The Local Council has shown its share of initiative. One of its achievements is the establishment of a one-stop shop for Misratans wishing to start new businesses. In Qaddafi's day, registering a new commercial enterprise required days of red tape (and attendant bribes). Now you can do it all in a morning (and local businessmen say that most of the graft has fallen away as a result). Despite its vows of compliance with national law, the local government has also dramatically simplified procedures for all goods passing through the port. "We're trying to make it easier for people to get approvals for export and import," says Shaklawon. "It used to be you had to go all the way to Tripoli. Now we're making it possible to get the papers here." Misrata even sends its own trade delegations on trips abroad -- just the sort of thing that has other Libyans understandably wondering whether the city is contemplating breaking away from the rest of the country.
The business environment also enjoys another advantage: Security in the city is comparatively good. The reason seems to be that the myriad of local militias spawned by the revolution have largely fused with the local administration. Shaklawon says that there are still some 250 qatiba ("brigades," as they're euphemistically known) in Misrata, but he insists that they're all seamlessly integrated into the municipal security plan, which assigns them specific tasks under the auspices of Libya Shield, the central government's initiative for re-integrating the revolutionary fighters into an internal security force. Shaklawon hastens to reassure the skeptical outsider that the brigades know their limits: "No qatiba in the city can move a tank from one base to another without the Local Council's permission." Getting the fighters to give up their tanks in the first place, though, seems to be out of the question.
As that detail suggests, the militias are showing little inclination to vanish from the scene. The young men of Misrata still happily tout their membership in their neighborhood qatiba in much the same way that their equivalents elsewhere would identify with sports teams.. The qatiba still provide a much-needed source of cohesion and identity in a chaotic world. (Some of the militias even have social centers where their members can while away their spare time.)
Yet even Misratans are aware that keeping the militias around isn't a viable long-term solution. "Security is starting to get bad," says Abdal Gadar Fasuk, a local journalist. Many Misratans blame the troubles on sabotage by Qaddafi loyalists, but the real reason is simpler. People, he says, "don't respect the laws. They're using guns to solve their personal problems."
It's not much of a stretch to say that the same principle applies to some of Misrata's dealings with the rest of Libya. If Misrata is starting to look something like a quasi-autonomous city-state, then it's the Misratan militias stationed in other parts of the country that are the primary tools of its foreign policy. Last year Misratan militias staged a punitive attack on the city of Bani Walid, which they regarded as a stronghold of unrepentant Qaddafi supporters. Misrata's qatiba are also responsible for preventing the return of some 35,000 people from the city of Tawergha who were expelled from their homes for their presumed loyalty to the old regime back in 2011.
There are still even some Misratan militia detachments in Tripoli -- a holdover from revolutionary days that probably best exemplifies Libya's continuing fragmentation. Many Libyans don't see the elected interim legislature, the General National Council (GNC), as truly representing their interests. For a city like Misrata, whose inhabitants view themselves as the victims of decades of neglect under Qaddafi's rule, having their own armed contingents in the capital is a way of making sure that their demands get heard -- a kind of political insurance policy. Other cities (like the desert stronghold of Zintan) keep their own armed contingents in the city out of similar motives.
As the militias maneuver for advantage, the chance of devastating flare-ups always looms. Within just the past few days the government in Tripoli has seen fit to deploy Libya Shield forces loyal to it throughout the capital in order to prevent a possible "coup" against the GNC. (Some sources say it's the largest mobilization since the end of the revolution.) Perhaps ironically, most of the Libya Shield forces involved are from Misrata -- and so is their commander. Tripoli remains, to a certain degree, at the mercy of the outsiders, and there's little reason to presume that this will change anytime soon. Amid the current turmoil, some Libyan cities are definitely more equal than others.