For Misratans, politics are divisive but Misrata comes first

The country’s third city is the focus of incessant criticism by other Libyans.
Sunday 18/03/2018
A security member of Misrata counter-terrorism force removes explosives from a car driven by a suspected ISIS militant in Misrata, on January 11. (Reuters)
Still a threat. A security member of Misrata counter-terrorism force removes explosives from a car driven by a suspected ISIS militant in Misrata, on January 11. (Reuters)

MISRATA - Among the numerous divisions that have bedevilled Libyan politics since the 2011 revolution, one issue unites many people across the country: Misrata.

The country’s third city, its main commercial centre and one of the cradles of the revolution, Misrata is the focus of incessant criticism by other Libyans. Bad-mouthing Misrata is almost a national pastime.

In eastern Libya, notably in Benghazi, another cradle of the revolution, Misrata is accused of supporting Islamists and being linked to Qatar and Turkey, the east’s foreign favourites to hate.

In Tripoli, Misrata is accused of wanting to take it over and dominate the country, an accusation levelled by others in the west and south. Misrata also faces growing charges of ethnic cleansing over its refusal to allow the people of Tawergha to return to their hometown, 50km south of the city.

Accused of brutally supporting the Qaddafi regime in the siege of Misrata during the revolution, Tawerghans were evicted en masse by Misratan forces from their town in August 2011.

Misratans see themselves as unfairly discriminated against. They point to sacrifices made during the revolution when an estimated 4,000 of them were killed. They feel there is little gratitude for the costly struggle against the Islamic State in Sirte in 2016.

They are not letting this get them down, however.

There is a buzz in Misrata. Shops and cafes are busy until late evening. There are new hotels, new private hospitals and clinics drawing people from all over the country with hopes that the city will become the health hub of Libya.

The city has three internet service providers, compared to one elsewhere in Libya. The port in the massive free zone handles 50-60% of Libyan imports.

In the main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, many of the buildings damaged during the revolution have been replaced with plate glass structures. Some older buildings remain but, as prominent businessman and member of the House of Representatives Mohamed Raied explained, they are either government-owned or there are multiple owners arguing over what to put up in their place.

Conversely, there are no checkpoints and security is very low key.

As part of the renaissance, the Chamber of Commerce organised Misrata’s first shopping festival. People from as far away as Sebha and Zuwara arrived in search of bargains.

There was another first, a “Made in Libya” fair showcasing products from private industry throughout Libya: a nursery from the south-east oasis town of Kufra with an impressive display of shrubs and plants; a diary company from Sirte; producers of ceramics, furniture, olive oil, dates and other foods. Both events drew people from way beyond the city and hotels were full.

Misrata has long been a can-do city. This is because of the large number of people there working in the private sector, either for themselves or as employees — such as metal workers and truck drivers — unlike the rest of the country. It is the centre of the trucking trade in Libya.

As a result, people are used to taking responsibility. It is one of the reasons the city was able to hold out during the 2011 siege. People knew how to make quick decisions rather than waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

The result is a very visible work ethic. People do jobs that elsewhere in Libya might be considered beneath them. In restaurants, the waiters are local, not Tunisian or Egyptian. “Where are you from?” I asked the young man cleaning the floor in the hotel corridor. “I’m Libyan,” he replied, “from Benghazi.”

There are an estimated 20,000 Benghazi refugees in the city, mainly descendants of Misratans who migrated years ago to the eastern city but who fled in 2014 after Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar began Operation Dignity to rid it of Islamist militants.

Despite the business boom, there are problems. There are complaints about the difficulties of obtaining letters of credit to pay for imports. The lack of access to foreign cash resulted in a shortage of building materials and other necessary imports and slowed the city’s growth, businessmen said.

There are political issues too, although businessmen steer clear of talking about them. In December, the city’s pragmatic mayor, Mohamed Eshtewi, was killed. Everyone has a different view as to what happened, with some saying it was the work of common criminals opposed to his clamping down on crime and others suggesting he was killed by local Salafist supporters of Saudi Sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali — who are linked to Haftar (whom most Misratans hate) — or by military men opposed to both Haftar and the internationally recognised government of national accord in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Last year, there were attempts by local hard-line revolutionaries to force Eshtewi and the rest of the council to quit.

While most agree that Eshtewi’s death was probably politically motivated, it no longer appears to be an issue for many Misratans, whether they supported him or not. They say their prime concern is the growth of Islamists in the city, by which they are referring to supporters of Madkhali. Mohamed el-Fortia, an opponent of Eshtewi, said they are a fifth column in the city loyal to Haftar, although he also claims that some are working with Tripoli security boss Abdel Raouf Kara.

Pragmatists say the prime threat to Misrata’s security is Islamists.

On Tawergha, there is a growing national demand that the 40,000 inhabitants be allowed to return but both moderates and hardliners are united against it. The hardliners accuse the Tawerghans of being agents of Haftar and the moderates insist on conditions that effectively rule out any return — that Tawerghan “criminals” responsible for action against Misrata in 2011 be handed over, that Tawergha be part of Misrata municipality and that its security be controlled by Misratan forces.

Misrata is politically divided but when it comes to issues such as Tawergha, the danger from Islamists and the need for business to flourish, ranks close. Misrata comes first.