There was never any doubt about the outcome of the Libyan revolt against long-time autocratic ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
Since the beginning of the rebellion in February, everybody knew it would be only a matter of time before he would be toppled. The only questions were whether he would be killed in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing or by his own generals, or whether he would opt to take his own life when cornered without any means to escape. There was never any possibility that he would willingly step down.
Details of his death on Thursday, in his hometown of Sirte, are by now very clear. It appears that he was captured alive in a convoy of 80 vehicles that were fleeing his last bastion that was hit first by a NATO plane and again by a US Predator drone missile before National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters attacked it on the ground. Qaddafi was wounded in the attack and NTC soldiers seized him. The next we knew was that Qaddafi was dead.
Although he met a violent end, the Libyan strongman was spared the humiliating experience of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who was repeatedly paraded before the world after his capture and during his trial. The world also saw Saddam’s execution as his challengers abused and insulted him in his final minutes.
Qaddafi’s death also spared the world a long and complex trial that could have divided Libya and embarrassed Western governments and oil firms because of the many secrets that the strongman could have revealed from the docks at the International Criminal Court.
The world will have to wait for some more time to learn the details of the underhand deals between Qaddafi’s regime and many Western governments, including Libya’s role in the secret transfer, detention and questioning under torture of “terrorism” suspects.
Worse still was the prospect of Qaddafi escaping the siege of Sirte and taking refuge in the desert, which, by his own admission, was his favorite place. He could have waged a guerrilla war in order to destabilize the new rulers of his country and their neighbors.
Qaddafi’s death has removed any fear that the former Libyan regime would be resurrected. Qaddafi loyalists are now leaderless, although they could put up a few more days of resistance in some pockets before being overpowered.
The question now is over Libya’s future. So far, more than 10 diverse groups held themselves together under the umbrella of the NTC. Now that the Qaddafi regime has collapsed, and the entire country has been “liberated” and brought under the nominal control of the NTC, there is the danger of some of the groups insisting on their own terms to remain part of the country’s new leadership. Some of these groups are just armed militiamen, but they remain in control of many towns. Some were in the past linked to Al Qaeda, although now they say they renounced all such ties with the international militant group.
An immediate NTC priority should be to disarm the loose-knot militia groups. The NTC should not go on a spree of vengeance against Qaddafi’s police and security forces; they are needed to maintain law and order. If they are removed from the scene, a catastrophe similar to that of post-Saddam Iraq could befall the Libyans.
The militiamen who fought the Qaddafi regime are not qualified and could not do a good job at bringing about law and order in the areas they control.
The international community is right to worry over the future shape of Libya. The groups that make up the NTC have conflicting ideologies and agendas. They include Islamists who could not agree even among themselves on the form of governance post-Qaddafi Libya should have. Others want a Western-style democracy while yet others prefer a democratic setup that can be tailored to fulfill the needs of the tribal foundations of the Libyan society.
Relations between the people of eastern and western Libya were never warm; the two sides were held together by Qaddafi (just as Saddam held the Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other ethnic groups together for decades). They embraced the common goal of getting rid of Qaddafi. Now that the goal has been realized, their differences could reemerge and become a crucial factor in determining the future of Libya.
The attention of European and American powers remains riveted on oil- and gas-rich Libya, whose hundreds of billions of dollars of Qaddafi-era assets remain frozen outside the country. Libya stands in need of these funds to rebuild itself.
There are massive infrastructure contracts to be won in the country, in addition to lucrative projects in the energy sector. It is natural that foreign governments will pressure Libya to secure deals and contracts for themselves and their private sectors. Their interests could clash and they can be expected to manipulate Libyan politics to suit their interests.
Russia and China, which were not exactly very supportive of the NATO military action that was central to the anti-Qaddafi revolt must be aware that they can no longer demand the priority treatment they used to receive when Qaddafi was in power. Their drive to secure their interests could add to the complexity of the situation in post-Qaddafi Libya.
Everything depends on how aware Libyans are that their unity is the best guarantee for a bright future for their country.
Damascus in the 1950s suffered the trauma of superpower rivalry in the form of successive coup d’etats and assassinations. The new rulers of Libya should be spared that experience; they face the tough mission of holding the country together for the time being.
(The writer is a former ambassador, an editor of al-Urdon and a regular columnist for the Jordan Times where this article was first published on Oct. 23, 2011.)