Once Besieged, A Victorious Misratah Flexes Its Muscles

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Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

A Libyan rebel stands guard in the severely damaged Tripoli street of the besieged city of Misratah on April 26, 2011.

Misratah produced more martyrs for the revolution than any other Libyan city. It is a point of pride for Misratah and a distinction the country's interim leaders like to highlight. The coastal city fended off months of heavy bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi's forces — and Misratah's commanders proclaim that their fighters eventually battled all the way to the gates of Gaddafi's own capital, contributing to the collapse of the regime.

Among the rubble of Misratah, that pride remains fierce — and tangible. After so many months of fighting, Misratah can now muster some 30,000 volunteer fighters and 1,200 gun trucks, as well as tanks, rocket launchers, and thousands of small arms, its commanders say. "The strongest military council in the center of Libya is Misratah," says Adel Ibrahim, an official at the city's media center. The city's fighters are playing a key role in the siege of Gaddafi's hometown of Sirt. And many in Misratah feel that the devastating bombardments wrought on their city by Gaddafi's forces has entitled them to the lion's share of power in the new Libya. "The revolution started in Benghazi. But here in Misratah, we paid the price," says Mohamed Shami, the head of one of the city's many militias. "Seventy percent of all the damage and martyrs was in Misratah. Therefore the next government should be 70% from Misratah."

Local military commanders like Shami have already begun to implement their own rules and regulations to fill the void of governance in Libya's third largest city. And it's not the only place where that is happening. Incipient city-states are emerging in areas across the vast North African country over which the interim government has so far not been able to exert effective control. In recent days, Misratah's military council has started issuing its own series of border and approval stamps for those — foreigners and Libyans alike — who wish to enter the city, visit the "liberated" sections of Sirt, or even transit through Misratah en route to Tripoli. At checkpoints and displaced persons' camps on the road between Sirt and Misratah, hundreds of families fleeing the conflict there sit in lines or wait in temporary shelters for days as Misratah's authorities determine whether they will be allowed to pass.

The militias wield considerable power. Shami proudly displays the 200-or-so prisoners that his City Center Brigade — one of about 180 militias operating in Misratah — has captured. "God is Great," he says to each of the men, who range in age from teens to the elderly, as they line up obediently along the walls of the stuffy, residential apartments that the brigade uses as its prison. "God is Great," they repeat in unison — the universal declaration of Islam, but now also the cry of solidarity in the free, post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya.

Shami's brigade is hardly the only militia in Libya holding its own prisoners. Scattered across the country there are, perhaps, hundreds of others. Tawfiq al-Fudaysi, Shami's aide, estimates there are at least 1,800 prisoners in Misratah alone. Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), has pledged fair treatment for the war's captives, as well as the eventual disarmament of the militias — but only after the war, still raging on at least three fronts, is finished. The budding autonomy of the city-states has alarmed international rights groups who warn that retribution and arbitrary arrests will only serve to hamper post-Gaddafi Libya's quest for justice, and fuel future resentment among its tribes and factions in the aftermath of the dictatorship.

Many of Misratah's prisoners hail from loyalist towns, including nearby Tawergha, whose predominantly black residents fled amid fears of race-based reprisals from Misratah. But perhaps more crucial than the question of whether or not Misratah's fighters have a penchant for revenge, is whether or not Libya's weak transitional government will be able to control them. "My biggest concern with Libya is: we're starting from scratch," says Christopher Boucek, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. Boucek says he's worried about the potential for more violence in a country now awash with small arms, and which possesses few tools for governing in a post-Gaddafi system. "There is no state to inherit," he says. "For 42 years, Gaddafi dismantled the organizational structure of the state. There are no ministries, no civil society, no trade unions, no nothing. So this is a huge project."

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