Muammar Qaddafi and his sons have apparently failed to arrange an orderly transition, leaving at least some of their loyalists lashing out in desperation against the inevitable as rebels enter Tripoli. This risks making the situation chaotic, if not desperate or even catastrophic.
While I certainly hope the rebels who believe everything will go smoothly are right, hope is not a plan. The Transitional National Council (TNC) likely now has a big mess on its hands. They need to get things under control as quickly as possible, appealing for foreign help if need be. Widespread looting and disorder would be a bad way to start the new regime, likely opening the door to someone who claims to be able to restore public order. Continuing shortages of food, water and electricity could also undermine the legitimacy and viability of the new regiome.
I have repeatedly hoped that the Europeans would step up to this challenge, since they are tied umbilically to Libya via gas pipelines that float beneath the surface of the Mediterranean, which is their great lake, not one of ours. We seem to have allowed Europe to remain distracted with its own financial problems. So far as I can tell, my recommendation of a several thousand person EU constabulary force for Tripoli will just not happen. I hope this does not mean NATO steps in, but that clearly is about the only backup capacity anyone has. American boots definitely do not belong on the ground in Tripoli, but it has happened before and may happen again.
The TNC needs to be particularly alert to revenge killing of Qaddafi loyalists, and settling of scores among the rebels. In immediate post-war situations, the urge to exact quick justice is enormous. If my children had died in these months of fighting and repression I would certainly be tempted to claim what justice I could rather than wait for a new regime to catch up with the miscreants. But allowing vigilantes to even the score will only lead to a spiral of violence that is hard to stop and inimical to democratic evolution.
The shift from fighting Qaddafi’s forces to needing to protect them will happen virtually overnight. Libyans have thus far been cognizant of this requirement in the areas liberated in the past few months. The local councils that have emerged are not to my knowledge organizing violence against regime supporters. But that is partly because many of Qaddafi’s loyalists have fled to Tripoli. Their concentration there, and the attachment of the Qaddafi leadership to the privilege and property the regime afforded them, is going to make the challenge of transition much greater than anyplace else in Libya.
Only the most selfish and egotistical leader would fail to make arrangements to transfer power and avoid bloodshed. Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fled, but left the country with a constitutional succession. Egypt’s Mubarak stepped down and tried to leave power in the hands of his vice president, a move negated only when the army stepped in, responding in part at least to a demand of the demonstrators. Yemen’s President Saleh has so far refused to allow a constitutional succession, leaving his country seized with violence.
This is Qaddafi’s last misdeed. There is no constitution in Libya. The revolutionaries have wisely written their own constitutional charter, but the real challenge will not be on paper but in the avenues and alleys of Tripoli.