After Gaddafi: Libyan revolution 'still has far to go'

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his coming to power at the Green Square in Tripoli in this September 1, 2009 file photo
Image caption Col Muammar Gaddafi ruled autocratically for more than four decades

The death of Col Muammar Gaddafi rids the world of a tyrant, but it is no milestone in the Arab Spring. To focus on the departed dictator is to miss the real story, and abstract notions of "closure" won't magically translate into stable government.

When Col Gaddafi seized power in Libya, it was the beginning of the Nixon administration in the United States. In Britain, Harold Wilson was prime minister. And the Middle East was only two years on from its greatest convulsion since decolonisation - the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Col Gaddafi eventually became the longest-serving non-royal ruler in the world until he was deposed just two months ago.

And yet, despite Col Gaddafi's longevity and outsized personality, we should be wary of reading too much into his death.

Even if he had remained at large, Libya was never likely to dissolve in protracted chaos. It has neither the terrain suited to guerrilla warfare, nor any ethnic or ideological basis for mobilising a national insurgency.

True, some loyalist resistance may have resulted from the faint hope of a Col Gaddafi-led counteroffensive. His defiant statements, and those of his increasingly delusional spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, had been filtering into Libya via a Syrian television station.

Such hopes have been decisively shattered now. The flood of footage and images allow for no conspiracy theories, as have flourished after Osama Bin Laden's killing.

But while some of his fighters may try to slink back to their homes, some loyalists have shown a remarkable ability to fight for a futile cause for months, and many will keep up resistance. Sporadic but isolated violence may well continue. 

'Guns as insurance'

Video footage shows Col Gaddafi was alive at the time of his capture. That would imply that he was executed by NTC forces.

Image caption One challenge will be to disarm the anti-Gaddafi militias and integrate them into government

This will cause some consternation in Western capitals - but few will mourn, and it can hardly come as a surprise. The National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters who found Col Gaddafi may have been from Misrata, a city that suffered some of the worst excesses of the regime's forces during a ruthless siege.

It should be remembered that any extrajudicial acts committed by the NTC forces pale into insignificance next to the atrocities committed by the regime before and during the uprising, and for which the International Criminal Court had indicted and issued arrest warrants for Col Gaddafi.

What does this mean for Libya's interim authorities? Col Gaddafi's trial would have been an important statement of justice and accountability.

The image of an absolute ruler in the dock would have been on par with that of the ageing Hosni Mubarak lying behind bars in Cairo. But on the other hand, Col Gaddafi's death will preclude any grandstanding from the courtroom, and will bring firm closure to a 40-year tyranny.

Had Col Gaddafi remained at large, it would have cast a pall over the transition. This, however, should not be exaggerated. The main problem for the NTC is not now loyalist resistance, which remains geographically isolated and manageable.

Rather, the task is disarming and integrating the various anti-Gaddafi militias into a transitional government, without provoking violence or legitimising the politics of the gun.

Islamists like Abdel Hakim Belhaj feel sidelined, and some regional groups feel that the NTC is not sharing the spoils of victory generously enough. Col Gaddafi's death does not change their calculus.

To focus on Col Gaddafi is to miss the real story, and abstract notions of "closure" won't magically translate into stable government.

Troubled transitions

Part of the reason that militias do not want to give up their weapons is that they do not trust the political process. Guns are their insurance policies. Only a legitimate, broad-based transition will persuade many to hand over weapons and disband.

Image caption Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril has promised to resign once the country is officially liberated

Over the past decade, postwar transitions have been troubled by loyalist resistance - think of the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgency. But transitions have also been hindered by governments themselves, often backed by outside powers.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is increasingly subverting the fragile institutions of the Iraqi state and accumulating excessive power. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is hated by much of the country and was implicated in massive electoral fraud.

There is no reason to condemn the NTC as inevitable oligarchs, but they should be held accountable and carefully scrutinised. The promised resignation of the interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, distrusted by many, would be a positive step.

Any voluntary relinquishing of power by those in positions of authority is to be welcomed. The NTC has made some bold promises, but has sometimes delayed in following through.

Col Gaddafi's death rids the world of a tyrant responsible for many thousands of deaths and terrorism around the world, but it should not be seen a milestone in the Arab Spring. That would be to personalise an uprising that was about much more than one man.

This campaign reached its climactic moment when rebel convoys rode into Tripoli months ago. Col Gaddafi himself was, and should have remained, an irrelevance.

Revolutions should be less about shattering old structures and more about reconstituting political authority on more humane, rational and legitimate grounds.

In that sense, the Libyan revolution has far to go before its promise is redeemed.