The killing of Moammar Gadhafi under questionable circumstances bodes badly for the immediate future of Libya and, perhaps, for the Arab Spring. Until the ousted Libyan leader’s death last Thursday, none of the despots swept out of power by the pro-democracy wave had met a bloody end.
The world had hoped Gadhafi would come to his senses and leave Libya instead of making a last stand in his hometown of Sirte. But typical of strongmen who have become intoxicated with power, he refused to heed peaceful calls for him to step down and, ignoring the obvious writing on the wall, he plodded on with his false bravado, perhaps possessed by the thought that he could still make a counter-offensive and retake Tripoli.
Some say his ignominious end was poetic justice many times over. Others would rather call it tribal justice many times over, which could be true—and that’s the problem. The reports on how he died vary and are conflicting. The official version by the National Transitional Council (NTC) says that Gadhafi was killed in a crossfire. But that version is not supported by the photographs and video footage that streamed over the Internet. In a cell phone video that went viral on the Internet, Gadhafi is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a mob, seemingly begging for mercy. He is then seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair and beating him up. Blood is seen pouring down his head and soiling his brown trousers, as the crowd shouts, “God is great!” Al-Jazeera, the Arab news channel, quoted a fighter as saying that the fallen Libyan leader had asked, “Show me mercy!” By some indications, he died of “a deadly shot” fired at close range and, apparently, with the intent to kill him. The conflicting accounts raise questions about the NTC’s control of the militias in a country with tribal divisions. They prefigure an instability that could trouble Libya long after the euphoria fades over the success of its own Arab Spring and the demise of Gadhafi.
The NTC and its cabinet, known as the Executive Committee, have been criticized for their lack of transparency and their opaque decision-making. The chair of the council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, has appointed mainly dissidents and former political prisoners rather than those with the training and skills to rebuild the country.
Although the NTC has pointed to a “national congress” to pave the way for democracy, much of life in the country is guided by tribal loyalties. In fact, signs have emerged since the NTC’s founding that the rebels’ leadership is unable to impose discipline among its fighters. This appears to have been partly confirmed by the conflicting reports about how Gadhafi really died.
If indeed Gadhafi was executed, then Libya has failed the first test of democracy. As pointed out in this space before, the first problem of a post-Gadhafi Libya would be Gadhafi himself. Having entrenched himself for four decades, he would have hard-core loyalists who could bedevil the immediate transition. The new Libya would have to deal with Gadhafi’s loyalists, especially those from his tribe.
Worse, with the questionable manner by which he died, tribal divisions may have worsened and tribal vendettas could become the order of the day.
The world, which has welcomed the end of Gadhafi, should now apply gentle but firm persuasion for the NTC to conduct an inquiry into his death and to come clean on the issue. It is also important to set a timetable for the formation of a consultative council to draft a new constitution and to have it ratified at the earliest possible time in a free and open referendum. Since Nato countries helped the rebellion against Gadhafi, there’s the impression that his ouster is West-sponsored and not popular and democratic.
Nato and the United Nations should bear in mind that Libya—and the world—has not yet seen the end of Gadhafi. They should, therefore, press for democratic institution-building at once, so that whatever regime could be put in place after Gadhafi would reflect the will of the Libyan people and have their support. Otherwise, Gadhafi will continue to haunt Libya.
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