In war-torn Libya, the future path toward peace may lie not in the meeting halls of United Nations–sponsored talks but in a sprawling dairy factory in the western port city of Misrata. Remarkably, even after months of fighting, it is still churning out delicious fruit yogurt and macchiato ice cream.
The al-Naseem dairy plant is Libya’s largest private enterprise—and one of the few functioning businesses in a country that has been battered by civil war since May of last year. When I toured the factory’s well-groomed grounds in January, al-Naseem’s owner told me he had suffered a 40 percent revenue loss since the start of the conflict. He was tired of fighting and ready for dialogue.
Misrata was the site of the Libyan revolution’s pivotal battle, one which paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli and the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. The city now fields the country’s most powerful and well-organized militias. These armed groups form the bulk of a Tripoli-based coalition called Libya Dawn, a loose collection of Islamists, Berbers, and residents of Tripoli neighborhoods and towns to the west. Since last summer, Libya Dawn has been battling a militia alliance led by Khalifa Hifter, a general who is now backed by the exiled Libyan government in the eastern city of Tobruk—the only authority in Libya recognized by the international community. Both the Tripoli and Tobruk factions claim their own prime minister, parliament, and army.
But Misrata is also home to Libya’s most powerful business community, which includes manufacturing, construction, and transportation industries—all of which depend on access to the rest of Libya. And in this tension—fighters and merchants, side by side—there are reasons for guarded optimism when it comes to Libya’s future as a unified state.
Last month, the United Nations started a series of peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the conflict and forming a national unity government. Over the two weeks I spent in Misrata, I witnessed intense debates among local residents, businesspeople, members of the political elites, and militia commanders on whether to participate in the talks. Although some questioned the location, scope, and purpose of the Geneva negotiations—as well as the ability of those attending to make a deal stick—many supported the idea of dialogue in principle.
To enter Misrata these days is to enter a city on a war footing. Its university classes are emptied of students who have gone to the frontlines. Refugees who have fled the clashes in Benghazi crowd its apartment complexes. Its television stations run endless and vivid footage of combat from the epic siege of 2011, interspersed with sinister images of Hifter, set to rousing, operatic music. The message is clear: the revolution isn’t finished.
Misratan militias, deployed across this vast country, are clashing with rivals in the western Nafusa Mountains and have occupied a southern provincial capital wracked by ethnic conflict. Most recently, they’ve traded artillery salvos with Hifter’s allies for control of coastal oil terminals at the ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf. They frame the fighting as a struggle to stop the return of an autocratic “deep state” that they suspect Hifter of orchestrating, with help from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
A day before my visit to the Es Sider frontlines, the Misrata militias had declared a ceasefire—a move that was followed by a similar declaration from Hifter’s forces shortly afterward. But when I arrived, shelling was already underway. It was unclear who opened fire first; what was known was that a 19-year-old Misrata militiaman was killed by an afternoon strike. By sunset, Hifter’s aircraft were dropping bombs on Misrata positions and the Misratans retorted with howitzer rounds and rockets.
“Four years of fighting since the fall of Qaddafi; I want to go home,” one young fighter told me.
It was a sentiment shared by many Misratans—lawyers, businessmen, and youth activists alike. Misrata’s elected municipal council endorsed a delegation from the city to the UN peace talks, even though the Dawn coalition’s parliament, the General National Congress, had boycotted the first round of negotiations. And Misratan militia commanders told me that the just-ended ceasefire was their unilateral decision, announced in support of the talks.
The question now is whether pragmatists will win out over Misrata’s rejectionists and the more radical Islamists within the Dawn government.
“Only after one side wins and one side loses can you form a government,” said Salah Badi, a leading hard-line commander in Misrata, whose militia attacked the Tripoli International Airport last summer, marking the launch of Libya Dawn. Badi went on to accuse the UN of trying to divide Libya between France and Italy.
There are other issues the city must grapple with if it is to move forward. A tolerance for opposing viewpoints is one of them; some critics of the city’s factions have been silenced or have had to flee the country. Another is the ability of all sides to move toward reconciliation after wartime violence; Misrata militias have inflicted a terrifying revenge on the neighboring town of Tawergha for abuses that its pro-Qaddafi fighters committed during the revolution, forcing the entire Tawergha population to flee.
Misrata has also earned a reputation for ambivalence toward Islamist militancy, if not tacit support of it. Some militia commanders acknowledged backing a Benghazi-based militia coalition fighting Hifter’s forces that includes the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia. But in the same breath, many Misratans maintained that jihadism runs against the city’s business ethos and its moderate brand of Islamic piety.
The growing threat from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, could prove to be a tipping point. In January, Misrata militia fighters were kidnapped and executed by supporters of the Islamic State in the south of the country, and Misrata fighters have since clashed with the jihadists in the central al-Jufrah district. “Our next fight will be with Ansar al-Sharia and Islamic State,” a Misratan commander told me outside of Es Sidr in mid-January. “We only have one flag here, and it’s not the black flag.”
Grappling with these and other challenges will not be easy for Misrata, or for Libya writ large. In a country bereft of governing institutions and recovering from a long tyranny that favored divide-and-rule tactics, citizens have fallen back on tribal, religious, and regional identities. The fierce pride that many of Misrata’s residents and militants take in the city’s commitment to the revolution—what many residents proudly call “steadfastness”—is just one stark example of such divisions.
For their parts, Hifter and some of his backers long for a more narrow political order, one in which Islamist opponents would be excluded altogether. As a result, they have resorted to rhetoric about a “war on terror,” which has clouded the fact that the real dispute in Libya centers on how to distribute political power and share economic resources.
But in each camp, there are now strengthening voices—such as that of the al-Naseem factory’s owner—who realize that Libya’s future lies in interdependence, inclusion, and peace, rather than in continued confrontation.