It should not be surprising that the final collapse of the Gaddafi regime came amidst a swirl of misinformation, government propaganda, and media mania. This has been the nature of Libyan politics since the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution" took power 42 years ago. Indeed, even in the breath-taking pace of the "Arab Spring", the uprising in Libya has defied all forms of convention.
Gaddafi met his demise at the hands of a disorganised tribally-based insurgency that was led largely by former regime military figures and backed by NATO airpower acting on behalf of Security Council Resolution 1970 and an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.
As it stands, the Muammir’s favoured son, Saif al-Islam, is in custody, awaiting extradition to The Hague whist the hunt continues for his father who will seek exile in a state that is not an ICC state party. This may include a number of African states, but would count out his likely destination of Venezuela.
Putting aside the tumult surrounding the collapse of the regime, the simple yet exceedingly complex question that will be increasingly asked is: what next?
What next in the short term to manage the immediate power vacuum in the country?
What next in the medium to long term in building new institutions?
What next in how to manage the intense interest in Libya’s future political and economic development from the Middle East, Africa, Western Europe and the United States?
These issues are interlinked, but perhaps converge more overtly in relation to Libya than they have in Tunisia or Egypt for two reasons. The first stems from the very nature of Gaddafi’s rule. Libyan politics was systematically dismantled under Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya where local and tribal allegiances were exploited to ensure direct, centralised rule.
This is certainly nothing new in terms of authoritarian politics, but Gaddafi’s model was highly personalised, with power exerted through local congresses by the Revolutionary Command Council, a coterie of close associates and family members. Whilst other authoritarian regimes used political institutions to exert personalised rule, Gaddafi ensured that this was informalised as much as possible, a situation enabled by Libya’s relatively small population and through sheer force and oppression of dissent.
As such, the National Transitional Council, the ad hoc leadership of the uprising movement, has no political machinery to work with. Indeed, they are reflective of the tribal mode of rule enforced by Gaddafi, consisting largely of groups from Cyrenaica that have historically been marginalised by the government. In constructing the new Libya, they will have to create stability in the short term to resist challenges to their own authority whilst embarking on the mammoth task of building new political institutions from scratch.
The second factor relates to Libya’s oil. Libya does stand as an exception on the surface for this reason; being the only country currently facing a significant uprising with large-scale oil deposits (Bahrain has relatively small deposits, particularly compared to its Gulf neighbours). However, this is complicated further in Libya’s case in that holds some of the world’s largest Light Sweet Crude reserves. The quality of Libyan crude oil, in addition to the volume of the deposits, makes Libya a significant player on the global energy market.
Europe is a particularly voracious consumer of Libyan oil due to proximity and the minimal refining Libyan crude requires. Therefore, should these events and the transitions to a new regime significantly interrupt supply, there will be major flow-on effects for European economic stability, a particularly sensitive issue across the continent at the moment.
Therefore, the Europeans and North Americans will take a direct interest in what new political arrangements emerge in Tripoli, an interest that may become more overt and vocal should there be an extended period of disorganisation. One may even venture to guess that the message will be delivered that NATO assistance did not come cheap.
Saying this, it is worth reflecting on the operation itself. We have witnessed what may emerge as a new model for NATO/US/EU operations where local uprisings are supported through targeted operations, sanctions, and even criminal actions against individual rulers. This has myriad consequences, all of which remain opaque, particularly in terms of how often, where and when this is applied.
More than any of this, however, the Libyan people face a new reality today, one denied them for the past 42 years.
There will be more chaos, and likely more violence. However, what will hopefully emerge is something more than a self-appointed control by a new select few.
Dr Benjamin MacQueen is Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.