The Arab uprisings continue to produce momentous symbols of change. However, even with the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the confronting scenes of his capture and the final parade of his body, the direction of this change remains unclear.
It can be safe to say that this is the end of the major military campaign against the former Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi and his son, Mutassim, are dead. Another son, Saif Islam, is on the run but will no doubt be captured in the coming days. The pro-regime stronghold of Sirte has fallen, leaving no resistance to the rule of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Saying this, the legacy of the Gaddafi regime will leave its imprint in north Africa for decades.
Gaddafi’s style of rule, largely personalised and backed by an extensive patronage network and unrelenting use of state security services to suppress dissent leaves little in the way of political institutions for the new government to build on. More than the systematic dismantling of political and economic institutions in Iraq under US tutelage, Libya is in many ways an institutional blank canvas now, needing to be built anew.
In this regard, there are some promising signs. The nominal head of the NTC and interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has promised to step down once a new transitional government is elected. However, the momentum for change may accelerate this process, potentially displacing Jibril in the process due to his ties to the former regime where he managed the privatisation and liberalisation reform process from 2007.
The removal of Jibril is dangerous in that there is little holding the NTC together outside the enthusiasm for opposition to Gaddafi and the effervescence of fighting the pro-Gaddafi forces. As the fighting subsides, and the hard work of reconstruction beings, the fragile authority of the NTC leadership will be put to the test. Without a recognised leader, there is the very real possibility of renewed violence in a contest for power, one that counter-revolutionary elements may take advantage of in order to foster disunity.
The international community has rejoiced at the demise of Gaddafi and an end to his often surreal antics on the world stage. However, this may not cover the duplicitous efforts of particularly the British government in seeking to bring Libya in from the cold over the past five years. Arms deals, questionable legal manoeuvres, and a desire to open up access to Libya’s reserves of light sweet crude saw Labour and Conservative governments in London court Libya’s Brother leader.
The NTC has promised that it will look favourably on participants in the NATO-led support campaign in the development of future government contracts, but it is going to be a tough sell for Prime Minister Cameron and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy and Berlusconi to overcome deep seated suspicion as to their motives.
The combination of political uncertainty, lack of institutional support and continued suspicion of international intentions with heady feelings of triumph is a volatile mix. Here, the capture of Saif Islam may serve as an important factor in the short term. Where Muammar Gaddafi has “escaped” trial either in Libya or The Hague, his son may not be so lucky. The process of charge and trial can serve two purposes, in providing a precedent for dealing with the remnants of the former regime in a manner that strengthens and validates new institutional arrangements as well as providing a rallying point that could hold the NTC together over the vital coming months.
After this, Libya is going to need a great deal of international support, not in terms of aid, but in terms of a calibrated measure of advisory support in how it will build the new state. Managing the innate suspicion of international intentions with the desire to re-engage with the world will be a difficult process, but one that is hopefully done, as much as possible, on Libya’s own terms.
*Dr Benjamin MacQueen is senior lecturer in politics and deputy director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University