Anti-government combatants closed in on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli on Sunday night and continued their advance into the heart of the capital on Monday. After six months of civil war, during which NATO, aiming to protect civilians from the brutalities of the Gaddafi regime, helped the rebels with bombardments of loyalist forces, the demise of North Africa’s last dictatorship seemed imminent.
Gaddafi would be the last of three North African autocrats to be ousted during the Arab Spring. Longtime Tunisian and Egyptian presidents previously relinquished power in the face of popular uprisings. Unlike its neighboring countries, Libya has virtually no government structure in place outside of Gaddafi’s family and loyalists. The country of six million has been ruled by the eccentric dictator for over forty years. During that time, there was no organized opposition while the army, which took control of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak resigned, was kept at bay by the colonel who always feared a repetition of the 1969 military coup which had propelled him to power.
The interim government established by Libya’s anti-government forces in the eastern city of Benghazi lacks coherent leadership although several former Gaddafi ministers and military officials defected to the rebel camp during the uprising. There also isn’t much coordination between rebel fighters in different parts of the country. United in their struggle against the regime, the opposition has little else in common.
After more than four decades of authoritarian rule, Libya seems ill prepared for the sort of inclusive democracy that the National Transitional Council claims it intends to establish. Among their numbers, the rebels count Islamists and secularists, socialists and pragmatists who all want a different Libya.
One possible unifying figure is former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil who chairs the transitional council in Benghazi, the rebels’ legislative body. He resigned from Gaddafi’s government in late February in disapproval of the violence that was deployed against anti-government demonstrators during the early phrase of the uprising. “We want a democratic government, a fair constitution, and we don’t want to be isolated from the world anymore,” he declared after his defection.
Despite his work for the regime, Abdel Jalil won praise from human rights groups and Western powers for his efforts to reform Libya’s criminal code.
Abdel Jalil hasn’t indicated a willingness to become Libya’s first president, whether transitional or elected. The rebels’ Mahmoud Jibril, who acts as something of an interim prime minister, seems more posed for a leadership role. An economist and political scientists by training, Jibril headed Libya’s economic planning board for nearly four years until he resigned in protest five months ago. In that position, he had promoted liberalization of the country’s economy and privatization of its many state-owned enterprises.
Jibril’s many foreign trips as chairman of the rebels’ executive board have made him probably the most recognizable figure in the transitional government. He led negotiations with French president Nicolas Sarkozy which culminated in France’s recognition of the National Transitional Council as the sole representative of the Libyan people.
The third most visible rebel leader is Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, a human rights attorney who acted as the revolutionary movement’s spokesman during the early days of the revolt and became the National Transitional Council’s vice chairman in late March.
Little is known of Ghoga but he suggested on Monday that the transitional council could move to Tripoli and prepare elections within a month of Gaddafi’s fall.
Perhaps the greatest threat to stability in the short term would be a widespread purge of the ancien régime and everyone who collaborated with it.
After the United States defeated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, they removed virtually all members of the Ba’ath Party from office as well as senior, mostly Sunni security personnel in the majority Shia country. Iraq’s entire institutional leadership evaporated in a matter of weeks, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by religious extremists and insurgents.
The Allies similarly implemented a policy of denazification in Germany in the aftermath of World War II which exacerbated the country’s economic hardship after more than a year of destructive warfare on its territory. That policy was reversed in 1951 because it proved impossible to rebuild Germany by excluding every petty bureaucrat and businessman who might have worked for or with the Nazis. So it will be extremely difficult to rebuild Libya, especially its energy industry, without taking advantage of the experience of people who worked for Muammar Gaddafi.