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.


Democracy Lab

The Political Hangover from Brazil's World Cup Defeat

The World Cup isn't over yet, but Brazil's politicians are already facing fallout from the devastating defeat of the national team at the hands of Germany on July 8. That some Brazilian fans decided to react with violence comes, perhaps, as little surprise. The day after Brazil's historic 7-1 loss to the Germans, rioters burned more than 20 buses in São Paulo, the country's economic hub. In Belo Horizonte, the city that hosted the match, a gathering of thousands of people turned nasty when protesters set a Brazilian flag on fire and others threw rocks at the police.

The government has now decided to send reinforcements to security forces in both of those cities as well as to Rio de Janeiro, the site of the final match. All this comes in addition to thousands of soldiers already sent to the main host cities as a contingency measure at the start of the Cup. Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo has expressed particular concern about renewed activity by the anarchist Black Bloc movement, masked youths who have provoked numerous clashes with the police in recent months.

But the political repercussions from the defeat are likely to go farther than the actions of a few dozen football hooligans. After all, it was precisely Brazil's plans to host the Cup (at a cost of some 11 billion dollars) that triggered an unprecedented wave of demonstrations, protests, and political activism a year ago -- all of it underlining that futebol no longer occupies the same place in Brazilian hearts that it once did. Now the beautiful game is at the center of an agonized national rethink, a mass, middle-class movement against outdated infrastructure and failing services. And the crushing July 8 defeat is giving new momentum to the demands for reform.

The national team's horrendous performance against Germany has once again dramatized the link between soccer and the "serious stuff" -- the political and economic grievances of this frustrated middle class. Those 90 minutes showed, in the most painful terms, that the hallowed national sport is experiencing the same kind of collective breakdown that many Brazilians see in society around. Even before the defeat, the loss of star player Neymar to injury and the national team's lackluster performance had already prompted soul-searching. After the loss, one of the country's main newspapers saw fit to publish advice from psychologists to help parents teach their children to deal with the trauma of defeat.

The humiliation of the country's most celebrated symbol, the Seleção Nacional (the national team), will inevitably summon up other grievances. If the same defeat had come just four years ago, when Brazil's economy was growing by more than 7 percent, the situation would probably be far different. Back then, rising GDP inspired plenty of sometimes overblown talk at home and abroad about Brazil's increasing global stature. The current situation is much worse: the economy is forecast to grow slightly more than 1 percent this year, and the inflation rate recently surpassed the official government target for the 11th time since January 2011. Inflation currently stands at 6.5 percent -- not a good sign for the country's medium- and long-term economic prospects.

So the authorities have good reason to be worried. The peak of the protest movement, in June last year, occurred during yet another international football bonanza, the Confederations Cup, considered a warm-up for the World Cup. The country was shocked by scenes of urban battles between protesters and an aggressive police force, the first large-scale protests witnessed by Brazilians since the "Fora Collor" (a wave of demonstrations led by students in 1992 to demand the impeachment of unpopular president Fernando Collor). Last year's demonstrations continued to disrupt Brazilian cities for months, only petering out just a few weeks before the World Cup got under way. Many of the protesters drew attention to the huge costs involved in hosting the global soccer championship, which they used to point up deepening disparities between rich and poor as well as lagging investment in public goods ranging from education to public transport. The anarchists of the Black Bloc joined youth activists and middle-class groups to rally around the slogan of "Não Vai Ter Copa" ("There will be no Cup").

It's worth recalling that the spark for last year's mass protest movement was a  10 percent hike in fees for public buses (equivalent to a mere 10 cents at current exchange rates). The demonstrations quickly snowballed, ultimately mobilizing one million people in the streets on 20 June. Instead of the demands for political and press freedoms that dominated other protest movements in the Arab world and Turkey, Brazilians called for urban mobility and improved public services. The past year or so has witnessed a profound re-evaluation of national priorities -- and it comes primarily from the roughly 37 million people who joined the country's middle class between 2001 and 2011.

Demonstrators have consistently played on the link between high-profile football events and the country's broader grievances ever since the Confederations Cup. Protesters have scored points by calling for "hospitals and schools according to FIFA standards," an ironic reference to the international football authority's strict demands for top-quality stadiums. Just to make things even messier, the anarchists have managed to maintain their mobilizing power even as middle-class protesters have drifted away from the rallies. The Black Bloc has accordingly hijacked many of the protests this year with vandalism and violence. In February they even caused one death, when a demonstrator hit a cameraman with a firework.

The possible revival of large-scale protests gains additional resonance from the approach of Brazil's next general election on October 5. Members of President Dilma Rousseff's cabinet and campaign team have already held a crisis meeting to study the repercussions of the "incident" (as one of the ministers referred to the July 8 defeat). Her campaign is now reportedly betting on the president's photo opportunities with foreign leaders at the BRICS Summit in the northeastern city of Fortaleza next week as their big chance to present a "positive agenda" in the wake of the World Cup.

So far no one is really predicting that the defeat will have a decisive impact on the October election: voters worldwide tend to have short memories, especially for one-off events like a football match. Yet the pundits should beware. The current economic slowdown and middle-class discontents already make for a highly volatile mix. The world-class defeat suffered by Brazil's national team could be just the right accelerant.

Antônio Sampaio (@antoniosamp) is a research analyst for security and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), focusing on Latin America.