It’s not over yet. After the rebels’ jubilation in Tripoli’s Green Square last night, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces fought back this morning – tanks emerged from Bab al-Aziziya, the regime’s main command centre, firing at rebels trying to break in.
Their resistance is unlikely to last though. Last night’s dramatic events, when the rebel convoy triumphantly drove into the heart of Tripoli meeting little government resistance and enormous popular support, showed a regime on the brink of defeat. As if the sight of rebels in Green Square was not enough, the regime’s reactions made it clear it was on the way out – and knew it.
There was the state television news anchor brandishing a gun; the crackly audio recording of a leader in the bunker, desperately calling for “mothers and girls” to defend his city; the reports – unverified – of a last-minute deal to spirit Gaddafi away to South Africa.
And there was the bizarre sight of the regime’s mouthpiece, the ever-suave Moussa Ibrahim, making a final frantic attempt to call for a ceasefire and claiming that thousands of citizens in Tripoli were willing to defend Gaddafi. As he spoke, television stations showed footage of thousands of citizens of Tripoli doing the exact opposite.
The biggest tests are yet to come: for the National Transitional Council (NTC) and for its western backers. Taking a capital is an easier task than holding it. And both are far easier than ruling it. Everyone involved – both Libyan and western – claims they have learned lessons from Iraq. The NTC has already made it clear there will be no repeat of the disastrous de-Baathification of the Iraqi state. Most of those who worked for Gaddafi in the civil service will keep their jobs. The army, or what remains of it, is also likely to stay in post.
The sooner Gaddafi – father and sons – are whisked off to The Hague the better. The NTC may want to try them in Libya, but as the messy trial and execution of Saddam Hussein showed there is a danger that any trial on Libyan soil could be counter-productive.
Rebuilding Libya’s damaged economy will be harder still. It was already in a parlous state before the uprising began. Oil money will help. Aside from construction projects in Tripoli and relatively generous state subsidies for the elite, Gaddafi preferred to spread his largesse around Africa, buying hotels from Kenya to South Africa and providing much of the funding for the African Union (and yes, that’s why the AU has been so quiet).
The NTC’s efforts in Benghazi are unlikely to fill Libyans with confidence. In the six months they have controlled the city, the rebels have failed to build even the most basic of civil-service structures. They are dangerously fragmented, united only by their desire to oust Gaddafi. Now he is on his way out, the reasons to compromise with each other will begin to ebb away.
A further complication is provided by Libya’s geographical divide. Libya was once three states: Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and the sparsely populated Fezzan in the south. At this stage it is unclear whether those in Tripolitania, though clearly delighted that the Gaddafi regime is over, will be happy to work together with the predominantly Cyrenaica-based rebels.
The threat of an insurgency, particularly since so many Gaddafi loyalists appear to have melted away, will provide yet another test. Today though, it’s worth dwelling on this simple fact: Muammar Gaddafi will be the third Arab dictator to fall from power in six months.