The endgame in the Libyan conflict has at last arrived. Much of Libya’s capital is now in insurgent hands, with the rebel army itself entering from all directions.

The military impotence of forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi —visible for a week—had been matched by the regime’s growing political disarray. Senior Gadhafi cronies were defecting—most recently deputy interior minister Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who fled to Cairo with nine family members, followed a few days later by Libya’s oil chief, Omran Abukraa. Now a number of Gadhafi’s sons, including Seif al-Islam, his putative heir, have been taken by the rebels. Like Saddam Hussein in 2003, Gadhafi appears to have gone into hiding.

So what, now, will become of post-Gadhafi Libya? Former US secretary of state Colin Powell famously admonished president George W. Bush before the Iraq war that, “if you break it, you own it". Bush, however, shrugged off Powell’s warning, and it was not long before the world watched in horror as it became clear that there was no detailed plan to govern or rebuild post-Saddam Iraq. Instead, the country endured a hideous war of all against all that left uncounted thousands dead.

Photo: Reuters

The National Transitional Council (NTC), established in February by a rebel coalition forged in Benghazi, is led by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who resigned from his position as Gadhafi’s justice minister on 26 February in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests. Will it be able to exercise authority and ensure security for ordinary Libyans, thereby preventing a recurrence of the blood vendettas that shattered Iraq after Hussein’s fall?

As chair of the Japan-Libya Friendship Association, I decided to find out. On 5 August, late at night, I visited Abdel-Jalil in Al Bayda, approximately 200km from Benghazi. I arrived at the diminutive NTC chairman’s home well after midnight, because it was Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day.

Wearing traditional Libyan garb, he offered me a red-cushioned chair while he sat on a simple wooden stool. His modest demeanour stood in stark contrast to Gadhafi, who always sat on a luxurious throne-like sofa when greeting guests.

Born in 1952, Abdel-Jalil had taken some tentative steps to establish the rule of law even under Gadhafi, once famously declaring before the Colonel himself that “I make my decisions based on the law." He had served as a judge for many years after studying Shariah and civil law at the University of Libya. After working as chief justice in Al Bayda, he was appointed minister of justice in 2007.

Some suggest that, given his Shariah studies, Abdel-Jalil might be an Islamic fundamentalist. If so, however, all judges in Islamic countries must be fundamentalists, because all of them are educated in both civil law and Shariah.

Abdel-Jalil does not give the impression that he wants to become Libya’s first post-Gadhafi president. But if Abdel-Jalil is a man of ideals, Mahmoud Jibril, chairman of NTC’s executive board, is a man of action. Born in Benghazi in 1952, he obtained master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Pittsburgh, US, after graduating from Cairo University. He also has served as a management consultant in Arab countries, and for a time was involved in asset management for Sheikha Mozah, the politically active wife of the Emir of Qatar. In Gadhafi’s regime, he headed the National Council and the National Economic Development Board.

The biggest hit that NTC’s provisional government has taken since its establishment was the assassination of the rebel military commander Maj. Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis. The circumstances behind his killing remain unclear, but his death caused a government reshuffle, with finance and oil minister Ali Tarhouni and foreign minister Ali al-Issawi ousted.

Al-Issawi’s removal may have been tied to reports that he issued the instructions for the arrest of Younis shortly before the assassination. The killing had spurred fear that tribal warfare would break out, as Younis was part of the powerful Obaida tribe, which lives around Benghazi. The provisional government, by preventing a violent outbreak of internecine tribal violence, showed that it might be able to keep a lid on the types of animosity that savaged Iraq. Maintaining the cooperation of the dominant tribes in each region will be essential to building a stable post-Gadhafi Libya.

Although NTC is not fully unified, Abdel-Jalil and Jibril are playing their respective roles in an effort to solidify domestic organization and secure international support. Other players include the son of King Idris and the son of Omar Mukhtar, the hero who led the resistance movement against Italy long ago. But none of these ancestral claims to power appear capable of sublimating the will of the people to elect their future leader democratically.

Gadhafi ousted King Idris 42 years ago without bloodshed. Until the stunning rebel advance into Tripoli it had seemed intent on enacting a kind of desert Götterdämmerung, with his regime going down in flames. That no longer seems likely, and NTC will now need to begin actually governing the country. The trials that it has endured thus far have probably left it in a better position to lead a successful democratic transition than most observers realize.

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, is chairperson of the executive council of the Liberal Democratic Party.

©2011/Project Syndicate

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