The death of the despised despot who ruled Libya for forty-two years naturally produced celebrations throughout the country. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s end was bloody and vindictive, but we should remember that his rants against his own people—and his violent repression of what was initially a peaceful uprising—invited a harsh popular response. Recalling W.H. Auden’s famous line “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return,” it is almost inevitable that when a leader refers to his opponents as “rats” and pledges to hunt them down house by house, the stage is set for the kind of retribution that played out recently in Sirte.
These unfortunate events unexpectedly make accountability for war crimes an early test of the moral and political credentials of Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC). Will it investigate the apparent wrongdoing of its own forces? Will it cooperate with the International Criminal Court and ensure due process to those accused of crimes on behalf of the Qaddafi regime? At the same time, Western nations should not hold Libya to higher standards than they are willing to apply to themselves. The United States, for example, exempts its soldiers and leaders from international accountability, even as it pushes the international community to punish America’s enemies. As with so much else that concerns North Africa after the Arab Spring, all roads to the future turn out to be treacherous obstacle courses.
The leadership vacuum in Libya is not likely to be filled anytime soon. We don’t know whether tribal or regional loyalties will be the primary political identities now that the great unifier—hostility to the Qaddafi regime—can no longer suppress diverse goals and ambitions. The TNC lent international credibility to the anti-Qaddafi forces, but much of the fighting in the last stages of the struggle was under the control of semiautonomous militia commanders. We will soon learn whether the TNC can represent the collective will of Libyans during the interim process that is needed before establishing an elected government.
Some pessimists have speculated that Libya’s future is prefigured by the chaotic violence that befell Somalia after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, which has persisted ever since. But on a more hopeful note, it is worth observing that the fall of Qaddafi—unlike that of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow did not alter the power structure in Egypt—gives the victorious Libyan opposition a clean slate that may be more receptive to democratic nation-building. Libyans have granted themselves a rare opportunity for genuine revolutionary transformation of their political, economic and cultural life. Thus, it could turn out to be helpful that Qaddafi left no institutional infrastructure behind.
Libya has some major advantages, most obviously oil and a relatively small population. An important test in the months ahead will be the extent to which the new leadership manages the economy and insulates the national wealth from foreign predators, corporate and governmental. Of course, in the background is the sense that NATO was integral to the overthrow and may expect more than a thank-you note.