Events in Libya have reached the proverbial beginning of the end, but as is often the case, the truth is that it is closer to the end of the beginning. It is only a matter of time, and quite little time at that, before what is left of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi's era ends. Four decades after it was established, some six months after the world community decided that Col Gaddafi had to go, the regime is crumbling. Defections are multiplying, the favoured son is now in custody, and the rebels are at the gates of the capital Tripoli.
It has been difficult reaching this juncture, but now the truly hard part begins. It is one thing to kill the king and oust the ancient regime, something very different and much more difficult to put something better and lasting in its place. The rebels – in effect a disparate mix (coalition would suggest something more structured than is the case) of individuals and groups, from former regime loyalists to liberal secularists to Islamists – have little in common beyond their opposition to the continued rule of Libya's first family. Now that this goal is about to be realised, their disagreements could well take centre stage.
None of this is unique to Libya; it is the stuff of revolutions throughout recorded history. What is also all but certain is that the Libyans will not be able to manage the situation about to emerge on their own. Col Gaddafi did his best to ensure that there would be no national institution in a position to challenge him; despite the efforts of regime opponents to forge a common front, the result is that there is no national institution ready and able to take over from him.
All of this poses serious challenges to the outside world. Nato's airplanes helped bring about the rebel victory. The “humanitarian” intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was in fact a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change.
Now Nato has to deal with its own success. Some sort of international assistance, and most likely an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to restore and maintain order. Looting must be prevented. Die-hard regime supporters will have to be defeated. Tribal war must be averted. Justice and not revenge need to be the order of the day if Libya is not to come to resemble the civil war of post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos (and terrorism) of Somalia and Yemen down the road.
It is up to Nato, the European Union and the UN, working with the Libyan opposition, the African Union, and the Arab League, to put together a response to the new Libyan reality – a reality that includes 1m refugees, several hundred thousand internally displaced civilians, and a country capable of producing some 2bn barrels of oil a day.
Most importantly, US president Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground; leadership is hard to assert absent participation. But whatever the international response, speed is essential. The passage of time is unlikely to make the options any easier or more appealing.
The author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars'
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