If the NTC Can’t Control Tripoli’s Airport. . .

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Tripoli International Airport was seized by an National Transition Council-aligned militia from the city of Tarhouna on June 4th. The militia members were protesting the alleged kidnapping of their commander, one Abu-Ajilah Habshi, who reportedly disappeared on Sunday while traveling along the Tripoli Airport Road.

After holding the airport for several hours and forcing passengers to debark from planes on the runways, a deal was brokered to have the militia withdraw from the airport, and the troops and vehicles left on the same day.

The Tahroun militia organization advanced on the airport after a 24-hour notice demanding Habshi’s release apparently went unheeded (the militia stated it had reason to believe their leader was being held captive in the airport itself). Libya al-Ahrar reports that NTC Chairman Mustafa abd-al-Jalil, along with a delegation from Tahroun, reached an agreement with the militia to withdraw their troops and vehicles from the airport1. Earlier, Jalil had been told by the militia to “intervene to reveal the details surrounding the disappearance of chairman of the Tarhunah military council.”

No group has claimed responsibility for Habshi’s disappearance. The NTC blames Qadhafi loyalists for his disappearance, while the Tarhouna militia blames the Tripoli Security Committee.

The standoff, despite ending with the return of the airport to NTC control, is deeply embarrassing for the interim government. Earlier this year, NTC-aligned militiamen from the western town of Zintan had, after some delays, formally handed control of the Tripoli International Airport over to the NTC. The NTC had marked this changing of the guard — following several earlier handovers that broke down (or are still ongoing) — as a major success in asserting its rule over the country.

And this incident comes at a tense time as summer approaches. In an earlier move not related to the kidnapping, Libya’s national elections are reportedly going to be pushed back a month, into July, in order to allow the election authorities, who had just approved the inclusion of Islamist parties in the elections, to vet 4,000+ candidates’ eligibility. In the meantime, the NTC has reportedly tried to set up a political body to oversee the practice of journalism in the country — drawing protests from Libyan journalists — as well as pass a controversial law setting up government-mandated press standards:

Law 37 prohibits “damaging” the 17 February revolution and also criminalises any insults to Islam, or the “prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag”.

The NTC passed Law 37 last month. Its backers argues that the law is necessary going into the elections because it also bans “glorification” of Qadhafi and that it will be repealed upon their conclusion. Journalists have countered by noting that it represents a reversal of the interim government’s earlier declarations on press freedoms and that the vagaries of the charges would leave reporters open to politically-motivated criticism.

The broadness of the law, and opposition from reporters and some members of the NTC, has led to a court review. Given the broadness of Law 37, factually reporting on a Libyan’s ties to the former regime — e.g., the fact that the founder of a new Libyan political party, Al-Watan, was a “former Libyan military commander” — might even be “construed” as an attack on the NTC’s legitimacy. Allowing such security officials to return to public life has been a deeply contested issue after decades of patronage and suppression. “In July 2011, militiamen killed Maj. Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, Qaddafi’s former interior minister, whom the NTC had appointed commander-in-chief of rebel forces,” Nicholas Pelham notes, while “32,000 of Qaddafi’s 88,000-strong police force have returned to work” as well. The trials of top Qadhafi loyalists, including his former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sennussi, are set to begin this month. Concurrently, and controversially, “national reconciliation” talks might be building up in Cairo with a group of Libyan émigrés in Egypt represented by Ahmad Qadhafi, who defected from his late uncle’s regime last February, have drawn criticism: “[the meeting] would increase the tyranny of Al-Qadhafi’s supporters and their persistence in pursuing their actions of old,” a petition to the NTC read, arguing that the interim government “should have put real pressure on the Egyptian authorities to hand over these figures” instead of negotiating their possible return to Libya and politics. Multiple NTC members denied that the interim government had as a whole approved these talks, placing responsibility (and blame) on Jalil.

At the same time alleged ties to the Qadhafis have been used to order the arrest Libyans accused of collaboration.

The airport march by the Tarhouna militia is taking place in the context of national reconciliation efforts. Tarhouna and the region it is, the Bani Walid District, have been bastions of Qadhafi rule for years; some of the fiercest opposition to the anti-Qadhafi militias came from the area. This has made critics of the former regime even more leery of former Qadhafi loyalists, who in the past haveclashed with local NTC-aligned fighters in Tarhoun itself. Additionally, members of the Tarhouna Military Council were apparently targeted in an assassination attempt by unknown parties this April.

1There were reports that another NTC-aligned militia, from Misrata, had been dispatched to the airport to compel the Tahroun militia to withdraw and, perhaps, to keep them from next marching on a key NTC compound by surrounding the airport. Smoke and gunshots were seen and heard from observers outside of the airport, though it is not clear who was firing on whom.