So, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (however you care to spell it!) is dead. Early reports are that he was seized while trying to flee Sirte, and summarily executed. Not an uncommon occurrence for dictators. Other reports say he died of wounds sustained in a NATO airstrike.
We shed no tears for him. And we find it interesting that he meets an end with some similarities to the death of Italian dictator Benito Mussuolini, executed by partisans while trying to flee his own people. Given the Fascist Italian imperial ambitions in Libya, it is a reminder that history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
The question becomes what happens to Libya next. We are dubious that anything resembling what we would consider a free society will emerge. We Americans tend to think that popular uprisings lead to liberty and democracy. We cherish that illusion based on our own successful war for independence from Britain. But that is a very different set of circumstances from most revolutions. The American colonies were, for a practical matter, autonomous and self governing, with a very strong tradition of personal liberty and even in the midst of revolution, a stable society. The Founding Fathers chafed at the British crown precisely because they felt they were not being afforded their rights that any subject of the crown in Britain itself would take for granted.
Libya hardly has that history of a secular stable government, accountable to the people. Libya was long a part of the Ottoman Empire. As that regime collapsed, Libya was colonized by Italy, and exploited for its resources. Few civic institutions were instituted, and those that notionally existed were ineffectual compared to the tribal hierarchy that had always existed. The post World War II government was effectively a vassal of the Western powers. When Qaddafi seized power, it as at a time of Pan-Arabism. Charismatic leaders were seen as the wave of the Arab future. Sadly, all those leaders became dictators, struggling to balance a need to improve the economic status of their nations against entrenched powers in the tribal structure that were willing to be suborned, but not willing to be shunted aside. We tend to think of dictators as all powerful, but in truth, no one man can stand against the entire population. Every dictator has to have a power base that supports him, in order to achieve their own ends.
The popular uprising in the Arab world lead some factions that had previously supported Qaddafi (or at least not openly opposed him) to lend their support to the insurgency. Our pessimistic take is that some folks felt switching their support to the rebellion was the best way to maintain their own base of power and support.
The problem with bloody revolutions is that they tend to keep on being bloody. The factions that unified around the goal of destroying the Qaddafi regime each have their own post war plans and visions. Having just fought an uncompromising campaign against the existing regime, the elements of the TNC (Transitional National Council) will likely be in little mood for the sort of political compromise needed to form a governing coalition, and face great danger of fracturing.
Further, the TNC has to provide concrete evidence of an improvement in daily life in Libya in very short order or risk losing its legitimacy among the people. This must include both political liberty (or Islamic fundamentalism, depending on which group you ask) and economic well being. The sad fact is, peoples with little history of personal and political liberty are quick to dismiss the opportunity to embrace these liberties if they face economic hardship. Weimar Germans, only shortly before under the Kaiser’s regime, surrendered their notional democratic republic to the tender mercies of Hitler and National Socialism largely in desperation over their dire economic straits.
The future of Libya is uncertain, and what if any influence the US and our Western allies may have is unclear. Let us hope for the best… and plan for the worst.