Ask many Libyans how they view the city of Misurata, and their reply often has a note of suspicion: "A state within a state."
Misuratans insist that's not true. Their city won praise for helping topple Muammar Qaddafi. But now its powerful militias, feuds with other towns, and conspicuous self-sufficiency are prompting questions about its loyalties. Two years after the war, Misurata epitomizes a key challenge facing post-Qaddafi Libya: uniting a fractured society.
The city withstood months of siege in 2011 before its militias pushed into Tripoli to help deal a death blow to the regime. It was a Misurata fighter, Omran Shabaan, who found Mr. Qaddafi hiding in the culvert from which he was dragged out and executed.
Today, Misurata is poised to rebound from war. It has Libya's largest port and is expecting a lucrative duty-free zone.
"The plan is for Misurata to be the main trading city in Libya," says Mohamed Bala, the Libya director for the US-French telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent and a member of the city's business council.
And in an unstable country, Misurata is known for order.
"I have checkpoints, and I have people to follow any outsider who enters the city," says Juma Belhaj, the head of Misurata's Security Committee, a wartime force whose hundreds of members now act as plainclothes police.
Mr. Belhaj and his legal adviser, lawyer Abdallah Al Jerbi, insist the committee answers to Libya's Interior Ministry. Belhaj also invokes his men's revolutionary credentials. "Since Feb. 17, the Security Committee has proved itself," he says, referring to the start of Libya's uprising. "We're all revolutionaries."
Still, some Libyans doubt Misurata's motives. A portrait of Omran Shabaan at the city's museum for rebel war dead helps explain. Last summer Mr. Shabaan was detained in Bani Walid, a historic rival of Misurata that stayed out of the war. He died of injuries suffered there, and Misuratans consider him a martyr.
Misurata militias attacked Bani Walid to arrest his kidnappers. Although sanctioned by the government, the attack looked like a vendetta to some. Civilian leaders in Bani Walid said rocket fire struck civilian areas. "We heard media talking about how we were attacking families," says Mohamed Harama, a young Misurata militiaman. "I was shocked. I never saw anything like that." What Mr. Harama did see was his friend Rabih Sallabi take a bullet while driving their gun-mounted pickup truck, which raced forward and crashed as Mr. Sallabi slumped onto the gas pedal, mortally wounded. "I miss him, but I'm also happy for him," Harama says. "He died a hero."
Misurata is also locked in a feud with the nearby city of Tawargha. Each has accused the other of attacking civilians during the war. At the war's end, Misurata militias expelled Tawargha's population. Now they want Tawargha fighters to be tried before letting anyone return, says Meftah Shetwan, a political adviser.
Such incidents have some in Misurata tiring of what they call militiamen's undue influence.
"They make the rest of us look bad," says Abdelhamid, a graphic designer who did not want to give his surname. He longs for a stronger state. "Just once, I'd love a policeman to ask for my papers."
Abdelhamid is drinking coffee at a cafe downtown where like-minded young Misuratans gather, and which Harama avoids because he fears his role in a militia will get him dirty looks.
Mr. Shetwan supports a strong central state. But he also hopes that strong local government – in particular, elected councils that can collect taxes and deliver public services – will help bring a sense of normality.
Harama, too, vows his attachment to Libya, but says Misurata takes special priority. "You clean your own house first, then deal with outside," he says.