Mogadishu on the Mediterranean?

Muammar al-Qaddafi is dead. Now comes the hard part -- preventing Libya from turning into another Somalia.

While fireworks light up the skies of Tripoli and Libyans dance in the street, a note of caution is now in order. Simply removing a dictator is not an automatic cure-all for a society long terrorized. Yes, toppling a tyrant can pave the way toward viable democracy; and there are many examples -- from Chile to the Philippines.

But there are also less inspiring ones. In 1991, the man who had ruled Somalia in brutal style for 22 years -- Mohammed Siad Barre -- fell from power. He died four years later in exile in Kenya, by then completely irrelevant to the fate of his country.

Somalis took little consolation in his departure. The collapse of Barre's highly personalized tyranny gave way to a power vacuum that continues to this day. Long-suppressed rivalries of clan and tribe broke into the open and tore the place apart.

Mogadishu is a good distance from Tripoli, of course. But that hasn't stopped some people from worrying about possible parallels. "One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in early March -- a note struck by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in his own Capitol Hill testimony a few days later, when he worried aloud about a "Somalia-like situation" ensuing in place of Qaddafi's rule.

It is understandable why the comparison presents itself. Libya has existed as a modern, unified state only since 1951. Tribal divisions persist. (The defection early in the rebellion of the one-million-strong Warfalla tribe, a mainstay of the old regime, was viewed as a near-fatal blow to Qaddafi; its members now play a prominent role in the opposition.) The rebellion against Qaddafi's rule has been very much a localized and fragmented affair, breeding a new class of powerful militia commanders like Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the ex-Islamist leader who led the assault on Qaddafi's Tripoli compound in August, or Fawzi Bukatif, who publicly refused to integrate his powerful February 17 Brigade  into a national army.

The members of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's government-in-waiting, have been saying for months that the war against Qaddafi had to be completely won before there the country could move on to the difficult task of building a new one, based on democratic norms.

"Now the clock starts ticking," says Stanford political science professor James Fearon. And this is where it gets tricky. Libya's new leaders no longer have their hatred of Qaddafi to unify them; from here on out they'll have to focus on building solid political institutions that can resolve the tensions within society.

Fearon, whose work has focused on revolutions and civil wars around the world, says that one key question is what happens with the men who control the guns: "How do you incorporate them into the new political structure?" Control of Libya's vast oil wealth is also likely to prove a thorny issue, he notes.

Vincent Cornell, a Libya expert at Emory University, says that observers make too much of the tribal factor. Qaddafi's 42-year rule, he says, rubbed most of the sharp edges off tribal divisions. "I'm actually more hopeful about Libya than Egypt," he says, noting that much of the political systems created by ex-President Hosni Mubarak appear to have survived his removal from power. In Libya, by contrast, the end of Qaddafi's highly personalized style of rule means that the revolutionaries have the chance to "start from scratch." Many members of the NTC, he says, are "moderates" -- quite a few of them Western-educated -- who know that they have to transcend old schisms if they are to make a go of the new state.

That, of course, is easier said than done. Manal Omar, of the United States Institute of Peace, has spent considerable time on the ground with the rebels this year, and she says that she's been encouraged by their ability to unite. Tribal divides are still potent, but she points out that the Libyan opposition has so far demonstrated a considerable willingness to overcome them. The best example came when rebel commander Abdul Fatah Younes was assassinated in July under mysterious circumstances. Leaders of his tribe managed to restrain their followers from violence after the NTC promised a "detailed criminal investigation" into the affair. (There has been talk that they made some sort of deal with the tribes, but the details remain obscure.) "Libyans are clearly demanding the rule of law," she says.

Yet Omar points out that the NTC never actually delivered on that promise of an investigation, an omission that has ominous implications. She worries that the NTC isn't taking the tribal factor into sufficient account. The old divisions can re-assert themselves with a vengeance, she says, if people have the sense that the central authorities aren't willing to look out for their interests. "If [the NTC members] continue to marginalize the tribes by not responding to them, they could force them into a political role."

That's also why, Omar says, the NTC must deliver on its oft-repeated promise to cede its leading role to a more representative government. NTC Chairman Mahmoud Jibril has promised to step down following the liberation of the country, which is to be announced within the next few days.  "As long as they don't see delays, people will be ready to cooperate," says Omar. She also urges Libya's leaders to consult civil society groups -- including women and young people -- in every stage of the state-building process that's to come. There are sure to be plenty of bumps along the way.

Nothing is predestined. No scenario is inevitable. There's no question that Qaddafi's demise opens up countless opportunities for Libyans to proceed along the path of determining their own future. But openness also brings risks. Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, once warned Europe that Libya would turn into a Somalia on the Mediterranean if European forces didn't come to the regime's aid. That hasn't happened yet, but it still could.



Qaddafi’s Legacy

Only in his death is the Libyan leader’s radical vision of a decentralized republic becoming a reality.

Muammar al-Qaddafi is dead, dragged out of a sewer like a rodent by revolutionaries he had once derided as "rats."

In so doing, Libyans have finally closed a chapter in their history that began on Sept. 1, 1969, when the late strongman took power in a military coup, proclaiming a Nasserite republic dedicated to "Freedom, Socialism, and [Arab] Unity."

In the end, for all Qaddafi's pretensions of ideological revolution and professed commitment to ruling on behalf of a people who loved him, his regime had become an old-fashioned family dictatorship, with key security posts doled out to his sons and trusted loyalists. Now that he's dead, Libyans have been given a double-edged sword: a chance to create a new political order from scratch.

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where remnants of the old system still cling to power, the power bases of the former Libyan regime have been totally eroded. Don't be fooled by the fact that many of the transitional government's top officials filled ministerial positions under Qaddafi. The old social forces they used to serve have been entirely decimated by eight months of conflict.

Interestingly, it's hardly the first time Libya has gone through such a radical transformation. Although it had its origins in a standard military coup d'etat, Qaddafi's 1969 Libyan "revolution" actually represented a social upheaval in ways that Tunisian independence from France or Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup in Egypt did not. Going back further still, Libya's experience with Italian settler colonialism was far more invasive and destructive than anything other Arab states experienced in the 20th century. Even the settler colonialisms in Algeria and Palestine pale in comparison to the fascist policies that successfully uprooted the preexisting civil society and divided Libyans against each other.

For all these reasons, functioning national bureaucratic and civil institutions simply do not exist in Libya. Tunisians and Egyptians have their armies, labor unions, and a strong sense of national identity that supersedes local identities. In Libya, truly national institutions and a truly national discourse have never arisen -- Libyans see themselves as Tripolitans, Misratans, Benghazians, or Zintanis first. Yet, paradoxically, Libyans desperately crave national unity, as the fervent embrace of the pre-Qaddafi Senussi flag -- even outside of its original home in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) -- amply demonstrates. Libya's revolution, with the exception of the regime's tribal strongholds like Bani Walid and Sirte, was a truly nationwide grassroots movement.

This mixed legacy is evident as one walks the streets of Tripoli today. Local militias from Misrata, Zintan, and Jadu -- each with its own command structures -- police the streets. Even though each has formally given its allegiance to the National Transitional Council (NTC), these fighters' first loyalty is to their local units and leadership, which arose spontaneously over the last six months and have developed a surprising degree of cohesion and emotional ties. The NTC claims that it promoted the formation of neighborhood-based militias because these trusted local and tribal networks could not be infiltrated by Qaddafi's loyalists. In reality, the Libyan revolution was a series of local uprisings that the NTC claims to have stitched together to form a quilt.

Let's hope the new Libyan government has been taking some sewing lessons, because what comes next -- building a nation -- may be more difficult than ousting one of the world's most resilient dictators. Each region has its own local myths about its role in the revolution. Benghazians boast about how they were the first to throw off Qaddafi's yoke. Misratans speak about how they endured greater hardships and fought with greater military cohesion than other Libyans -- and now they can claim Qaddafi's scalp. Berbers from the Nafusa mountains complain of how their ethnic identity was suppressed by Qaddafi and how their rugged mountain warrior ethos was essential to the rebel's victory.

Each of these groups is in the process of creating mythical histories about how they had always resisted Qaddafi. In Gharyan, a photocopied single page daily "newspaper" serialized the dubious tale of how the strategic crossroads town was home in the 1980s to the first full-scale anti-Qaddafi street protests. In Benghazi, inhabitants cite a more factual claim of how many of their inhabitants waged a low-scale guerrilla war against the regime (with Islamist help) in the mid-1990s. In Tripoli, the new Tripoli Military Council links itself to the jihadi efforts to assassinate the late colonel.

What united all of these disparate localities was their distaste for Qaddafi and his centralism. Qaddafi's face was seen everywhere throughout the country, but most Libyans were many degrees removed from people who could bring their complaints before the colonel's family. The opposite is true for the current local power arrangements. Within Misrata's merchant community, for instance, the average citizen is now only one degree removed from the local political and militia figures. The same holds true for Berber tribesmen in the mountains. They feel a closeness and a trust for their local leaders, both those of a traditional tribal variety and the new spontaneous military leadership that arose with the revolution.

What this seems to mean is that Libyans will embark on a bold new experiment in governance that their Egyptian and Tunisian brethren are unlikely to embrace. Under Qaddafi, the center held all economic and political power. Today's Libyan revolutionaries want locally accountable power and institutions that govern them according to the rule of law, but not in a Western way. Rather, many of them hope to reinvigorate traditional kinship and local networks to create a social web connecting all Libyans to the state and to each other.

The great irony of the 2011 Libyan revolution is that this spontaneous formation of local committees, drawing on traditional bonds of solidarity, is what Qaddafi preached in his Green Book but never implemented. His quote "Committees Everywhere" can still be seen on billboards across the country. However, the Brother Leader never envisioned that a true people's democracy would have come about not as a result of his hypocritical exhortations but rather in determined opposition to them. Time will tell if the Libyans can keep it.

AFP FILES/AFP/Getty Images