Misrata demand for leading role in transition roiling Libya's politics

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Few Libyans dispute that the western city of Misrata suffered devastation and fielded the best fighters in the battle to topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime, but how those sacrifices are rewarded is one of the main debates stalling the next phase of an interim government.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, the interim ruling authority, on Saturday stressed that hardship and loss of life during the uprising wouldn't be a measure for inclusion in the government.

While Abdul Jalil didn't mention Misrata by name, there was no mistaking the intended target.

"Everyone wants a part of this government," Abdul Jalil told journalists in the eastern city of Benghazi. "Regions and tribes and, in addition, some cities believe that because of the fighting and difficulties they've faced during this revolution, they're entitled to a bigger share of the government. When Libya is liberated and a constitution is drafted, then Libyans will choose the government that they want."

Negotiations on a temporary cabinet have hit snags as regional, tribal and ideological divisions deepen. While several long-neglected cities are demanding better political representation, the voices from Misrata are the loudest. Without the city's skilled and disciplined fighters, tribal leaders from the city claim, Gadhafi would have succeeded in stopping the former rebels' advance, cleaving the liberated east from the rest of Libya.

Gadhafi's forces mercilessly battered the city, which was under siege for weeks with no power or water. Food and ammunition grew scarce. At least 2,000 people died and another 900 lost limbs before Misrata declared victory in May, according to the interim health ministry.

Those figures couldn't be independently verified. Tribal leaders in the city say the death toll is much higher.

"Misrata should be a priority," said Mohamed Faraj Dilawi, a leader of the Ramla tribe, one of the city's largest. "If it weren't for Misrata, the country would be divided between east and west, and our brigades are still fighting. And in addition to all that, we have figures who are cultured and educated and fully capable of leadership."

Misrata fighters played a vital role in the capture of Tripoli, the capital, and their storied brigades are now massed on the last major Gadhafi strongholds: the desert city of Bani Walid and the fugitive former leader's hometown of Sirte. The fighters are regarded as national heroes, celebrated in popular songs, poetry and graffiti.

"Our youth restored our honor, dignity and pride. We're walking on air. Old men feel reborn," said Mohamed Abu Dabbous, a leader of the Dababsa tribe of Misrata. "Did you hear how our men fought with knives, Molotov cocktails, anything they had? An 11-year-old boy attacked a tank. That's fearlessness."

Misratans say their contributions to the former rebels' success must be rewarded with a commensurate role in the next interim cabinet. The city is fielding a candidate, U.S.- and U.K.-trained engineer Abdul Rahman al Swehli, for the interim prime minister post. Misrata tribal leaders warned that the city wouldn't accept his exclusion.

"He must be included at the top," said Ahmed al Swehli, a distant relative of the candidate and a tribal leader whose grandfather was the famous Misratan resistance figure Ramadan al Swehli, who fought the Italian occupation.

The prime minister slot now belongs to Mahmoud Jibril, a political scientist who spent many years in Pittsburgh and is highly regarded by Western powers. Jibril's chances for retaining his seat, however, are in question as he faces a Misratan-led smear campaign against him.

Islamist and other factions complain he's too close to members of the former regime. Critics also accuse him of stacking the interim authority with his friends and relatives. And they're quick to note that he spent the bloodiest days safe in Qatar while Misratans were dying.

Many Libyans from the east are growing weary of the nonstop Misrata hype. While they acknowledge a debt to the city's brigades, they say the fighters are far from angels.

Mystery still shrouds the fate of a neighboring village, Tawerga, where it appears Misrata fighters meted out a collective punishment for some residents' collaboration with Gadhafi forces. The village is virtually empty, its mostly black residents subjected to imprisonment, displacement and racial slurs.

The Misratan forces aren't going any easier on their own residents, labeling people who fled instead of fighting as traitors. In some cases, Misratans who left have been barred from returning until the revolutionaries decide whether or not they're guilty of collaboration.

Supporters of the current transitional council said Misrata shouldn't get preferential treatment because every Libyan city suffered losses in the uprising. In their view, positions in the next cabinet should be awarded strictly according to qualifications and experience.

Some emerging political and civil society leaders also said they can't grasp the frenzy for seats in a cabinet that isn't expected to last longer than eight months.

"Misrata is giving us a headache," complained Wanis Gadir, a prominent businessman in Benghazi. "They think that because they fought a lot and had a lot of problems, they should take the whole government. That's not fair. Before Misrata, Benghazi went out. We fought first, we gave them weapons, and you don't hear us demanding anything."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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