Dark smoke continues to billow from Col. Muammar Qadhafi's compound in Tripoli, and reports suggest that rebels are close—whether that means hours or days—to claiming the capital city. However, as fighting continues amid celebration, Libyans and the international community are reminded that this apparent victory will only bring with it a host of new challenges as the country transitions to a post-Qadhafi era.
The Transitional National Council, which is expected to take the country's lead, has a tough—some would argue nearly impossible—to do list moving forward. The hardest task of all may be convincing the Libyan people and the international community that they're up for the job.
Here are seven of the biggest challenges ahead for Libya's new leaders:
1. Establish basic security. Fighting reportedly continues in Tripoli as some pro-Qadhafi elements remain dug in. So, in addition to the not-so-small task of finding Qadhafi himself, it's essential, and perhaps a first priority, that the country's new leaders make sure that any resistance from Qadhafi loyalists come to an end. And even though the rebel security forces seemed to have demonstrated their capabilities in Tripoli, according to David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, maintaining the strength of these forces could be even more difficult than it was for the new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially since NATO forces won't likely be allowed on the ground to help with training. Nevertheless, security could be an area where regional neighbors, like Egypt, could help. [See what Qadhafi's defeat could mean for President Obama.]
2. Unify the opposition. Up to now, the Transitional National Council has been the internationally recognized face of the Libyan rebel movement, and according to experts, it's the best available hope to lead the transition. Still, however, the group has a long way to go before it can call itself truly representative of all the Libyan people. So, as the council transforms from a Benghazi-based regional power within Libya to a nationwide power, it's vital that they remain fully inclusive, bringing in various tribal voices from around the nation, even those which had been represented by the previous regime. "They need some new faces around the table—sufficiently inclusive, to ensure there won't be any excluded or marginalized communities," says Cortright.
It's important to remember that while the outside world largely viewed the rebel movement as a single entity throughout the conflict, the reality is that it comprised a number of different groups with different interests. With Qadhafi out of the picture, there won't be a common enemy to rally around. And without unity and adequate representation, it could mean instability, and potentially a new stage of civil war.
3. Deal with Qadhafi and his supporters. After he's found—and assuming he's still alive—the new leadership will need to decide what to do with Qadhafi. The International Criminal Court already has a warrant out for his arrest, so he, and other major players in his regime, like his sons, could be tried internationally. Although experts say it's unlikely, the Libyans could also decide to try him within the country; but without a legitimate legal system in place, such a trial would likely only compound problems for Libya's transition.
Apart from dealing with Qadhafi himself, the Libyans also need to make sure there's not an all out free-for-all for exacting revenge on Qadhafi loyalists. According to Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based research organization, avoiding any sort of attempts at vigilantism or "score-settling" will be essential for beginning a peaceful transition, and rather there needs to be some sort of official judicial solution for dealing with his supporters. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
4. Deal with basic humanitarian issues. Recovering from the country's months of war, it's important that basic utilities, like water, electricity and sanitation, are restored in certain areas of the country and maintained. Not to mention, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since mid-February when the Arab Spring began, more than 650,000 people have fled the country. There's also hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees that are now homeless within their own borders. Making sure these people find a home is key. "Those are the normal challenges of this kind of civil war, or disruption," says Miller.
5. Put a government in place. With the Qadhafi regime in shambles, the Transitional National Council will have to set the gears in motion for a new government—from drafting a new constitution to, hopefully, organizing a genuine election. In Libya, where a tyrannical leader has run the government for more than 40 years, even the basic idea of power-sharing is an alien concept for many, making democratization an uneasy shift. "Unlike any of the other transitional or transformative changes we've seen in the Arab Spring-Arab Winter, this is unique in that it represents a true political revolution, that is to say a true turning of the system," says Aaron Miller, a public policy scholar in the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East program.
Cortright says this is one area, in particular, where the West can offer their advice. Europe, for example, has experience in democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, and the United States also has helped Latin American nations to establish democracies. But even with such guidance, it could take many years, and likely many election cycles, before a functional democracy is in place.
6. Restart the economy. Libya's economy has basically been at a standstill since the start of the conflict, so restarting it again will be a struggle. The good news for the Transitional National Council is that once they're in charge, they should have immediate access to the assets of the Qadhafi regime that had been previously frozen by the United States and allies. "For many months, the [Transitional National Council] has been working with the international community to prepare for a post-Qadhafi Libya. As those efforts proceed, our diplomats will work with the [council] as they ensure that the institutions of the Libyan state are protected, and we will support them with the assets of the Qadhafi regime that were frozen earlier this year," President Obama said on Monday.
Libya also still has its rich oil resources, but it could take a year or two to get the industry back on its feet. Once security is established, private foreign investors might be more likely to invest than they were under Qadhafi's regime, but that confidence too could take a while. "They still have to rebuild institutions, rebuild the infrastructure. That's still going to take time, and they're going to have to deal with pockets of instability while they're doing so," says Malley. [Read how the end of the Libyan conflict could mean lower gas prices.]
7. Communicate realistic expectations. The global economic crisis has taught Americans and Europeans alike that a recovery doesn't happen overnight, and similarly, the Libyans will have to realize that the process takes some time. For the Transitional National Council to be successful in the long run, then, one of the major tasks will be to set and to communicate realistic expectations for the Libyan people. Even if there are struggles ahead, if the government and its people are prepared for the hardship, there may be less opposition. "What's critically important for the [council] is, months from now, in 2012, if they took a poll of Libyans, on the right track-wrong track question, the answer should be, 'Yes, we believe the country is heading in the right direction,'" says Miller. "They're not going to be able to guarantee all these changes, even with international support. The long arc is probably going to be pretty hopeful; you're just going to end up with a lot of troughs and depressions."
- Read how the end of the Libyan conflict could mean lower gas prices.
- Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.
- See photos of the unrest in Libya.
Corrected on 08/24/11: A previous version of this article misspelled David Cortright’s name.