The fall of Sirte and the death of Colonel Gaddafi most likely represent the finishing blow for the remnants of the old regime in Libya. They are a highly valuable prize that the National Transitional Council (NTC) fought hard to obtain and that should trigger the formal transition period that Libya’s now widely recognised government has envisaged to lead to democratic elections and a new constitution.
Comparable only to the fall of Tripoli in late August, today marks a momentous achievement for a popular movement that 12 months ago was hardly conceivable, let alone in existence. For all intents and purposes, Libya’s is the only successful uprising of the Arab Spring to date.
Though Libyans and their allies across the world are right to celebrate, we must not ignore the challenges ahead. Building a new and legitimate state in Libya remains a difficult task. Gaddafi’s death may well take the sting out of any loyalist resistance for now. The question of what the NTC will do with Gaddafi – try him in Libya or extradite him to the International Criminal Court – no longer exists, but there are others from his inner circle that will have to be dealt with in the future. Both trials at home, like Saddam Hussein’s, and trials abroad, like those handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, have their different problems and neither option is likely to avoid a sense of victors’ (in-) justice among Gaddafi loyalists.
There might now be fewer Gaddafi supporters, but those that remain will be no less determined and might find a new leader in any of Gaddafi’s inner circle that is still at large, initially most likely in his son Saif al-Islam. In other words, the security threat is likely to diminish, but will almost certainly not evaporate completely or quickly. At the same time, NTC forces must resist the temptation of vengeful retribution. The fierce fighting in Sirte in particular was highly costly, but as much as the NTC benefited from a UN Security Council Resolution that mandated a military operation to protect civilians, as much does it now have a responsibility to make sure that crimes are prosecuted through the courts, not by lynch mobs.
As the government no longer has to focus on its military operations, much of its capacity can now be directed at dealing with the political challenges that it faces. The loose coalition of anti-Gaddafi forces needs to remain focused on building a state that serves its citizens and that deserves their respect and loyalty. This will require a concerted effort at unity among the different factions of the NTC, agreement on the broad parameters of how they will work together during the transition period, their gradual transformation into political parties capable not only of contesting future elections but also of participating in a political process that will see some of them in government and others in opposition.
Taking Sirte and Gaddafi’s death also mean that pressure on the Libyan government is going to grow to make quick and decisive progress on rebuilding the country economically. There has been progress, at times quite remarkable, on this front over the past two months, but with the war now well and truly over, Libyans will want to see a real peace dividend. The quicker Libya manages the transition from a country in war with itself to one that has decisively moved on from the violence of the past months, the more assured investors will be and the faster the Libyan economy can be put back on a track of sustainable growth. Libya has the benefit of vast resources, but they need to be managed carefully and for the benefit of all Libyans.
The promise that Libya holds is enormous. Libyans now, perhaps for the first time ever, have a real opportunity to decide for themselves what kind of country it is they want to live in. This puts a lot of responsibility and pressure on the Libyan government and its international allies. The success of the Arab Spring more broadly depends on, and will be judged by, the ability of Libyans to complete a transition process to a brighter future that, while not complete, has reached a major milestone today.
Stefan Wolff is a Reuters columnist.