Armed militiamen inspect ID papers under an archway made of battered ship containers at the main checkpoint outside Misrata with a stern message for visitors: strangers keep out.
The guards deny entry to Libya’s third-biggest city for any non-Misratans who have no local contacts to vouch for them, fearing they may be Qaddafi loyalists planning attacks. Residents of the city, which bore the brunt of the eight-month rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, also remain distrustful of the National Transitional Council in the capital, Tripoli, 117 miles (188 kilometers) to the west.
Misrata’s militias, which number 250, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch, take orders from the city’s military council and were among dozens of armed groups in Libya that refused an NTC request in December to lay down their weapons. The divisions show how the new western-backed central government is struggling to assert authority across the North African nation, which holds Africa’s biggest oil reserves.
“Rather than tearing Libya apart, it is more likely to lead to a dysfunctional government, a government that is hobbled by incapabilities because it has been so subverted and hollowed out by regional interests,” said Shashank Joshi, associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
With Fawzi Abdel A’al, a lawyer from Misrata, as the interior minister in the National Transitional Council, the city “is fairly powerful in the central government, so it’s in a position to preserve its independence and autonomy,” he said.
The militias’ policy of deterring outsiders is damaging for an otherwise improving business environment, said Farouk Ben Ahmeda, 37.
“The traders here do business with guys from Tripoli, from Bani Walid, and the checkpoints are deterring them from coming,” said Ahmeda, a former militiaman who is setting up an import business. “It’s time to relax a little.”
The Misratan militias’ fame grew in October when they captured Qaddafi near his hometown of Sirte, about 120 miles east of Misrata. He died in captivity and video emerged on the internet showing him being taunted and beaten.
London-based Amnesty International this month accused the militias in Misrata and elsewhere of “operating lawlessly,” committing widespread human-rights abuses against suspected Qaddafi loyalists, African immigrants and refugees.
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called on a Misrata-based militia to release two British journalists and three Libyans it detained while they were filming in Tripoli on Feb. 21.
Reports of Torture
Doctors Without Borders suspended its operations in Misrata on Jan. 26, saying detainees were being tortured and denied medical care. During the six months that its teams spent working in Misrata’s detention centers, they treated 115 people for torture-related wounds. The group said it reported all cases to the authorities and that no action was taken.
Some houses of Misratans thought to have supported Qaddafi are being destroyed, while others are being spray-painted with the word “traitor.”
The policy of screening visitors is necessary to deter Qaddafi loyalists who may want to attack the city, said Abdul Fatah Alghannai, a 26-year-old medical student who worked in the city’s casualty wards during the fighting.
“If they’re not from Misrata, somebody has to vouch for them,” he said in an interview yesterday. “It means Misrata is the one city in Libya where the streets are safe to walk at night. But we have nothing against Libyans. We are Libyan.”
Misrata, which had about 517,000 residents before the war, according to the United Nations, this month held Libya’s first election since Qaddafi’s demise. The vote for a 28-seat local council took place after protests led to the ouster of self-appointed councilors who assumed power during the uprising.
An electoral register of 101,000, about 67 percent of Misrata’s voting-age population, was compiled in 20 days, according to Mohamed Berween, head of the Misrata Electoral Commission. National elections for a 200-seat constitutional assembly that will draft a new constitution are set for June 23.
The economy of Misrata, mainly a trading center, has seen some improvement. Tripoli Street, Misrata’s main thoroughfare that was shattered by fighting, is being revamped. The power company is fixing street lights, and shops are being repaired, their doors that were green by law under Qaddafi are being painted white.
Freighters are berthed at Qasr Ahmad, the deepest and most modern container port in Libya that accounted before the war for about 52 percent of the country’s container traffic. It’s the only Libyan port open 24 hours a day.
No More Bribes
Since liberation, it has been reorganized and is run by local officials from the port authority in partnership with Misrata Free Port, a state-owned company.
“It used to be 10 to 15 days in port and you had to pay money under the table,” Nasser Mokhtar, a clothing importer, said. “Now, it is very easy, nobody asks for a bribe.”
Bureaucratic delays in obtaining permits, rather than politics or security, are the biggest problem facing businesses in Misrata now, said Mustafa Algwaire, who returned to Misrata in 2007 after spending 15 years in the U.K. where he graduated with an MBA in tourism management. He now runs one of a group of take-away shops that have opened since the war and specializes in “Kentucky-style” chicken.
Central Government Failure
“When you have been living under a regime for 40 years, it’s difficult to change,” he said. “The bureaucrats, they didn’t like Qaddafi, but they liked the system.”
Misratans aren’t alone in voicing criticism of the failure of the transitional council to push forward reconstruction, pay salaries and account for spending of oil revenue.
Benghazi, the eastern city where the revolution began last February and the birthplace of the NTC, has been beset by protests in recent weeks by Libyans demanding greater accountability and transparency from the government. Tripoli has been hit by strikes and sit-ins over unpaid wages.
Misratans say their emerging autonomy results from central government inaction, not a desire for isolation.
“Nobody wants to see Misrata independent from Libya,” said Abu Bakar Essaddami, who runs a haulage company in the city. “We just want a country with law, a country with proper governance.”