Democracy Lab

Islands in the Desert

The problem, and the promise, of Libya's new city-states.

MISRATA, Libya — By all rights, Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, ought to be a mess. The late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi considered the place to be a hotbed of resistance during the 2011 revolution, and his troops pounded it with everything they had (including Scud missiles). The resulting levels of destruction prompted some foreign reporters to evoke the battle of Stalingrad. Two years later, Libya as a whole is still trying to recover from the chaos of the civil war. A stuttering economy, fractious militias, and a weak central government certainly aren't helping.

Yet today's Misrata offers a remarkable study in resilience. Much of the wartime devastation has already been cleaned up -- and even where it hasn't, spiffy new shops thrive on the ground floors of buildings whose upper stories are still burnt-out facades. The downtown area is humming with commerce. Traffic jams are frequent. And the militias that earned the city so much fame during the war are nowhere to be seen. Checkpoints are non-existent; the only armed men to be seen on the streets wear the uniforms of the Libyan police. (The eagle in the photo above stands in front of Misrata's war museum, which commemorates the fighting of 2011.)

Before the revolution, Misratans say, their affairs were micro-managed by the central government in Tripoli. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime put an end to that. Today, Misrata boasts an elected government that emerged directly from the 2011 turmoil and now manages the city's affairs with a substantial degree of independence. Ismael Shaklawon, the head of the Local Council, takes care to stress that Misrata's municipal government still recognizes the primacy of Tripoli. Nonetheless, he spends much of his time railing about the fecklessness of the capital's politicians and officials. It's been months, he says, since Tripoli sent any of the funds allocated to the city budget -- the city's only official source of funding. "Give us the power to get things done," he says. "Without independence in finance you can't get anything done."

Still, one can hardly accuse Misratans of waiting for a green light from Tripoli before pushing ahead with revitalizing their city. On many fronts, they are exploiting their newfound freedoms to the full -- and the results offer an object lesson in both the opportunities and the risks of the wide-ranging autonomy that Libya's revolution has ended up bequeathing to many of its communities.

In Misrata, a big part of the story turns on the city's remarkable sense of self-reliance -- fueled, perhaps, by local pride in its status as Libya's unofficial commercial capital. The revolution was still under way when a group of businesspeople got together to plan the refurbishment of Misrata Airport, which was heavily damaged during the war. Thanks to private funding, though, the airport re-opened for business in December 2011, just two months after Qaddafi's death. Where only domestic airlines operated before, now there are regular flights by Tunisian, Turkish, and Jordanian airlines. Local business assistance has also boosted Misrata's port, which recently reached 90 percent of its prewar capacity. When Misrata's local TV station fell behind in payments to the satellite broadcasting company that carries its signal, Misrata tycoons stepped in and paid off the arrears.

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.

Christian Caryl/FP

Democracy Lab

Zintan Versus the World

Why a small town in Libya refuses to give up custody of the revolution’s most high-profile prisoner.

ZINTAN, Libya — The Nafusa Mountains rise dramatically from the rocky wastes of the northern Sahara. The road, hitherto arrow-straight, begins to twist as it gains altitude, and you find yourself looking down from the window of your car into canyons dotted with tamarisk and date palms. Finally you reach the edge of the plateau, and from there it's just a few minutes into the center of Zintan, pop. 40,000.

Zintan, with its whitewashed farmhouses and quiet mosques, is not the kind of the place that usually stands at the center of global controversies. But Libya's revolution has changed all that. When the 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began, Zintanis quickly joined in. The town's men formed a powerful militia that proved its mettle in many a far-flung battle with government soldiers. "We love the Sahara," Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri told me. "We are desert people."

I had come to Zintan to hear Atiri's take on the issue that has placed his town in an unlikely international spotlight. Atiri still vividly remembers the day when he and his men made their mark on the history of their country. It was the fall of 2011, a month after the ignominious death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Atiri was commanding a Zintani militia unit patrolling a remote region along the country's southern border with Niger. When his unit received a tip that a high-ranking member of the old regime was trying to escape across the border, Atiri set up a nighttime ambush on a smuggler's road. Sure enough, his fighters soon surprised two cars that quickly became mired in the dunes. They captured the occupants, one of whom, Atiri noticed, was trying to hide his face.

The reason soon became apparent: He was Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the best-known of the Libyan dictator's seven sons. As soon as he realized that the jig was up, Saif made an odd request: "The first thing he asked was, ‘Kill me. Please kill me,'" Atiri recalls. "I told him that because we caught him unarmed, we weren't going to kill him." Islamic law, Atiri says, didn't allow his men to take vengeance on a defenseless captive.

Before the revolution, Saif, who liked to boast about his degree from the London School of Economics, served as the regime's open-minded face to the outside world, negotiating with the Americans about compensation to victims of terrorism and talking of the need for reform. But as soon as the uprising began, the cosmopolitan veneer quickly fell away, and the dictator's son distinguished himself with a number of notably bloodthirsty speeches aimed at the opponents of his father's regime.

Since his capture in that moonlit ambush in the Sahara, Saif has remained in the custody of the Zintanis, who are now holding him in a jail at an undisclosed location in the city. The Zintanis have refused to hand him over to anyone else, including the central government in Tripoli -- and it is their insistence on this point that has sparked their feud with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Hague-based international tribunal created in 2002 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC is designed to exercise jurisdiction in situations where countries are unable to ensure proper judicial procedures on their own. Libya would certainly seem to fit the bill, given the continuing weakness of its central government, the lack of security, and the problems faced by the country's post-revolutionary judicial system. So the court has ruled that Libya should hand Saif over to ensure that he can face a fair trial. (The ICC reiterated its views in a finding issued in May.)

But the Zintanis aren't buying it -- and they've shown little willingness to compromise. Last year, when Saif's ICC-appointed Australian defense lawyer, Melinda Taylor, showed up to consult with her client, the Zintanis ended up detaining her and three of her colleagues for almost a month. Taylor shared the details of her ordeal with the Australian press and other media. The Zintanis had a somewhat harder time getting their version of events out to the world.

But if you want it, Atiri is the man to ask. Today, his militia is in charge of the prison where Saif is being held, effectively making him Saif's jailer-in-chief. Atiri says that the position of the Zintanis is simple: They want to see Saif get a fair trial, but they don't think that can happen in Tripoli. They're convinced that it's possible in Zintan (though they don't have much to say about the details of how it would take place).

The problem, the Zintanis argue, is that the central government in the capital is paralyzed, corrupt, and riven by faction. In Atiri's telling, the post-revolutionary government still contains many veterans of the old regime who have an interest in preventing full disclosure: "When you give Saif al-Islam a trial, there are many people in the Libyan government and the GNC [the General National Council, the interim legislature] who would be incriminated by the things he says," says Atiri. "Saif will get a fair trial in Zintan. There are no political parties fighting over policy here." Atiri also notes that his town will be happy to allow Saif to be tried under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice -- just not in Tripoli. And since the ministry hasn't shown any indication to move ahead with a trial in their town, the Zintanis are fully prepared to do it themselves.

Moreover, he argues, Zintan's security situation is strictly under control. The local government and its security force enjoy the full support of the close-knit community, and the city has been almost entirely free of violent incidents since the end of the revolution. Tripoli, by contrast, remains under the sway of dozens of competing militias, each of which sees its presence in the capital as guaranteeing its interests at the national level.

Politicians in Tripoli predictably reject the insinuation that they aren't in a position to bring Saif to justice. "I think these are completely outrageous excuses," says Mohamed Ali Abdullah, head of National Front Party and a leading member of the GNC, responding to the claims made by the Zintanis. He cites the recent verdicts in the case of two top Qaddafi-era officials issued by a government court in the city of Misrata as "a good step in the right direction." (It should be noted that the death sentences issued by the court were criticized by Amnesty International, which objects to executions of members of the old regime as a form of revenge for their past crimes.) 

As for the International Criminal Court, the Zintanis told me that Libyans should be the ones to try those who committed the crimes of the Qaddafi regime. "In Qaddafi's time there was no free justice," says Mohamed Al-Wakwak, the head of Zintan's municipal government. "That's why we had the revolution -- to ensure justice for Libya. It's not a personal thing [in the case of Saif]. It's about what he did, not who he was." As for Melinda Taylor, the ICC-appointed defense lawyer, the Zintanis told me that they imprisoned her because she attempted to help Saif communicate with Qaddafi sympathizers outside of the country -- behavior they deem "unprofessional" for a lawyer of the ICC. The ICC ultimately apologized for the incident, promising to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by Taylor or the others. (The Zintanis brought Saif into court earlier this year to charge him with attempted escape, an accusation based on the Taylor incident. The photo above shows Saif in the Zintan courtroom in May.)

The Zintanis are quick to insist that they're happy to provide access to Saif's defense lawyers (or, at least, the public defenders appointed to his case in Tripoli). They also say that they're taking care to ensure humane living conditions for their illustrious prisoner -- including TV, plenty of reading material, and air conditioning. They do note, however, that he is being held in isolation from other prisoners, though they refuse to elaborate on the details for security reasons. (The precise location or nature of his jail in Zintan remains a secret.)

And so the stalemate continues. For the time being, Saif remains the only Qaddafi-era notable who is not in the custody of the central government, making his case not only a test of Libya's ability to deal with its complicated past, but also an illustration of the tortured relations between Libya's fractious regions and its beleaguered capital. (Saif is also the only one of his siblings to have been detained. Three of them were killed during the revolution, while the other four managed to escape the country and are now living in exile.) "The big issue is that he's not under the control of the government," says Alex Whiting, a former ICC official now teaching at Harvard Law School. "That's the thing that's so odd about the Saif case. If that could be solved, it would be a big win-win for everybody -- the Libyan government, Libyan people, the ICC, international community, and the international criminal justice project. If the government gets its hands on the guy and does a reasonably fair trial of him, that would be an incredible victory. Nobody loses."

The problem, as Whiting and many others acknowledge, is that the government in Tripoli probably doesn't have the will (or the troops) to go in and take Saif away from his captors. Men who've spent their lives eking a living from the Sahara are not the kind to give up easily.

AFP/Getty Images