A war-torn Libyan port muscles it way back


Shoppers browse the gleaming new Ghurthabiya shopping mall in the Libyan coastal city of Misurata. (Abigail Hauslohner/The Washington Post)

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

But while much of Libya stagnates and festers amid postwar politicking, protests and factional violence, Misurata — 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 hit it big.

Undeterred by violence elsewhere in Libya, European and Turkish businessmen confer with their Misuratan 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.

“Misurata is known for its ambitious people,” said Mohamed Ali Nari, the owner of the mall, which opened in February. “They’re always on the move.”

But that dynamism also has its darker side.

In recent months, other Libyans have increasingly labeled Misurata 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 Misuratans 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. Misurata’s militias also have sparred repeatedly with rival militias in Tripoli.

Misuratans 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.

The city’s critics say the Misuratans are moving into the south to ensure their control over vital oil facilities there. And Misuratan politicians also led the recent charge in the country’s elected parliament to oust the longest-standing postwar 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 Misurata’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 Misurata 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 chickens and livestock. Their cousins cruise around in trucks recently seized in battles with another militia 120 miles away.

It is unclear whether any of Misurata’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 Misurata-based missiles for purchase. “There is one party in Misurata 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 Nari, who imports goods for his mall and biscuit factory through Misurata’s port. 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.

“Misurata 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 oil fields and ports last summer and has clashed with the Misuratan fighters for control in recent weeks.

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

“I’m sick of everyone blaming everything on Misurata,” 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 Misuratan forces have muscled every operation into legality — through the passage of congressional orders — by means of threats, protests and violence.

“Misurata 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.”

Hassan Morajea contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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