Rebuilding Libya: The First Few Steps

The most immediate challenges facing post-Qaddafi Libya

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Muammar Qaddafi's finale in Libya is coming faster than even the rebels likely anticipated. They are reported to have arrested Saif al Islam, his favored son. If they take Qaddafi alive, the rebel leadership body Transitional National Council (TNC), or its successor organization, will presumably transfer him and his son to The Hague, for trial at the International Criminal Court. This would be a remarkable end to a 42-year reign as Libya's chief governing authority and a first opportunity for the court to try a chief of state, even if he did not claim that title.

Some may prefer to try him in Tripoli, but it is going to be years before the Libyan courts are able to meet the necessary international standards. A show trial will not help Libya in its understandable passion to lay the foundations for a freer society.

Qaddafi's continued resistance risks making the situation inside Libya far more chaotic than it need be. Some of his loyalists may go underground as people harmed by the regime seek revenge, rivalries among rebel groups may emerge, looting and rioting could break out, and criminal gangs are sure to try to take advantage of any disorder. Restoring public order will be job one, with restoring electricity, food, and water close behind. Oil installations will need to be protected, weapons depots guarded, and secret police files preserved. It is certainly a good sign that the rebels are reported to have thrown up a protective cordon around the National Museum.

The rebels say they believe everything will go smoothly, and they appear to have trained some police to protect sensitive infrastructure and maintain law and order. But hope is not a plan. They need to get things under control as quickly as possible, appealing for foreign help if need be.

European governments could step up to this challenge, since they are tied to Libya via gas pipelines that float beneath the surface of the Mediterranean. If Libya succumbs to chaos, it will be to Europe that refugees will flow, and mostly European investments in Libya that will be lost. Unfortunately, Washington seems to have allowed Europe to remain distracted with its own financial problems. There does not appear to be any serious plan for dealing with chaos in Libya, which could quickly turn into a humanitarian disaster. American boots definitely do not belong on the shores of Tripoli, but it has happened before and may happen again.

The TNC will have to be particularly alert to risks of revenge killings against Qaddafi loyalists, and of score-settling among rebels. They have already lost one of their military commanders, apparently to rebel-affiliated attackers who resented his role in Qaddafi's army. In immediate post-war situations, the urge to exact quick justice is enormous. 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.

Virtually overnight, the rebel leadership will need to shift its focus from fighting Qaddafi's forces to protecting them. In the past few months, the local councils that have emerged in liberated areas have not generally allowed violence against regime supporters. But that is partly because many of Qaddafi's loyalists have fled from newly liberated towns to Tripoli. Their concentration there and in his hometown of Sirte is going to make the challenge of transition much greater there than anyplace else in Libya.

It is critical that regime loyalists and rebels alike do not grab and "privatize" state assets, as often happens in chaotic moments and takes years to reverse. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the government has been trying for years to recover valuable mines from those who took possession of them during the civil war. The liberty Libyans have fought for will require massive rebuilding of the country's infrastructure and economy, which is in miserable condition. Early efforts to ensure transparency and accountability could help Libya avoid the kind of corruption that has plagued Afghanistan and Iraq.

Only the most selfish and egotistical leader would fail to make arrangements to transfer power and try to avoid bloodshed. Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali fled, but left the country with a constitutional succession that is enabling a relatively smooth transition. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak tried to leave power in the hands of his vice president, a move negated only when the army stepped in. Yemen's President Saleh has so far refused to allow a constitutional succession, leaving his country seized with violence.

Qaddafi is still calling on his supporters to fight and vowing to restore his own version of law and order in Tripoli. This is Qaddafi's last misdeed. There is no constitution in Libya, so no clear constitutional succession. The revolutionaries have wisely written their own constitutional charter, but the real challenge will not be on paper. It will be in the avenues and alleys of Tripoli.