Africa

Libya: Funding the fight from besieged Misrata

Security officials in Misrata, Libya (17 July 2011)
Image caption Libya's anti-government forces have managed to keep control of the city of Misrata

Rebels in the Libyan city of Misrata say they are preparing for a fresh offensive. But progress has been slow, and the city itself is still surrounded - by enemy soldiers on one side and the sea on the other.

Inside Misrata, there is no proper government, certainly no-one is collecting taxes. And yet the city continues to function and, crucially, the war effort continues to be funded.

In Misrata's port, families with bags and bundles make their way on board a specially chartered passenger ferry, alongside wounded fighters.

The boat will sail to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, almost a whole day's journey by sea.

It is the only way out of Misrata. Routes by land are cut off by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces and air travel is ruled out by a Nato-enforced no-fly zone and government Grad rockets close by.

Checking the tickets at the end of the gang plank is Abdelkareem Raed.

In his early twenties, he is a volunteer. In fact, the boat is paid for by the family business.

"We are trying to help people," he says. "All businessmen are co-operating and are trying to help people here by importing food and humanitarian [aid], medicines."

Help for cash

His father, Mohammed Raed, is one of Libya's most successful businessmen. He made his money in dairy products.

Image caption Boats are the only way most people can leave the besieged city

Now he is funding Misrata's revolution. His chartered ship imports more than just humanitarian aid.

"We try to do our best to help the revolution, by money or food or also weapons from Benghazi to Misrata."

In some cases, his money goes towards shipping the weapons. In others he actually buys them from suppliers in the east of the country.

The rebels in Benghazi are of course on the same side as their comrades in Misrata and often the weapons are delivered for free. But not always.

When Misrata needs an urgent supply of weapons or ammunition, commanders say, cash payments can speed up delivery.

Fauzi Ibrahim el-Kashini is perhaps Misrata's most colourful businessman-turned-revolutionary.

"I am fighting with two things," he says as he lifts up his shirt in the busy lobby of Misrata's poshest hotel, which he owns.

"I am fighting with my body and I am fighting with my money."

Underneath the shirt are some recently healed bullet scars, standing out against the folds of Mr Kashini's ample belly.

In February, on the first day of anti-government protests in Misrata, he says a pro-Gaddafi soldier shot him five times.

Mr Kashini's business prospered under Col Gaddafi. But his support for this revolution is not just personal, it is also business.

"I tell Gaddafi now, 'I know that you take all my money in Tripoli. It is around $20m (£12.5m). But listen to me: One day I will go to Tripoli and I will take my money back.'"

Entrepreneurial revolutionaries

Mr Kashini says he is convinced that, with backers as dedicated as he is, Misrata simply cannot lose this fight.

"Every family in Misrata has [at least] one or two boys fighting," he says. "All the city is fighting for freedom."

Image caption Many Misratans have paid a high price for their fight against Col Gaddafi

Last week in Istanbul, more than 30 countries, including the US, the UK and France, declared their recognition of the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC) based in Benghazi, as the "legitimate governing authority" of Libya.

That decision was good news for the businessmen funding the revolution. It could potentially unfreeze billions of dollars' worth of Libyan assets for use by the rebels.

But, says Mr Kashini, the situation in Misrata cannot continue forever. In this surrounded city, at some point, the money will run out. He believes Misrata can probably hold out for months rather than weeks. But not indefinitely.

The city's military HQ, housed in a low-rise building near the seafront, is a permanent hive of activity.

Commanders and fighters stride in and out, some wearing military surplus, others in jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Civilians too are coming and going: Lawyers, engineers, oil workers, anyone in fact who believes they can in some way contribute to this revolution.

There are discussions and meetings, committees being formed, papers being stamped, and occasionally bin bags full of cash being carried in and out.

Dashing through the corridors of the military complex, greeting friends and colleagues as he goes, is Hakkim Tsebat.

He is another of those entrepreneurial revolutionaries who seem to be the hallmark of this city. He is emphatic that the funding of Misrata's revolution is very much a local effort.

"Only Misratan people [have made this revolution happen]," he says, with obvious passion.

"No other people, from Benghazi, no! Misrata is Misrata. Because Misratan people are business people. This is the business-city of Libya."

This is a widely held sentiment in Misrata. But this proud, combative localism may, at some point, cause problems for Libya.

The politicians at the TNC in Benghazi may have gained international recognition. But separated by tribe and by geography, Libya's disparate rebel groups are paying for their own revolutions, in blood and in money.

And in return, they will want a say in how things are run, if and when Col Gaddafi is unseated.

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