Tripoli, Libya For 42 years, during the long rule of Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan government barely even existed: state institutions had little power, the military was kept purposefully weak, tribal divisions were magnified.
Gadhafi was the Brother Leader, the Guide of the Revolution, the King of Kings of Africa. He had no need for an effective government.
Now, a motley assortment of rebels who have forced Gadhafi from power must move fast to create what modern Libya never had, from the rule of law to an inclusive political system. It’s a tall order, but the alternative could be similar to post-Saddam Iraq.
“Don’t expect miracles. If you want miracles, look for them elsewhere,” a rebel spokesman, Mahmoud Shammam, warned Saturday.
“We don’t want to repeat the experience of Baghdad,” Mahmoud Jibril, deputy chairman of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, said after opposition fighters poured into Tripoli, heralding the end of Gadhafi’s regime, although the leader himself is still missing. “The whole world is looking at Libya. We must not sully the final page of the revolution.”
But the signals are far from clear, and the challenges to the rebels — a disparate group that includes former Gadhafi insiders, wealthy businessmen and semiautonomous militias — are enormous.
Controlling tension levels
Authoritarian Arab rulers like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak managed to prevent simmering tensions from boiling over during most of their long years in power, creating the appearance of stability while unwittingly sowing the seeds of future violence.
Saddam’s 2003 ouster after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, for example, unleashed a seismic wave of sectarian violence in which tens of thousands were killed. In Egypt, Mubarak’s Feb. 11 departure sparked a surge in crime, an explosion of labor unrest and the emergence of Muslim extremists as a powerful political force.
Libya faces many of the same challenges as those countries, and in some ways even more. Because while Gadhafi seized power in a coup and held no formal title, he had fewer limits on power than any other Arab leader. Libyan society was, in effect, governed by his whims.
“A lot of good can be said about the (rebel) National Transitional Council, but no one knows whether this will be enough once it is in charge after the end of civil war,” said Dirk J. Vandewalle, a Libya expert at Dartmouth College in the United States.
Certainly, the rebels are trying. After sweeping into Tripoli, they formed a new, 24-member city council, announcing it with a declaration in an empty ballroom at a luxury hotel Thursday even as battles raged with pro-Gadhafi holdouts elsewhere in the city.
In some neighborhoods, the rebels have also helped organize garbage collection — a major issue, with months of trash piled up on street corners — and many city residents, enjoying their new freedom, are pitching in.
While most shops remain closed, local councils are springing up across Tripoli. In the Souk al-Jumma neighborhood, a former police lieutenant, Shukri Dernawi, is organizing a local police force.
“We are starting from almost zero point in this situation,” said Shammam, the rebels’ spokesman.
Jibril, the rebel deputy chairman, outlined a roadmap for the country’s transition to democratic rule this week during a visit to Paris. He said a “national congress” would soon be formed to create a committee to draft a constitution. Parliamentary elections will be held within four months after the document is written, and the speaker of the legislature will act as president until presidential elections are held.
Officials say an interim government should be operating in Tripoli within a month. But a smooth transition to democracy could be undermined in many ways.
No guarantees for future
This country has never experienced democratic rule and it is by no means certain that a multiparty system would work in Libya, where much of life is guided by tribal loyalties.
Signs also have emerged that the rebel leadership is unable to ensure discipline among its fighters.
Arguments often erupt among rebels manning checkpoints across the city over whether to let motorists pass. When regime loyalists are detained, some of the captors slap or push them, while others try to restrain their more aggressive colleagues, especially when foreign journalists are present.
Associated Press reporters in Tripoli have seen rebels kicking and spitting on wounded Gadhafi loyalists as they were being taken to a hospital, though, in other cases, regime loyalists have been treated side by side with wounded rebel fighters.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has expressed concern about the treatment of detainees by both sides, but has given no specifics.