Please Make Sure Your Tray Tables and Kalashnikovs Are in the Upright Position

Please Make Sure Your Tray Tables and Kalashnikovs Are in the Upright Position

In modern-day Libya, the phrase "airport security" has a somewhat different connotation than it does in the West.

Heavy fighting broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Sunday, leaving at least six dead and more than 30 injured, according to officials. The cause: rival militias battling for control of Tripoli International Airport. The airport had to be shut down because of the fighting.

The politics behind the fighting are complicated and have little to do with ideology. Militias from the coastal city of Misrata allied with an Islamist brigade led by ex-parliamentarian Salah Badi launched an attack on militias from the western city of Zintan located in and around the airport. Earlier in the day a Tripoli-based TV station actually reported that the two sides had just signed off on a peace agreement. At some point, however, the Misratans and Badi’s forces decided to conduct a surprise attack on the Zintanis and make a grab for the airport. "We were surprised by the attack from militias led by Salah Badi," said ex-Defense Minister Osama al-Juwali (who also happens to be a Zintani). "This is a criminal act," he added. Zintani militias have controlled the airport ever since Tripoli was liberated from Qaddafi’s forces in August 2011.

A statement from the government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni described the attackers of Tripoli’s International Airport as "armed militias acting outside the law and without any official orders." (The photo above shows government spokesman Ahmad Lamen at yesterday’s press conference.) The government called on all sides to refrain from using force. Nonetheless, leading Muslim Brotherhood member Abdul Razag al Aradi supported the attackers, describing their grab for the airport as a response to "aggression" by Khalifa Haftar, the ex-general who has been leading Libyan armed forces in a crusade against Islamist militias. The Zintanis have been actively supporting Haftar’s "Operation Dignity" — his fight against Islamist militias in the east — and they have also played a role in Haftar’s forces in Tripoli. The Zintanis supported Haftar’s demands for the dissolution of the General National Congress (GNC), which they see as under the sway of the Islamists.

Justice and Construction Party member Mahmud Abdulaziz also endorsed the operation, hinting that he knew about it in advance. "Libya Shield forces from Misrata have told me they’ll keep the number of causalities to a minimum as they attempt to take over the airport," he said in a post on his Facebook page. All these statements underlined the continuing collapse of state institutions and the inability of the country’s leaders to challenge the rise of the militias.

The Zintani militias are associated with the National Forces Alliance that was founded by Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the opposition government during the war against Qaddafi. Militias from Misrata tend to side with the Islamist groups within the GNC, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafa Islamist bloc (of which Salah Badi was a prominent member). The fighters in all of these militias draw salaries from the government. Both sides claim equal revolutionary legitimacy, as they played a role in the fight against Qaddafi and helped topple his regime in 2011.

The two sides fighting each other in Tripoli are Libyans, and they all took part in the struggle against Qaddafi alongside each other. So what happened?

Following the election of the GNC in July 2012, the Libyan political scene became increasingly polarized. Gradually, the outlines of two distinct camps emerged: "liberal-leaning," more secular forces joined up in a coalition called the National Forces Alliance, while the Islamists coalesced around the Justice and Construction Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Libya, and figures like Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), previously Libya’s leading jihadist organization. These two clear sides on Libya’s political scene declared their enmity from day one, and instead opted for open war in parliament, on TV, and in the streets of the main cities, where they pursued their struggle for power by means of militias. This has been the basic situation in Libya over the past two years.

Even though the Libyan people have clearly shown through the ballot box that they want to see the democratic transition move ahead, these two sides failed their constituents by pursuing narrow-minded political interests. Their failure has given rise to undemocratic forces in the form of armed groups, which now dominate the scene and threaten the total collapse of the democratic process. The current Islamist-led operation comes after the parliamentary elections on June 25, whose initial results showed significant losses for the Islamists. That defeat could explain the Islamists’ armed action in Tripoli. 

The assault on the airport can be interpreted as a pre-emptive move to exert more influence by seizing important installations in the capital. The Islamists are determined to maintain their position as a key player on the political scene, following their defeat in the recent elections and the rising threat from Haftar’s military operation against the Islamists in eastern Libya. The general has said that he will soon target Islamists in Tripoli as well.

It remains to be seen if the newly elected parliament will be able to reverse the legacy of polarization that has characterized the political scene for more than two years now. An inclusive approach that represents the majority of Libyans who believe in a democratic and civil state must prevail if the democratic transition is to succeed. This is the main job facing the new parliament.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.