A new country

Over night Libya’s rebel army made the much-anticipated advance on Tripoli and we awoke to an almost-finished battle for the city. The rebels used a two-pronged approach, coming both from Ziltan to the West and Zawiya to the East, forcing Gaddafi’s forces to fight on two fronts. As of this morning the rebels were claiming to hold 80-90% of Tripoli, although the BBC was struggling to verify these figures. The rebels’ political wing, the National Transitional Council (NTC) – now recognised by most countries as the legitimate government of Libya – says that there are only ‘pockets of resistance’ left in the capital, although gunfire and heavy weaponry can still be heard throughout the city.

Everyone is now almost, if not completely, certain that Gaddafi is going to go in the next few days. Last night his most influential sons Saif al-Islam and Mohammed were captured and are now being held. This leaves their father even more isolated. And as I write there is a gun battle outside Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli – where it is conceivable he could be. The rebels say that they plan to secure Tripoli by Wednesday and are confident that once this happens the regime will fall.

So Gaddafi’s effectively gone and his forty-two years of dictatorship are over. This is surely a reason to celebrate. But more difficulties lie ahead. Libyan society is very tribal and divided. These divisions have been held together by Col Gaddafi’s iron grip, but in the manic days ahead they may once again rear their heads and fighting may break out. As well as this, troops once loyal to the regime may continue to oppose the NTC, even when they have no-one left to protect. And even if fighting does come to a swift end it will be extremely hard to bring democracy to a country that has not experienced it for four decades. The NTC has been fighting for control for five months now and it would not be surprising if it was reluctant to give it up. This means that the move towards free and fair elections will be slow and painful, even if everyone acts nicely.

There are two big problems facing Libya’s immediate future – NATO and Islamic extremism. The former seems to be sticking around while the rebels call for it to leave, which is slightly awkward as they are on the same side. NATO seems intent on claiming some of the glory, although in recent history many of its heads of state have been very pally with Gaddafi. By sticking around, unwanted, they it is doing more harm than good to its reputation. Journalists in the UK have been quick to remind politicians and the public of the lessons of Iraq. I think this is a bit of an over the top comparison. NATO did not invade Libya, it prevented the massacre of innocent civilians and helped topple an undemocratic and ruthless regime. It did not deploy troops. Crucially, it was invited in. Nevertheless, it should not surpass its mandate of protecting civilians. It also should not try to demilitarise Libya, or impose any of its other ideas about government as it did in Iraq. If it leaves Libya a few days after Gaddafi it wíll have done a good job.

One of the jobs the NTC will have to do in the coming weeks is decide who should be allowed to run in elections, whenever and however they take place. There are two groups who may be causes for concern – ex-Gaddafi supporters and religious fundamentalists. It is unclear what the NTC will decide or how the public views the two groups and integrating them into the new society of Libya will be very difficult. But legally excluding either will only lead to more political strife, especially after Gaddafi’s repressive rule. Safeguards must also be put in place to prevent another breakdown of the constitution and ensure that no one person takes complete command.

It is clear that Libya is at a turning point – and one from which there will be no return. If the next few days and weeks go smoothly it is reasonable to hope that Libya can reach a state of peaceful and functional democracy. Keep your fingers crossed.