The advance of rebels towards the heart of Tripoli late on Sunday promised a dramatic end to Muammer Gaddafi’s long dictatorship and a new era in which Libyan and international excitement would be mixed with uncertainty over how this cosmopolitan and institutionally denuded country will be governed.
Libyan joy and western relief at the apparently imminent end of Colonel Gaddafi’s ruthless and dogged 42-year-old regime will be tempered both by his continued defiance and by an awareness that this oil-rich nation urgently needs a government with a credible mandate and a clear direction.
Col Gaddafi twice appealed to his people on Sunday as rebels streamed into the capital to “save Tripoli” from a the offensive. In the second – an audio message played on state television – he said: “It is the obligation of all Libyans. It is a question of life or death.”
The first challenge facing the rebels converging on the coastal capital from west, east and south will be to take complete control and ensure security in Tripoli and in other areas where Gaddafi loyalists still lurk.
Top of the list of uncertainties is the fate of Col Gaddafi himself, as well as members of his inner circle, although rebels were claiming they had captured his second son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam. They also said his eldest son Mohammed had surrendered.
The ease with which rebels moved into Tripoli suggested many of his security forces and supporters had decided to surrender or disappear. But pockets of armed fighters may remain in a city where the colonel had a long-standing policy of arming civilian militias as a tool of repression.
Other hitherto pro-regime outposts in this thinly populated but sprawling desert land include Col Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte and the southern town of Sabha on the way to Libya’s sub-Saharan neighbouring states.
A second question is how the rebels will organise themselves amid concerns over possible factionalism, highlighted by the mysterious killing last month of their eastern military commander General Abdel Fattah Younis, who helped Col Gaddafi mount his 1969 revolution but defected to the opposition at the start of the uprising six months ago.
While the heart of the rebellion and its ruling national transitional council are in the country’s east, in the historic region of Cyrenaica, the crucial thrust on the capital this month has been made by opposition fighters from the west.
Some Gaddafi opponents in the west have expressed doubts and suspicions about the eastern rebels, who are themselves a diverse group ranging from liberals with secular ideas about democracy to Islamists also persecuted by Col Gaddafi.
Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said: “They are very concerned to avoid another Iraq and to get a smooth and clean political transition, but it could be very messy indeed.”
Another urgent task for the rebels, if they do establish control, is to start the huge rebuilding needed of a state whose instruments of government have withered away amid the revolution launched in 1977 by Col Gaddafi’s declaration of Libya as a Jamahiriya, or country run by groupings of people’s collectives.
Mr Miles said the rebels had been working hard to plan for the takeover and did not intend to exclude all those who worked for Col Gaddafi. “They claim to have a committee in place to manage power, water and police in the aftermath. They are determined to get the message out that they are not trying to cut anyone out and that it won’t be a case of Benghazi taking over Tripoli,” he told Reuters news agency.
The rebels will be able to draw on international funding and oil money, although both may be limited by a combination of the western financial crisis and the damage done by the six-month war to Libya’s 1.6m barrel-a-day oil industry.
After Col Gaddafi overthrew King Idris, he gradually tightened his grip on the country until it became a savage security state at home and an international pariah for its involvement in international terrorism around the world.
While the rebels’ progress through Tripoli seemed to draw an extraordinary and elated end to his long rule, his frightening legacy will linger whatever his immediate fate.