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.