Libya’s Bellwether City

Misrata has always been a business hub. But since 2011 it has become a military power and a bellwether for the direction of the country

Libya’s Bellwether City
Loading docks at the port of Libya’s northwestern city of Misrata / Mahmud Turkia / AFP via Getty Images

The city of Misrata, Libya’s third largest, has a buzz about it. Sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean, the city’s port is the single largest point of entry for all manner of goods entering Libya. From car tires to toothpaste, there is a good chance that whatever Libyans across the country might be consuming came through Misrata.

The city has always been known for its business savvy, but since 2011, it has also come to be seen as a military power. In March 2011, the forces of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime surrounded Misrata, whose citizens had sided with the rebellion. Indiscriminate howitzer and Grad rockets flayed the city’s neighborhoods, and intensive battles took place in the city center. Regime snipers positioned themselves in the few high-rise buildings, striking down anyone who crossed their line of sight.

Soon people became familiar with the sound of shelling while crowding for their grocery shopping on Addam Street, just over a mile away from the front line. Misratans formed their own armed groups to defend their city, helped in no small part by the NATO air campaign that targeted the regime’s forces.

About two months later, these Misratan rebel groups switched defense for attack, chasing the regime to the capital, Tripoli, and later capturing Gadhafi in his hometown, the city of Sirte. The city’s experiences burnished an image of Misrata as the vanguard of the Libyan revolution, a self-identification that remains critically important to this day.

Given the massive arsenal it obtained during the revolution, and its longtime economic strength, Misrata has become a bellwether for the direction of the country. The entrance of Misratan armed groups into Tripoli in 2014 was a critical moment in Libya’s post-revolutionary history. Following Misrata’s intervention, rival governments emerged in eastern and western Libya. For its detractors, Misrata had sided with the Islamists to support a coup against the winners of the recent elections. Yet, for its supporters and many in Misrata itself, the intervention aimed to prevent the return of authoritarianism, personified in the form of Khalifa Haftar, a former general under the regime who had returned from exile.

This battle for the narrative about Misrata has never been settled, with perspectives on the city continuing to be colored by one’s view of the events of 2014. As a result, Misrata is often misunderstood.

The city’s influence is not disputed. At the head of the two governments that currently claim authority in Libya stand two figures from Misrata. Their presence reflects the prevailing sense that only a Misratan can mediate between Libya’s warring eastern and western camps. Where Misrata goes, the country follows. Or at least that’s the theory.

The idea that either of the two Misratans seeking to govern the country can simply deliver the city has, however, been shown to be false. Instead, it is their stance toward the city’s antagonist, Haftar, which has been the key determinant of the support they have obtained. But, as of last month, both of the governments claiming legitimacy have a deal with Haftar. So, where does the city go from here?

Insights from the reaction to five major events since 2014 show that Misratans can find common cause in defense of the city yet remain divided on the big questions of political Islam and the role that Misrata should play on the national stage.

“I saw him lying at the hospital. … I can never forget that day. It was a shock when I heard about his killing only 10 minutes after we went on our separate ways out of the airport,” recounted Ali Busitta. A former member of the Misrata Municipal Council, Busitta had accompanied Misrata’s then-mayor, Mohamed Eshtewi, during a business trip and had shared the flight home to Misrata. On the afternoon of Dec. 17, 2017, the mayor’s convoy was ambushed. Eshtewi was reported to have been shot three times and then dumped outside the hospital. No one has ever accepted responsibility for his murder. Misrata reeled in shock.

Busitta recalls that both he and the mayor had received a threatening text message on their mobile phones prior to the trip. “We didn’t think it was serious. … At the time, people became more aware of the importance of peace and reconciliation. We thought that we had passed the danger stage as we went through harder times, and it was almost the end of the council’s term,” Busitta says.

Islamists represented Eshtewi’s main, and perhaps only, rivals in Misrata. The common belief within the city is that Islamists were the prime suspects, although investigations never revealed the names of the perpetrators.

Eshtewi’s murder laid bare a major fault line in the city: What role should Islamists play in the governance of the state? Eshtewi had taken a strong stance on this, lobbying for the expulsion of Islamists — linked to the Muslim Brotherhood — from public institutions within the municipality.

Eshtewi had also been part of the international political process, supporting dialogue over the appointment of a new government to replace the Islamist-dominated and internationally unrecognized Government of National Salvation (GNS) operating from Tripoli (that Misratan forces had essentially helped to install following their entry into the capital in 2014).

“He was a champion of peace,” Busitta said of Eshtewi. “It was the vision of the whole council, but he was the one carrying the flag.” As a result of the dialogue, the United Nations established a new unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), in December 2015. The city’s military council — composed of significant figures from the 2011 civil war — opposed the deal, along with many of the Islamists who had maintained support for the GNS. For Busitta and his colleagues, it was clear that Misrata had to accept the new GNA. “Misrata is a commercial city. We transport goods across the country, and we can only be reconciled with everyone,” he argued. “The GNA came to reunite the country, and we could only support this new government.” When asked about the opposition of the Islamists, Busitta said that “our argument with political Islam circles was not about the concept of reconciliation. … But because they [Islamists] were not part of the deal, they opposed the GNA.”

The internal Misratan dispute was soon overshadowed by a new threat: The Islamic State group had established a foothold in Sirte. In May 2016, the full strength of the Misratan security sector deployed against them. It was a cause everyone in the city could get behind. Support came from the international community, too.

But a year later, the problem resurfaced. With the campaign against the Islamic State successfully concluded, protests emerged at the municipal council. In particular, Islamists protested over their exclusion from the municipal council and questioned why the municipal council was engaging in national-level political dialogues rather than focusing on doing its job in the city. The military council supported the protest, intervening to replace the municipal council with a steering committee. In May 2017, Eshtewi resigned but later retracted his resignation, claiming it was made under duress. He continued in his position until the time of his murder that December.

The dispute was revealing since it showed the extent of the disagreement within the city over the political direction of not just the city, but also the country. Misrata has often been seen by those outside the city as a stronghold of Islamists with several key figures — including the former head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing — hailing from the city. Yet distinctions are not easy to make in this regard.

For those outside of the city, the position of Misratans toward events east of the city came under the microscope. Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” had forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Benghazi, many of whom had Misratan ancestry. The groups that Haftar fought in the east banded together to counter the threat. These groups included extremist elements. Misratans had a difficult time in establishing which groups operating in Benghazi they should support — were Ansar al-Sharia simply young men fighting for their homes? Or were they extremists who must be countered? Yet, the invocation of ethnic slurs against those with Misratan heritage as “Turks” — because of the historic links between Misrata and Turkey — along with blanket branding of his opponents as “terrorists” saw Haftar become public enemy number one. In Misrata this led to the situation being characterized as an anti-Haftar struggle rather than an anti-Islamist or anti-terrorist one. This is a characterization that many of Haftar’s supporters will never accept. They argue that the campaign of assassinations that took place in post-revolutionary Benghazi perpetrated by the Islamists is what prompted the crackdown of “Operation Dignity” in the first place.

“Our cause is to defend Libya and its people from any internal or external aggression aiming to break us by the force of arms to take us back to the ages of injustice and dictatorship,” Gen. Mohamed Haddad stated, looking directly down the lens of the camera. Haddad, the commander of GNA forces, was speaking in April 2020 amid the collapse of Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) attempts to capture the capital, which had begun the previous April. Misratan deployments had been fundamental in defeating Haftar.

Following his bloody victories in Benghazi and Derna, Haftar’s LAAF gained ground in the oil crescent and the south of Libya in 2019. Debate was taking place in Misrata over what the city should do. The military council made it clear it thought no deal could be done with Haftar. For others, such a deal was a political reality and the only feasible route to peace. In the end, Haftar unified the city against him once again. Only two weeks ahead of a U.N.-facilitated “national conference,” which was set to agree to a pathway out of transition, Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli.

Misrata has burnished a self-image as defenders of the Feb. 17 revolution against Gadhafi. To this day, no major mobilization is possible in the city without buy-in from the community, which remains tightknit despite the city’s population of around 700,000. And those mobilizations must be justified by either their necessity to protect the city or to serve the goals of the revolution. Making the case for mobilization in defense of the city is easy. The city had defended itself in 2011 from the Gadhafi regime and it carried the fight to the Islamic State in 2016.

Mobilization for other offensive operations has been trickier. Most Misratan factions backed the military “Dawn” operation to deploy in Tripoli in 2014, but the community was chastened by the claims of misconduct of its fighters. Deployment to the oil crescent to seize control of the area in 2015 was not backed by all. And, as noted, support for Islamist groups fighting Haftar was the most divisive.

Conversations among Misratans display consistent themes: What role should Misrata play on the national stage? Should it seek to shape the national picture? Or should it simply focus on itself and stay out of the national game?

Critically, Misratans saw Haftar’s assault on Tripoli as an existential threat. And as a result, the full force of Misrata’s armed groups was deployed. While Misrata had contributed to the formation of new army units and some revolutionary battalions had formalized elements into state-affiliated forces, the bulk of Misrata’s forces remained “thuwwar” (revolutionaries). Unlike many other places in Libya, these thuwwar are not permanently mobilized. In times of war they head to the front, and in times of peace they blend back into society.

Misrata played a critical role in the defense of the capital. The revolutionary battalions like Halbus Brigade, without which it is said Misrata cannot go to war, headed to the front. The commander of the GNA forces, Haddad, is himself a former Halbus commander.

Other groups, like those associated with the Misrata Military Council under commanders such as Ibrahim Beit al-Mal and Ibrahim Ben Rajab, had no such state affiliation. So, the GNA would embrace them as auxiliaries and provide support to a military operations room run by the commanders. The operations room would be recognized by the state, thereby providing a convenient means of legitimacy. The Misratan groups then debated strategy among themselves, along with their allies. But it was a counter-Haftar alliance, rather than a pro-GNA one. The GNA had little sway over the battle.

The television cameras focused on the Libyans selected by the U.N. to appoint a new government. The pictures streamed live from Geneva to Libya, names were called and, one by one, paper votes were placed by hand into the ballot box. On the one hand, the proceedings demonstrated a welcome note of transparency, but in reality, the deals were already done by this point. A new Libyan government, the first unified government since 2014, was set to be appointed.

The collapse of Haftar’s offensive had created fresh opportunities that restarted the political process by the autumn of 2020. However, as the political process gathered momentum, Misratans feared that Haftar would effectively achieve through peace what he had failed to achieve through his military operation: dominance of the state. It would also create a situation where many elements of the city would have struggled to accept the recognized government.

Over a coffee in London, the Misratan writer and political commentator, Abdullah Alkabeer speaks for many in the city when he tells us that “Haftar is problematic for Misrata and the western region in general. … His war crimes cannot be forgiven.” Alkabeer then adds the kicker: “[Haftar] aims to rule Libya by the same principles that were previously used by Gadhafi.”

In October 2020, the U.N. set up the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) to develop a political roadmap toward a stable, unified government. The LPDF was to select a new interim government that would see Libya through to elections in December 2021. The LPDF was formed of 75 members, with around half coming from the House of Representatives (the parliament) and the High State Council (a consultative body), while the remainder were formed of a combination of influential figures, proxies and civil society activists. These were the voters submitting their ballots in February 2021 whom Libyans eyed on the screens.

The favorite for the position of prime minister was Fathi Bashagha, a prominent Misratan armed group commander-cum-politician. A former fighter pilot, Bashagha had established his credentials through founding a revolutionary armed group, Hiteen Brigade. He was also a liaison with NATO during the 2011 conflict. Bashagha had been one of the main protagonists in the Libya “Dawn” alliance’s entry into Tripoli in 2014. And he had become Minister of Interior in 2018, as the GNA sought a strong Misratan figure to tackle the capital’s rapacious armed groups.

Bashagha would, however, cross the Rubicon. He joined a candidate list with Agila Saleh, the wily speaker of the Parliament. Critically, aligning with Saleh was also seen as a rapprochement with Haftar. Saleh had supported the LAAF’s offensive on Tripoli.

There were other Misratan candidates. Mohamed al-Muntasser carried the name of a family that long governed Misrata in the past. Ahmed Maiteeq had been deputy prime minister under the GNA. But it was Abdul Hamid Dbeibah who emerged victorious, casting himself as the alternative to the Saleh-Bashagha list.

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah is the cousin of Ali Dbeibah, the Misratan scion who amassed a fortune through his control of the not-so-pithily-titled Organization for the Development of Administrative Centers (ODAC). ODAC had been in charge of billions of dollars of development contracts on behalf of the Libyan state.

The Dbeibahs had switched to the side of the rebels amid the civil war. And, while Ali was stripped of his title as head of ODAC and investigations were initiated into his financial affairs, his influence remained. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah headed up the Libyan Investment Development Company, or LIDCo, that works with ODAC on many of its contracts. Ali was also a member of the LPDF. Allegations of bribery surrounded the LPDF’s deliberations, but a U.N. report written on the subject has never been publicly released.

The votes were counted audibly in dramatic fashion, one by one, adding to the tension for the viewers. But it is likely that those in the room already knew where this was headed. Dbeibah won, with 39 votes to the Saleh-Bashagha count of 34. A major surprise had unfolded, as the process that was initially seen as the coronation of Bashagha ended with another Misratan winning. Rumors circulated that Haftar had crossed his frenemy Saleh.

No scenes of jubilation followed in Misrata, illustrating the ambivalence with which many Misratans view the Dbeibahs. In Misrata, Dbeibah’s win was not the highlight of the event, as the latter had no outstanding political activities during the country’s civil war and his history was mainly associated with his role under LIDCo. What was most important for those within the city was the loss of the Saleh-Bashagha list.

“We had no prior knowledge of Bashagha’s visit to Haftar, and he did not give us any guarantees for this alliance,” the prominent Misratan military commander Mukhtar al-Jhawi complained. Alkabeer concurred that “a deal with Haftar was an unexpected step by Bashagha. … It was a shock for many people in Misrata and beyond.”

After some initial optimism, it became clear that Dbeibah had designs to stay in power beyond his interim status. Dbeibah would renege on his promise not to run for elections. Saleh’s Parliament stymied the process of drafting elections laws, with Saleh unilaterally seeking to push through legislation. The return to the scene of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi — Moammar Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent — as a candidate in the elections only served to make things worse. As Libya entered December 2021, the press still talked about elections, but most Libyans knew they weren’t happening.

Amid the breakdown of the process, Bashagha and Maiteeq — at this time two candidates for the presidency at the elections — traveled to eastern Libya to meet Haftar. They were pictured seated underneath the LAAF’s insignia, waiting for the field marshal to enter. The image is clear. Haftar holds the power.

The reaction to the meeting in Misrata was swift. The municipal council sought to issue a statement against the meeting, while internationally sanctioned Misratan renegade commander Salah Badi orchestrated a military parade. Reports circulated that Bashagha’s plane was unable to return to the city. Keen to ensure the support of his fellow Misratans, Dbeibah called armed groups to the capital to prevent a “coup.” “By his coalition with Haftar, Bashagha gambled with all his credit and influence that he built since the revolution,” Alkabeer said, “which ultimately led to him [Bashagha] losing most of his popular base.”

Bashagha’s Hiteen Brigade responded by putting together a parade of its own. And the municipal council statement never became public, as a group of activists affiliated with Bashagha entered the municipal council and prevented the mayor from publishing it.

These events were a sign of things to come. In February, Bashagha reached a deal with Saleh to be appointed prime minister designate, and the House of Representatives voted in favor of the appointment, although the procedure fell short of the House of Representatives’ bylaw requirements, leading to another vote taking place. Saleh and Bashagha argued that the Government of National Unity of Dbeibah had violated its mandate and needed to be replaced.

But, once again, Misratan groups would play a significant role in influencing events. A convoy of forces mobilized outside the High State Council’s location in Tripoli to apply pressure to the council to prevent the recognition of Bashagha’s new government. For these forces, Bashagha was a junior partner in an alliance with Haftar. Locals from Misrata questioned how the man who encouraged them to send their sons to war in 2014 and 2019 to prevent Haftar from capturing the capital could now include Haftar’s proxies in a new national government. “Many of our mates have sacrificed and lost their lives. … We will never give up those sacrifices,” echoed Jhawi, concluding, “the absence of justice and accountability is the reason for the current crisis in Libya.”

On the other hand, it was not as if Dbeibah enjoyed the city’s unfettered support. His family remains associated with the Gadhafi regime, and he had not played a prominent role in post-2011 political life. Stories of payments to armed groups, some of which were Misratan in origin, were met with anger. Locals said that armed factions that were operating in Tripoli, like Brigade 301 — which developed from the Misratan Halbus Brigade — had become corrupted by the politics of the capital. They were accused of being “mercenaries,” “gangs” and “pawns of politicians” now that they operated beyond the city’s social umbrella.

Yet, while the world was waiting to see which government would prevail, within the city the initial fear was that Misratan factions may end up fighting each other. Mediation within Misrata was stepped up to prevent this from happening.

For months, Bashagha’s government said that it would enter Tripoli but would not use violence to do so. So Tripoli waited. On May 16, Bashagha made his move. With an escort from a Tripoli armed group — not a Misratan one — he entered the capital, only to be expelled hours later. The Misratan forces in the capital appeared to stay out of it. Allying with the Misratan revolutionary commander and former head of the city’s military council, Salem Juha, was not helpful for Bashagha to mobilize the city, as the former expressed his support to Haftar since 2014, leading him to lose his influence within the city.

The two Misratans at the center of the story became disconnected from the prevailing views of those in the city. A strong bloc in Misrata, particularly the revolutionary groups, cannot bring itself to cut a deal with Haftar. For them, Haftar represents an image of the regime they sought to fight: a counterrevolution. Others, like Bashagha, believe a deal with Haftar is the only way forward. But this debate will simply not go away.

In a country where the focus of the battle among rivals is often firmly trained on direct control of the state’s assets, the July 2022 ouster of the National Oil Corporation chairperson, Mustafa Sanalla, was a big deal. It was made bigger by what it represented, as the move was widely seen as part of a deal between Dbeibah and Haftar to reopen Libya’s blockaded oil terminals and, critically, to share access to the state’s revenues between Haftar’s forces and Dbeibah’s government.

The move foreshadowed renewed fighting among armed groups in the capital, and Misratan armed factions expressed their displeasure by closing the coastal road to Tripoli, a vital trade artery. The fallout threatens to smash Misrata’s social consensus. Dbeibah had attracted support in Misrata almost by default because of his rival’s deal with Haftar. But now the anti-Haftar camp has no candidate. And the dispute between Bashagha and Dbeibah has escalated in the city. On July 21, Dbeibah sought to have Bashagha arrested in Misrata. Clashes took place within the city among armed groups aligned with the two rival prime ministers. There is confusion as to where Misrata goes from here.

Bashagha and Dbeibah continue to battle one another for control of Tripoli and the state’s finances. In late August, major clashes broke out in the capital among armed groups aligned with the two men, leaving scores of civilians dead. Forces aligned with Dbeibah prevailed. The Misratan contribution to the fighting was limited. A small group of fighters from Misrata departed the city seeking to join the fighting in the capital on the side of Bashagha, but they barely made it to the neighboring city of Zliten before being turned around.

Some clear patterns emerge from these major events. Misrata acts as a cohesive unit whenever it is threatened, and its citizens have worked hard to prevent national fissures from destabilizing the city. Residents have prioritized averting internecine conflict above all.

But there is much that Misratans do not agree on. The role of political Islam remains a contested issue, as the death of the mayor indicates. Most notably, for all its economic and security power, Misrata remains highly divided over its national role. Residents are locked in a pattern of reacting to national developments — usually sparked by Haftar — rather than precipitating them. While the city continues to see itself as a revolutionary bulwark, Misratans appear to have a stronger sense of what they don’t want (Haftar) than what they do. This explains the inability of Bashagha to win over his fellow Misratans with his arguments and the ambivalence with which Dbeibah is viewed. Many Misratans have wearied of Libya’s interminable transition and the wheeling and dealing of politicians whom they do not see as their true representatives. In this sense, too, perhaps Misrata is a bellwether for the whole country, and a silent majority whose views are no longer sought.

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