The chaotic manner in which Muammar al-Qaddafi was allegedly captured, injured, and then killed is emblematic of the mismanagement and blunders of the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC). Worse, the barbaric manner in which–at least according to several photographs–the killers surrounded his blood-soaked corpse does not bode well for the emergence of a democratic culture inside Libya soon.
Within an hour of reports of Qaddafi being captured or killed, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil was preparing to brief the world’s media while two of his colleagues, Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam and military commander Abdulhakim Belhadj, were already briefing the press in an attempt to undermine his moment in the limelight, despite close coordination by the NTC with NATO and Western publicity agencies. This sequence of events tells us about the infighting that dominates the rebels who are now Libya’s government. Underlying this is the complex network of tribes across the country that will now question the legitimacy and authority of the NTC.
Three other problems will beset Libya in coming months, making NATO’s presence in Libya lengthier than anticipated.
First, Qaddafi’s networks of loyalists still remain across the country. Their sense of deep humiliation at the way in which their leader was killed will most likely prompt revenge attacks. At their helm is the British-educated, defiant, and media-savvy Saif al-Qaddafi, Qaddafi’s son. Emotionally volatile, highly ambitious, and now an enemy of the West, he can become a rallying force for his late father’s loyalists unless he is captured and put on trial soon.
Second, the combination of extensive caches of weapons in Libya along with NATO-trained fighters who were united against Qaddafi but now have no unifying cause could result in disintegrationof the strength of purpose that led to NATO backing the NTC. Combined with the manifestations of the infighting we saw this morning, there is a real risk of conflict around the question of who governs Libya with legitimacy.
Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the emergence of Islamist extremist and Salafist hardliners from within the ranks of the Libyan rebels. It was instructive that Saif Qaddafi attempted to out-Islam the Islamists by adopting a beard, religious language, and Arab headscarves around his shoulder in an attempt to marshal support. The head of the military council in Tripoli, Belhadj, for example, is a prominent figure of that Islamist trend. How will they respond to a secular government in Libya? Across the Middle East, the greatest political benefactors thus far have been Islamist groups. Qaddafi’s killing will set in place a new beginning for Libya that will pose difficult policy challenges for Libyans and NATO.
This post originally appeared as a CFR.org First Take here.