By Wolfram Lacher
In post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of central authority and the fragmentation of territorial control have produced a fundamental change in the political elite.
Misrata’s push for national dominance
A port city with a population of 300,000 and a key hub for Libya’s import and retail sectors, Misrata became a major political and military power centre through the revolution thanks to the financial clout and cohesion of its business elite.
Misrata’s wealthy business families, whose local prominence often dates back to the Ottoman era, had hardly been marginalized under Qadhafi.
Admittedly, their relations with the regime had suffered after a Misratan officer led a coup attempt in 1975 and soured further when the regime began nationalizing the property of Libya’s upper classes in the late 1970s.
Many members of Misrata’s notable families left the country and joined the exiled opposition.
Nevertheless, in a survey of individuals who held ministerial positions between 1969 and 1999, Misratans made up the single largest group, exceeding the number of ministers from Tripoli and Benghazi, both cities with several times Misrata’s population.
As the regime launched a large-scale investment drive in housing and infrastructure in the mid-2000s, a handful of Misratan businessmen used their privileged relations with core regime figures to obtain prime positions for benefiting from the largesse.
However, after security forces began killing protesters in the city in February 2011, the vast majority of Misrata’s business families quickly threw their weight behind the revolution. Those who did not left the city.
In other regions of the country, revolutionary forces were able to seize weapons and ammunition from army bases and storage facilities. In Misrata, besieged by regime forces from March to May 2011, buying arms and moving them into the city via the port became crucial to the city’s resistance.
Close links emerged between the armed groups leading the war effort and the business families financing it, their members often participating in armed combat themselves.
After the siege was broken in May, and Misratans began pushing back regime forces along larger front lines, smaller armed groups consolidated into larger brigades, for which strong logistical backing became even more important.
The number of fighters in these units rose to 40,000 by October 2011. In the final months of the war, Misratan groups established themselves in Tripoli, exacted revenge against the regime stronghold of Sirte and forcibly displaced the population of the nearby town of Tawargha, which they accused of having perpetrated crimes in Misrata.
After the war, Misratan politicians emerged as leading proponents of a revolutionary agenda. Misrata was strongly represented in successive transitional governments, and Misratan figures obtained leading positions at major investment vehicles and state-owned companies.
Misratan brigade leaders successfully lobbied for the official recognition of the city’s units and pushed for the former revolutionary forces to act as a substitute for the army.
These forces gaining recognition and budgets under various institutional arrangements was an evolution that both further cemented their power and created vested interests in the distribution of security sector resources.
The growing influence of elite networks linking revolutionary leaders and businessmen benefited from local sentiment that the city should play a leading role after having greatly suffered in the revolution.
These networks also, however, gradually removed themselves from public accountability. Through demonstrations, civil society activists uniting as the 24 December movement successfully pressed for the election of a local council in Misrata in February 2012 in one of the earliest initiatives of its kind in Libya.
Actual decision-making, however, took place in the Shura (consultative) Council formed by political heavyweights and brigade leaders, as the city’s armed groups became drawn into local conflicts in western Libya during 2012.
Though having more than 100 members, the council was in reality dominated by a small group of politicians and businessmen with close links to the brigades.
For the most part, this was not a new elite: many came from well-established families, and some remained close to Misratan magnates who had comfortably ensconced themselves among the former regime’s corrupt networks.
Meanwhile, the 24 December movement gradually disappeared, as its members faced threats from armed groups or were co-opted by elite networks.
A decisive moment arrived in October 2012, when the city’s GNC representatives stood among the leading proponents of Decision no. 7, authorizing the creation of a force to capture Bani Walid following the detention of several Misratans in that town.
Misratan units made up the largest component in a coalition of forces from revolutionary strongholds now enjoying official status as the Libya Shield Force.
One Misratan GNC member, Salah Badi, personally participated in Bani Walid’s capture. The few prominent Misratans opposed to the action, such as Colonel Salim Jha, a leading figure in the revolutionary struggle, were quickly isolated.
Across Libya, the episode shaped perceptions of Misrata as an uncompromising, ruthless force determined to dominate the new order.
Misrata’s leadership in the hard-line revolutionary camp was cemented by its politicians’ role in the push for the Political Isolation Law.
In March 2013 GNC members Badi and Abd al-Rahman Suwaihli reportedly called in armed groups to besiege the GNC and force it to pass the law.
The attempt failed, but caused a moderate Misratan GNC member, Hassan al-Amin, to publicly denounce his colleagues’ tactics and then flee the country, fearing for his life. Some Misratan brigade leaders also participated in the subsequent occupation of ministries that aimed at exerting pressure on the GNC.
Following the law’s adoption in May 2013, another moderate Misratan GNC member, Juma Atiqa, resigned to pre-empt his removal under the law.
With the adoption of the law, Misrata’s hard-line politicians had won a major battle, but at the expense of provoking increasingly confrontational tactics in the struggle for power in Tripoli.
The Misratan-led camp was far from controlling national politics, and its repeated attempts to take over the transitional government failed. Moreover, Misratan leaders’ actions provoked hostile public reactions across the country.
They also damaged Misratan business interests: two major markets relocated to neighbouring cities, and Misratan-owned shops in Sabha or Sirte were targeted in times of tension.
In November 2013, after a protest in front of a base in central Tripoli controlled by a Misratan brigade escalated into clashes in which 43 people were killed, anti-Misratan sentiment hit a new high.
Incensed, Misrata’s local, military and Shura councils ordered the city’s units to withdraw from Tripoli in an ostensible demonstration of unity.
Beneath the surface, however, tensions were rising. On the one hand, some brigade leaders contested the authority of local institutions’ decision to withdraw from Tripoli, which allowed units affiliated with Zintan to expand their reach in the capital.
Brigade leaders formed a new body, the Committee of 21, to represent their interests, but the city’s power brokers succeeded in co-opting the initiative.
On the other hand, a growing number of Misratan politicians and businessmen began opposing the hard-line stance that had pushed Misratan leaders into an alliance with Islamist currents at the national level and provoked a public backlash.
For the most part, however, such opposition was confined to closed-door meetings, not least because those who challenged the city’s stance too openly were silenced by threats.
Such divisions may explain why Misratan leaders initially refused to respond in like terms when in May 2014 General Haftar launched his offensive against revolutionary and Islamist groups in Benghazi, and Zintani brigades attacked the GNC in Tripoli to force its dissolution.
Pushed by the hardliners, some Misratan units redeployed to Tripoli, but did not confront Zintani groups outright.
The mood shifted radically after the June elections to the House of Representatives. In Misrata, the vote returned a triumph for the city’s businessmen-cum-revolutionary leaders, including Suwaihli, Sulaiman al-Faqih, Fathi Bashaagha and Muhammad Ibrahim al-Darrat.
Nationwide, however, these figures’ revolutionary and Islamist allies suffered heavy losses, substantially reducing the Misratan-led bloc within the parliament.
The prospect of diminishing influence in formal institutions most likely served as the trigger for the offensive launched by a hard-line fringe of Misratan units in July 2014, joining with revolutionary and Islamist forces from other cities to attack Zintani positions in Tripoli.
Depicted by the campaign’s leaders as an all-out war against counter-revolutionary forces, Libya Dawn apparently aimed at taking control of Tripoli to increase the revolutionary camp’s political leverage.
After initially meeting with much rejection in Misrata, the campaign quickly gained local backing. Opponents were silenced; brigade leaders were coaxed into joining the war after the battles claimed their first victims among Misratan fighters; incendiary language from both Misratan media and its adversaries also did its part.
In their drive to dominate national politics, the hardliners within Misrata’s elite were ready to push the country into civil war and stigmatize any local dissenters as traitors to their city.
Libya Dawn also included units from Tripoli, Zawiya, Gharyan and some Amazigh towns, distinguished by local loyalties or their leaders’ Islamist outlook and united by their vision of ‘protecting the revolution’.
Misrata’s brigades, however, provided the bulk of the Libya Dawn alliance’s firepower, the city’s political heavyweights were the offensive’s masterminds, and its business elite raised funds for the operation although the fighting caused major damage to Misratan business interests in Tripoli.
In a stark reversal of the influence the city’s representatives had wielded in the GNC, Misrata’s eight members of parliament (MPs), together with some 20 representatives from Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities, boycotted the legislature now meeting in Tobruk.
They mobilized several large demonstrations in Misrata in support of the Tripoli operation and against the Tobruk rump parliament.
By late August, Libya Dawn had achieved its objective of pushing the Zintanis out of Tripoli.
The UN Security Council, in Resolution 2174, threatened to target with sanctions those responsible for threatening peace and security, and foreign mediators began rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Tobruk, Misrata and Zintan.
At this point, the united front of Misrata’s elite began to disintegrate. Distrustful of the politicians meeting with foreign envoys behind closed doors, the city’s brigade leaders formed a new body to represent their interests, the Authority of 17.
Parts of the Libya Dawn alliance, including some Misratan politicians, supported the establishment of a rival government under Umar al-Hassi in Tripoli, believing that de facto control could be converted into formal government authority.
The leading Misratan figures behind the offensive, however, now positioned themselves as architects of a compromise with Tobruk and were backed in this by the Authority of 17.
The politicians and brigade leaders performing this about-face were ready to abandon their tactical alliance with Islamist groups in exchange for building a centrist coalition that would give them a stake in a unity government.
Hardliners were temporarily isolated, and attendance at their demonstrations against plummeted. 12 Meanwhile, the rift in Misrata’s elite over negotiations with Tobruk continued to widen, but without leading to open internal confrontation.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Germany