Libyans are rejoicing at the death of their former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, but the party can’t last long. The hard business of creating a modern state lies ahead.
As a first step, the ruling National Transitional Council needs to quickly form an interim government that will include representatives of the country’s various regional and tribal factions.
Contrary to the oft-repeated claim from Western pundits that “we don’t know who they are,” we have a great deal of knowledge about the transitional council, and much of it impresses. Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil served as justice minister in the Qaddafi regime, and his efforts to change the system from within earned respect from average Libyans and garnered accolades from groups such as Human Rights Watch. Finance chief Ali Tarhouni, who had been teaching economics at the University of Washington before returning to his native country in February, hatched a plan to have wealthy nations open a line of credit, backed by Libya’s frozen foreign assets, to finance the insurgency.
The challenge for the council will be to keep basic services running and prepare for a democratic transition without getting bogged down in past resentments. This will mean compromise -- with other rebel factions, with pro-democracy Islamist groups, with some Qaddafi loyalists and with groups like the Berbers in the south that have never had a stake in national governance. It’s in nobody’s interest for the country to dissolve along tribal lines or for its three regions -- Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica -- to seek independent statehood.
Just as Western airpower made possible the rebels’ victory, it will fall on wealthy countries to provide assistance and expertise for the fledgling state. Here are some of the many tasks ahead:
-- Money: The Qaddafi regime stashed away an estimated $132 billion in foreign assets, held mostly by its central bank and sovereign wealth fund. Foreign governments were right to freeze this money during the conflict, but it now should be fully released to the interim government.
-- Oil: Although pre-conflict Libya produced only 2 percent of the world’s supply, its low-sulfur sweet crude is prized, and the vast majority goes to Europe. The transitional government needs to revive the income stream, and has wisely said it will honor most existing contracts with foreign companies. Unfortunately, Qaddafi’s forces littered the oil fields with land mines before retreating; a United Nations-led task force that has been helping the rebels clear the fields needs enlarging. Also, wells and submersible pumps have probably deteriorated after months of disuse; technical help from Western and Persian Gulf states could speed up restoration.
-- Weapons: Any country emerging from civil war is flooded with weapons, and little can be done about small arms other than the new government providing effective security. Libya is a special case, however, in that Qaddafi had a vast arsenal, including an estimated 20,000 surface-to-air missiles that can bring down a jetliner. In Tripoli on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to increase support for a program that sends former U.S. military personnel to help track down and secure the missiles. That will be money well spent.
-- Refugees: There are at least 250,000 internally displaced Libyans, and tens of thousands more in Tunisia and other neighboring states. The new government and nongovernmental groups will need international assistance to supply the population with adequate shelter, medical care and sustenance (Libya imports more than 80 percent of its food supply).
-- Water: Libya’s population is overwhelmingly urban, and the water for its major coastal cities is supplied by the massive Great Man-Made River, a monument to Qaddafi’s megalomania that will actually pay dividends. It came through the war largely intact, but the water pumps that supply Tripoli were put out of commission during fighting Oct. 17 in Bani Walid. The transitional government may need help to secure the water and electricity networks and keep them running.
-- Security: The rebels have done a remarkable job of keeping the public peace as they freed areas from the regime. Let’s hope that, in the absence of a common enemy, this stability continues. The last thing European nations and the U.S. want is to send peacekeepers to Libya, so it is in their interests to provide money and trainers to create a professional police force.
There’s a lot to do, and some may wonder, at a time of economic hardship, why the U.S. and European Union need to get further involved. There are plenty of good reasons. Getting Libyan oil back online is essential to stabilizing global prices, and will provide new business opportunities for Western companies. A humanitarian emergency in Libya could well lead to a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe. An influx of Libyan weaponry onto the global arms market would be a boon for terrorist groups. And, considering the risk NATO members took in backing the rebels, it would be senseless to squander a chance at a lasting victory.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org.