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.