Leading article: When smoke clears, rebels must become nation-builders

When the Gaddafi regime finally falls, a formidable task will confront its successor

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However the confusing endgame finally plays out in Libya, the events of the past hours and days have raised worrying question marks over the competence and reliability of the coalition of rebels poised to take the reins of power from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It was perhaps understandable, in the smoke of battle, that the rebels seemed to claim greater control of Tripoli than the situation on the ground warranted. But the announcement by the rebel Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) that it had captured Gaddafi's second son, Saif al-Islam – only for the man to appear bragging before international journalists hours later – hardly built confidence in the group that claimed to be Libya's alternative government and had even begun negotiations with the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court for Saif al-Islam's transfer to The Hague.

Perhaps it was a lie. Perhaps it showed that one half of the rebels does not know what the other is doing. Or perhaps they were so sloppy that they had their man and let him get away. Whatever the reality, the claim undermines faith in their capability.

Statements to the effect that it was "only a matter of time" before Colonel Gaddafi was defeated missed the point. The fall of a dictator is not the end of the story, as Iraq so grimly showed. Worries about factionalism in Libya are real. There are tribal differences and ancient grievances among the rebels, as was clear from the mysterious assassination by his own side last month of the rebel military commander, General Fatah Younes, after he had been summoned to a quasi-judicial hearing "for questioning over military issues". It is far from clear that the jurisdiction of the TNC will be fully accepted in western Libya.

When the Gaddafi regime falls, a formidable task confronts its successor. Law and order must be established to prevent widescale looting such as broke out in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Gaddafi himself must be apprehended to prevent him from being a continuing rallying-point for opposition. Anti-regime elements from the West must be integrated into a comprehensive political transition. Basic services like electricity must be restored and Libya's oil flow must be resumed to kickstart the economy. After which must follow constitutional and judicial reforms, local and national elections, a revival of civil society organisations, and a long-term plan to diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil.

That will not happen without a more coherent administration. Without it, squabbling factions could create a power vacuum that will be filled by some new autocrat, either secular or religious. Religious extremists have not loomed large on the Libyan landscape, though it seems General Younes may have been murdered by Islamists within the rebel ranks rather than by Gaddafi loyalists. It is vital that the Libyan revolution is not now hijacked by such elements or by some tribal strongman.

This initial phase of revolution needs to evolve into a process of transition to good governance, social justice and economic growth that is seen to benefit the whole population. The downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, when it comes, will not be the beginning of the end but only the end of the beginning.

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