It was the moment the Libyan people had been waiting for. After more than 40 years of a dictatorship as capricious as it was repressive – and eight bloody, fearful months attempting to overthrow it – the death of Muammar Gaddafi was greeted with euphoria. After so much suffering, for so long, the huge public outpouring of emotion was both touching and understandable. But getting rid of the tyrant may prove easy compared with the task of building a new state in his wake.
Notwithstanding the widespread jubilation at his death, it is still a matter of regret that Gaddafi will not face trial. The spectacle of the former dictator held legally accountable promised to be not only cathartic for the Libyan people, but also a proud statement of the values of the fledgling state. And it would have sent a powerful signal across the region, not least to Syria's increasingly violent President Bashar al-Assad. That the immediacy of rough justice appears to have triumphed over longer-term concerns is perhaps not surprising, but it is nonetheless unfortunate.
With Gaddafi dead, the central question for Libya is what happens next? The answer is far from certain. It was never clear how far the removal of the dictator would spell the end of the bloodshed in Libya. And although the fighting has been concentrated in small Gaddafi strongholds in Bani Walid and Sirte since the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces took control of Tripoli in August, hostilities are by no means necessarily over just because he is now dead. More worrying still, the fact that Gaddafi appears to have gone down fighting, in his home town, makes for an easy mythology of martyrdom, and gives a unwelcome boost to his potential as a rallying point for irreconcilable supporters of the old regime and irredentist tribal factions alike.
It is against such a backdrop that the NTC must begin the mammoth task of rebuilding a country shattered by eight months of revolution and war. It is some comfort that money, at least, is unlikely to be a problem. With Libya's foreign assets unfrozen, the NTC has access to as much as $150bn, on top of the $10bn-plus held in the central bank. And it will take little for foreign energy companies to resume production at Libya's oil fields and start pumping money into the cash-starved economy.
But relative wealth can only go so far in easing Libya's transition. The most immediate priority must be to disarm the militias roaming the country, ostensibly on the hunt for the missing Gaddafi. With the former dictator no longer at large, significant numbers of exhilarated freedom fighters must be persuaded to give up their weapons and return to civilian life. It is a challenge of awesome proportion, and must be tackled alongside the wider business of healing the breaches in a violently divided society. Despite the NTC's repeated calls for reconciliation, the record so far is not encouraging. Since the fall of Tripoli, there have been alarming reports of reprisals against suspected Gaddafi supporters which the NTC either would not or could not control. Absolute condemnation, and legal pursuit, of such activities is now more important than ever.
Amid all the instability, the NTC must prove itself worthy of its ultimate trust and set to work establishing a credible political system within which a new state can be forged. Elections for the constituent assembly to put together a new constitution should be announced within weeks and held within months. General elections for the government can then follow. And all this in a country with barely any public institutions, and no experience of political freedom at all.
Nothing should detract from the wave of relief and hope sweeping Libya yesterday. But the death of Gaddafi is only the end of the beginning. Now comes the hard part.Reuse content