Misratans also are proud of their independence. Some say their critics are just envious of their success or angry because Misratans killed their relatives in some battle or other – no doubt deservedly, they add.

“I’m sick of everyone blaming everything on Misrata,” Salwan shouted during a recent call-in to state television.

Some residents argue that every one of the city’s military “operations” – including a months-long assault on the former Gaddafi loyalist town of Bani Walid in 2012 and the recent move to seize an illicit oil tanker, were all “orders” from Tripoli that were backed by Libya’s elected General National Congress.

But many here also say that they act when Libya’s nascent central government has proved too weak.

Their detractors, meanwhile, say Misratan forces have muscled every operation into legality – through the passage of congressional orders – by means of threats, protests and violence.

“Misrata led the war. It collected the most weapons,” said Mohamed al-Shami, a former rebel commander in the city. “So people look to us to carry on with the fighting.”

© Washington Post

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