Misrata: the city battling for Libya

Fighting is intensifying in a nation divided in two, each with its own authority and army

A Libyan soldier in Benghazi in December.
A Libyan soldier in Benghazi in December.abdullah doma (afp)

Three violent explosions interrupt Mohamed Sawan. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is unable to finish his sentence about the terrible power struggle that has divided Libya into two irreconcilable sides. His assistant runs outside and returns a few minutes later looking worried: General Khalifa Haftar’s aircraft have just bombed Misrata; a Russian-made MiG has attacked the airport, the port, and the steel plant, Africa’s largest. It seems there are no victims.

War once again threatens to engulf Misrata. The “martyr city,” which stood up to Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and for three months was subjected to a brutal siege that left 1,500 people dead, is again at the epicenter of a conflict that erupted six months ago and has divided the country in two, each with its government, parliament, and army. In the west is Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi and the General National Congress in the capital of Tripoli. In the east lies the Chamber of Representatives and the government of Abdullah al Thani, operating out of Tobruk and Al Baida, respectively, under the protection of General Haftar.

Misrata is without doubt the safest place in Libya, as well as the most prosperous, despite the war

More than 1,000 kilometers separate the political capitals of the two sides, which are also fighting for control of the oil fields in the deserts of the south of the country. There, in no man’s land, the presence of jihadist groups linked to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State has spread alarm throughout the EU. In the face of the terrorist threat, the international community has opted for Al Thani and his supporters in Tobruk, believing them to be more trustworthy. But the Supreme Court, based in Tripoli, has ruled that the Tobruk parliament has no authority, effectively legitimating the government in Tripoli.

The United Nations has pushed both sides to begin talks to try to reach some kind of national unity agreement. The conversations are continuing this week in Geneva. They are the only sign of hope in a steadily worsening situation.

Amid the political and legal chaos that has swept Libya since the revolution of 2011 and the fall of Gaddafi, Misrata is the only city in the country that maintains a surprising normality. Water and electricity are rarely cut off, the port is the busiest in Libya, although traffic has fallen off; the steel plant and the high-tech dairy products factory continue to operate; trade has picked up thanks to the reconstruction of premises destroyed by Gaddafi’s bombardments; and the airport had remained open until January 6, when Turkish Airlines stopped flights after a number of aerial attacks.

Mourners pay tribute to brigade commander Tareq Shanina in Misrata on December 23.
Mourners pay tribute to brigade commander Tareq Shanina in Misrata on December 23.b. de la grange

Misrata is without doubt the safest place in Libya, as well as the most prosperous, despite the war. In the absence of credit cards, which were never very popular here, people carry large wads of notes around with them, leaving them on their car dashboard as though they were packs of tissues. The jewelry stores are filled with gold, all in the same central neighborhood, where doors are left open, unguarded. “We have never had a heist,” laughs Hassan, weighing a wad of $10,000 on a digital scale. “One hundred $100 bills weigh between 101 and 102 grams. We count them first, and then we weigh them.” Business is good, despite the situation. “Of course,” he says, “if the young men weren’t all fighting at the front, we’d have more weddings and thus more sales.”

At the moment, Misrata is the city supplying the most troops to Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn), the coalition of militias fighting the armed forces of Khalifa Haftar, the 71-year-old retired general who left to live in the United States during the final years of the Gaddafi regime, then returned to take part in the revolution and is now portraying himself as the country’s savior with his so-called Operation Dignity. Misrata is the best-defended enclave in the country, its anti-aircraft batteries keeping the fighters that fly overhead at bay, but it’s also among the cities that have suffered the most casualties.

More than 200 people have died since the fighting flared up in July, and the city seems to have been taken over by funerals, held in the open air in the center of the city. Today’s is for Tareq Shanina, a laborer who led a brigade of volunteers killed in an aerial bombardment close to the oil terminal of Es Sider, 430 kilometers east of Misrata. His body, covered with a Libyan flag, lies in an open coffin on the road. While an imam reminds those in attendance of the sacrifice made by this father of five in defending the city and the revolution, hundreds of men stand in silence.

The people of Misrata are famously pragmatic. After leading Libya’s economic revival, they have now assumed military and political leadership

The prayers over, friends of the family lift the coffin to their shoulders and head off in procession toward one of the cemeteries that each tribe maintains in its neighborhood. After the burial, mourners will offer their condolences to the family in a tent set up to serve tea and cakes. Tomorrow there will be another funeral.

Unlike during the revolution of 2011, when NATO air and sea protection prevented Gaddafi from killing everybody in the city, Misrata no long garners any sympathy from the international media and the governments of the West, who were once so lavish in their praise of the city’s resistance. This city of half a million people, which has swollen to twice that number in recent months as a result of the influx of refugees from the civil war, and has modern industries and a sophisticated international trade network, is now considered an ally of jihadist terrorism at the gates of Europe.

But the city’s politicians and its business leaders do not understand why the outside world sees Misrata as the new capital of radical Islam. “The West is very afraid of the Islamists, and our adversaries, who have developed close relations with Europe, and curiously enough, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, tell them that we are extremists, converting us into the enemy,” says independent deputy Fathi Bashagha, who is involved in the search for a negotiated settlement to a conflict that is destroying the infrastructure of one of the world’s most important oil-producing countries.

His colleague Abdulrahman Swehli is angry at being associated by the West with the extremists. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. Swehli was shot in the leg when militiamen linked to General Haftar tried to dissolve the parliament in Tripoli at the start of Operation Dignity. Many people in Libya compare the operation to the coup staged a year earlier by Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “Al Sisi and Haftar have allied themselves to destroy our revolution and finish off the Arab spring,” says this deputy from the Union for Homeland, which has a strong presence in Misrata.

Swehli is angry at being associated with the extremists. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says

Swehli – whose grandfather was Ramadan Swehli, who led the war against Italian colonization and founded the autonomous republic of Misrata in 1918 – says the Libyan revolution has in-built flaws that prevent it from consolidating. “Our revolution has been led from the start by renegades from the Gaddafi regime. They only wanted to implement limited reforms, but we wanted to change things completely and create a new Libya. That is why in 2013 we passed legislation banning anybody who occupied any post under Gaddafi from taking part in politics for 10 years.”

The Political Isolation Law has been heavily criticized within Libya, and particularly outside the country, because it affects people with close ties to Western governments supposedly indispensable in carrying out a transition to democracy. “The international community opposes the law because political stability is their absolute priority for Libya,” says Swehli.

Like most people in Misrata, Swehli, who lived in London for 15 years, describes himself as a moderate. “We are all against the Islamists who adhere to a very rigid interpretation of sharia Islamic law and want to install a political system like Saudi Arabia’s. We want to choose our leaders through free and fair elections.”

Mainly conservative and deeply religious, the people of Misrata have shown little support for radical or violent groups, says the city’s mayor Mohamed Eshtwi. “We have arrested a small group of people who were carrying the black flags of [Islamist militia group] Ansar al-Sharia around the streets,” he says. “When I took over my post in August, I said that we would not tolerate the presence of these dangerous people in the city, and I have asked our government, in Tripoli, to take measures to dismantle Ansar al-Sharia throughout the country.”

Al Sisi and Haftar have allied themselves to destroy our revolution and finish off the Arab spring” A Union for Homeland deputy

The mayor’s request has been ignored by Tripoli and Fajr Libya. “This is about priorities: we first have to defeat Haftar and then get rid of Ansar al-Sharia,” says Hisham Dow, the head of private television station Misrata TV, who fought against Gaddafi during the revolution.

“We’re fighting the same enemy, but we’re not allies,” says Fathi Bashaga. “It was the same during World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union fought against Hitler, and then became implacable enemies.” He believes the danger posed by Ansar al-Sharia is greatly exaggerated, saying the group has no more than 300 fighters at most, and that it has been badly hit in Benghazi by Haftar’s aircraft and is about to withdraw toward the eastern port city of Derna. “Derna is a problem, because it is controlled by the extremists, but this is something that we’ll deal with later on,” he adds.

The people of Misrata are famously pragmatic, both in terms of their approach to business, and now in war. Until recently, they were leading Libya’s economic revival, and now they have assumed military and political leadership. The command structure of Fajr Libya and the majority of fighters are from Misrata – around 15,000 militiamen, according to one local official – but there are not enough to supply every front in a country that is four times the size of Spain, but has a population of barely six million. So they have held on to the most strategically important ones: the capital, along with the oil industry and the borders. In return, they have kept away from Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, where they know their presence is not welcome. Instead, the fight there is between the forces of General Haftar and a coalition of local brigades called the Shura Council, which includes Ansar al-Sharia and other, non-Islamist, militias.

At the same time, Misrata’s Fajr Libya brigades control Tripoli and its two airports, which are closed as a result of the fighting that took place there last summer, as well as the bombing by General Heftar’s forces. Fajr Libya is also fighting in the Nafusa moutains near the border with Tunisia, and in the far south, where they have recently taken the country’s largest oil field, Al Sharara, run by Spain’s Repsol, but out of action for the moment.

Misrata no long garners any sympathy from the international media and Western governments

In mid-December, Misrata’s forces began fighting to take the oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte, but suspended the offensive when a missile hit a storage tank, starting a huge fire that consumed around 850,000 barrels of crude. Since then, oil exports, Libya’s only source of foreign revenue, have all-but ceased, leaving the country’s current account ever emptier. The conflict between the two sides has now reached stalemate, with neither prepared to give ground.

Today, Saleh, a former university student in his early twenties, has returned from the front to attend his cousin’s wedding. He’s been given just a few hours leave. He will have to return this evening to Kikla, a mountain town that has changed hands several times in the last few weeks, and where the Grad missiles fired from the nearby community of Zintan by the forces allied to General Heftar have killed many civilians.

When the time comes for him to leave, the women in his family gather round to bid him farewell, giving him food and clothing for the other fighters. They have left messages in each package thanking the recipients for the sacrifice they are making for Libya, and above all for their city. “If it weren’t for you, Misrata would no longer exist,” reads one. But not a tear is shed.

You may also like

Most viewed in...

Top 50