Some basic questions about the future of Libya are coming to a head in a town south-west of Tripoli. Libya's place in the world, and the nature of the Libyan state, may well hang in the balance in the battle of wills over five prisoners in Zintan.
One prisoner is Saif Al Islam, son of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The other four are envoys from the International Criminal Court, which wants to take Mr Al Islam to its headquarters in the Netherlands to try him for crimes against humanity.
The jailers of all five are not the National Transitional Council that nominally runs Libya while building a post-dictatorship democracy. They are being held by the "Zintan brigade", a militia that played a prominent role in the fighting and captured Mr Al Islam in November. Saying they fear the prisoner could escape, Zintan leaders refuse to hand him over to the NTC, much less the ICC.
The NTC government takes the position that a Libyan charged with crimes against Libyans committed in Libya ought to be tried in Libya. This argument is far more lucid than the ICC's claim to jurisdiction, but it depends on the presumption that Mr Al Islam can receive an impartial trial in a legitimate, open national court. That the NTC can't even take control of the prisoner puts this in doubt, to say the least.
An added complication is that ICC representative Melinda Taylor, an Australian lawyer, is accused by Zintan authorities of passing contraband to Mr Al Islam, in the form of documents, supposedly marked with code symbols, from his still-at-large aide Mohammed Ismail. This serious charge also demands impartial investigation.
The standoff over Mr Al Islam is not the only sign this week that the NTC is making little headway towards peace, order and good government. Elections, part of the transition to a new constitution, have been postponed. In the south, tribal fighting killed 16 last weekend. Tunisia closed its main border point with Libya after clashes with Libyan fighters. In Benghazi, two days after a bomb exploded outside the US embassy, the UK ambassador's vehicle was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
This is not what anyone wanted for the post-Qaddafi era. The NTC has international support and is well-funded, but if it cannot exert control over the country, and offer an inclusive political framework for resolving disputes, the post-Qaddafi gains are still in doubt.