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What the Libyan Rebels Need to Do Now That They’re in Charge

In the wake of Qaddafi’s overthrow, two major questions now present themselves: What are the odds that the NTC leaders will actually succeed at what they appear to be attempting—a revolution of restraint and moderation? And what, if any, broader lessons about foreign policy can we draw from the Libyan revolution?

To date, the National Transitional Council in Libya has defied conventional expectations about how a rebel movement should behave. It has broadcast non-stop radio and TV messages explaining to its supporters the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, and recently sent a mass text message to its supporters reading: “Remember when you capture anyone from Qaddafi, that he is a Libyan like you. His dignity is your dignity, because we are both Libyan, and his family is your family, and his honor is your honor.” The NTC leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, declared last week, “The future will not be a bed of roses. I call on all Libyans to act with responsibility and not to take justice into their own hands … treating prisoners of war well and kindly. We all have a right to live with dignity in this nation.” Jalil even offered to submit himself for trial as a former member of Qaddafi’s government.

Still, while NTC leaders have said all the right things, they will face plenty of obstacles in the weeks and months ahead. The list of tasks facing NTC officials is tall, and it won’t be just a matter of detaining Qaddafi and defeating remaining loyalist fighters. They will need to make sure their own people don’t take out decades of pent up anger on Qaddafi’s functionaries, and on people they believe supported him, including dark-skinned Libyans they suspect of being foreign “mercenaries.” They need to prevent their people from burning or looting police stations, prisons, and government buildings that were symbols of Qaddafi’s repression, but that may also contain documentary evidence needed to bring regime officials to justice. Opposition forces (perhaps with help from NATO) must secure arms depots before people cart away weapons that could fuel lawlessness or insurgency, and eventually collect the weapons already out there.

Meanwhile, places where tribal support for Qaddafi ran strong, like his hometown Sirte, and the southern desert town of Sabha, must be incorporated into the new Libya. A more inclusive transitional government must be organized, and inevitable tensions between rebels who took part in the assault on Tripoli, and those who wished they had, must be held in check. A new justice system must be built largely from scratch. A constitution must be agreed upon and elections held. Oil must start flowing again, and the revenues put to use in a transparent and accountable way. Crimes of the past must be documented and punished—a difficult challenge given the state of the Libyan justice system (which is why Libyans should allow the International Criminal Court to play a role in the highest profile cases, perhaps by holding an international trial on Libyan soil).

The central challenge in all this is that the high-minded leaders in Benghazi have never fully controlled the independent-minded fighters now streaming into Libya’s capital. In Benghazi itself, it has taken them months to consolidate under a unified command all the armed groups that arose at the start of Libya’s revolt. And even there, they have not fully succeeded, as the still unsolved killing of their defense minister suggested.

The Libyans on the streets of Tripoli, firing their guns in the air and looting Qaddafi’s compound, feel, with reason, that they have liberated themselves. They will not follow every dictate from their leaders after being told what to do in every aspect of their lives for the last 42 years. Disarming the volunteer fighters, turning over security to a reformed police force, persuading Libyans to pursue justice through courts and change through politics—all these things can be done, and are being done in many parts of the country, with the help of local councils, civil society groups, and Muslim clergy. But it will take time.

A thousand things could go wrong, and probably will. But as we try to understand the challenges ahead, we should remember that Libya’s problems will be its own problems, not a carbon copy of those experienced by countries with which we are more familiar, like Iraq or Afghanistan. And Libyans have some advantages that many societies recovering from conflict and dictatorship have lacked.

Libyans are not significantly divided along sectarian or ethnic lines. Tribal distinctions matter, and even the most optimistic opposition supporters will acknowledge that members of Qaddafi’s tribe—the Qaddafa—are likely to face problems in the years ahead. But tribal identity is not as determinative as some outsiders assume, especially in big cities like Tripoli and Benghazi. Indeed, differences between younger and older Libyans, and those based on social and economic status, might end up mattering more.

Libya’s institutions may be weak or non-existent—the central legacy of Qaddafi’s rule. But that also creates an opportunity to build new and better ones from scratch. That Qaddafi’s regime collapsed completely, rather than negotiating a transfer of power, also frees the opposition from having to incorporate any of his thuggish lieutenants or oppressive security apparatus into a transitional government.

Another major advantage Libya has over, say, Iraq, is that Libyans now have a healthy relationship with the international community. Their dictator was not toppled by a foreign invader; notwithstanding the help from NATO, they own their revolution, and feel responsible for their future, instead of dependent on a foreign savior. At the same time, most are grateful that the United States, the Europeans, and certain Arab countries helped them in their struggle. This means that outsiders can exercise constructive influence in the critical months ahead.

Libyans do not want, and probably will not need, foreign troops keeping the peace on their soil. But they might welcome, and probably do need, help from the United Nations and other international institutions to organize elections, train police, and monitor respect for human rights, especially in areas where political or tribal tensions are likely. The Obama administration and its NATO allies should be as generous in providing such assistance as they are vigilant in holding Libya’s new leaders to their pledges.

To state that Libya’s future remains uncertain is to state the obvious. And one must also acknowledge that Libyans paid a steep price for their liberation. But once they rose up and Qaddafi tried to crush them by force, their drama was bound to end violently. The question was whether the ending would give Libyans a chance to build a better country, or leave Qaddafi in place after a bloodbath. It is hard to look at the scenes of surviving prisoners being freed from Qaddafi’s unimaginably cruel dungeons and conceive of a possible outcome that would be better at this moment. Let’s be grateful for it, and then help and prod Libya’s leaders to at least come close to living up to the values that triumphed in Tripoli last week.

WHATEVER HAPPENS IN LIBYA during the months to come, there is the remaining question of whether the rebels’ victory tells us anything about the rest of the Middle East or the world. At one level, I think it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from the Libyan rebels’ success. The roots of Libya’s revolt were unique, as were the conditions that led NATO to conclude that it should—and could—intervene. Events in Syria and Bahrain and Yemen, not to mention China and Burma and Cuba, will still play out on their own terms. Nor will any grand theory of Western intervention to stop atrocities emerge from Libya. The Obama administration’s reluctance to articulate one is based not just on a desire to maintain U.S. flexibility, but on the correct realization that similar intervention would not be possible, effective, or welcome everywhere.

That said, the Libyan experience does teach us something about the inherent fragility of oppressive regimes, and about the danger of basing foreign policy on the assumption that they will last. On the night the opposition entered Tripoli, a friend in the Obama administration emailed me this line from Gandhi: “There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.” I thought: No respectable foreign policy analyst would be caught dead quoting such a line at a Washington think tank meeting. But as an explanation of what has happened in Libya, and might happen in Syria and plenty of other places where the stirrings of revolt are not yet apparent, it was a more precise and realistic statement than most commentary I have heard in the last few months. Tyrants rule by force and by fear. Force and fear produce obedience in the short term, but ultimately revulsion and resistance. Resistance can be broken, as it was during Iran’s Green Revolution. But the violence required to do so generates even more revulsion and resistance, until, eventually, force and fear are overcome.

Most Middle East experts, accustomed to the region as it was, have found it hard to come to terms with what it has become. Few believed that a popular movement could ever overthrow a dictatorship in the region, or that such movements would organize themselves largely around secular, democratic principles, or that they would welcome the support of the West. In Libya, whose people were isolated for so long from the outside world, and seemed so passive in the face of oppression, such developments seemed particularly unlikely. Yet, as it turned out, Libyans didn’t want to live in a state of unfreedom and indignity forever, any more than people anywhere else do. Will Western policymakers understand that the same may prove true of North Koreans, or Chinese, or Uzbeks, or Saudis? Or will they remain true to form, and be taken by surprise again?

Tom Malinowski is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.