Libya's War-Weary Make Peace?

Letter from Misrata

Misrata militiamen in Western Libya, July 2012. Youssef Boudlal / Courtesy Reuters

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

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