Although there are conflicting reports out of Tripoli tonight regarding Col. Gaddafi's whereabouts, there is little doubt that the opposition forces loyal to the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) are on the verge of delivering an historic coup de grace to the Green Revolution.
As forces loyal to the TNC seize more and more of central Tripoli, there is bound to be recriminations against Gaddafi loyalists who face the prospect of instant mob street justice. Moreover, there are reportedly hundreds, if not thousands, of forces and citizens of Tripoli residually loyal to Gaddafi, and bloody street-to-street fighting may ensue -- which would be tragic. Convincing these Gaddafi dead-enders to surrender with a modicum of leniency may hasten a transition and avoid needless conflict that could further destroy the capital and dramatically increase civilian casualties, including the thousands of hapless and defenseless migrant workers caught in Tripoli's cross-fire.
Once Gaddafi and whatever remnants of his regime are routed from his bunker, what will the coming weeks and months mean for Libya? Let me venture several predictions.
Col. Gaddafi: As Gaddafi's hard-line loyalists melt away, the mercurial Gaddafi may try to flee the capital as the noose tightens and escape to the geographic stronghold of his tribe (the Qadadhfha), or attempt an escape to either Chad or Mali -- countries which have provided him mercenaries. More likely, he may plan, as he pledged to do, to perish in a last, desperate fire fight with his pursuers. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued a warrant out for his arrest and Gaddafi has repeatedly asserted he will never permit himself to surrender to NATO forces or being tried by the rebel National Transitional Council Court.
The Gaddafi Family: Rebel forces have reportedly captured two of Gaddafi's sons, including his eldest son, Mohammed, who is being held under house arrest. The most visible son to western audiences, Saif, who has been the defiant face of the regime to the media, is probably holed up somewhere with his father. The family was always an extension of the regime, and they, too, face either trial in Libya or in The Hague.
A Potential Civil War? With over 140 tribes, could Libya minus Gaddafi slip into the abyss of civil conflict? Recall that Libya may be unified in the short run, but underneath the euphoria that will accompany the rebel's victory, Libya is a very divided nation -- all the more so now that the lid has been blown off Gaddafi tyrannical dictatorship. There is real danger that the temporary alliance that formed the backbone of the rebel leadership will fracture, perhaps on tribal lines or religious lines, as competing tribes try to cut their own deals to gain influence and assert control over Libya's all important petroleum resources in the growing power vacuum.
The TNC: In a nutshell, the TNC is composed of two key ideological and religious elements: the upper-crust of Libya's relatively secular society and Libyan democratic nationals united with defecting military officers on the one hand, and relatively hard-line Islamists who were based in Benghazi and who constituted the historic foundation of Gaddafi's Libyan opposition. Some of these Benghazi-based Gaddafi opponents (how many is unknown) were once affiliated with or even members of the extremists Libyan Fighting Group -- a franchise cell once affiliated with Al Qaeda and its Algerian offshoot -- The Armed Islamic Group. The Islamist-oriented elements of the TNC of course also have to reconcile themselves to a more representative of post-Gaddafi government structure, which may serve to dilute their role in the long run.
Without sending up undue cautionary red flags, how well the TNC remains focused and united will depend greatly on the leadership of its respected chair, former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, and the ingenuity and discretion of American and NATO political advisers on the ground in Benghazi and Tripoli who surely will do everything possible to bring to bear focus on stability, safety, and unity of purpose to the TNC.
The TNC's ability to restore order and prevent the type of lawlessness and looting that ushered in a post Saddam era in Baghdad will represent early signs of the TNC's post-Gaddafi cohesion. To its credit, members of the TNC have worked extremely hard by all accounts and have come a long way in setting aside differences, organizing themselves, and carefully planning for this momentous day. Once important step for the TNC will be to reconstitute itself to make it far more inclusive and accountable to greater elements of the Libyan population that hitherto were not incorporated into its structure. Early imposition of the rule of law and impartiality will be key tests for the TNC's capacity to ensure the safety of Libyan citizenry caught up in either side of the conflict or worse, fearful that the TNC may be unable to impose law and order leaving many to take the law into their own hands.
NATO's Future Libyan Role: By all accounts, NATO engaged in significant mission creep following the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 by arming the rebels and interpreting the mandate as authorizing regime change. Without NATO (led by France and the UK, with the support of Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) the rebels surely were on the verge of being completely routed by Gaddafi's forces. How much gratitude the TNC accords NATO and cooperates with it in the coming days will constitute an important barometer of how much the TNC views NATO as an ally in consolidating its control over Libya.
After six months of bitter fighting, with many civilian casualties blamed by Gaddafi's propaganda machine on NATO bombings, the duration of the stalemate served to undermine NATO's reputation in the region. Now that Tripoli is on the verge of surrendering to the TNC, it will behoove NATO forces to slip quickly into the background to enable to TNC to demonstrate that it is not dependent on NATO forces to govern (and be accused of being a stooge of the west by its potential Islamist and Gaddafi die hard detractors). However, given the significant damage that the six-month conflict inflicted on Libya's infrastructure, NATO support personnel will be urgently needed to enable the TNC to swiftly resume hard currency-generating oil exports.
Early Warning Signs: 1) Fractures within the TNC regarding the fate of Gaddafi, his family and senior loyalists; 2) Uncontrolled looting and lawlessness breaking out in Tripoli and cities and towns around the capital because of the TNC's inability to field an effective, responsible police and municipal security force; 3) Tribal leaders loyal to Gaddafi and opposed to the Benghazi Islamists who refuse to join the TNC or, worse, oppose efforts by the TNC to exercise national sovereignty over the country.
After 42 years under repressive Gaddafi rule, Libyans now face the prospect of a new era of liberty and human rights. As with other revolutions, the post-dictatorial era in Libya will be shaped by the most power hungry of the rebel leadership that may today not be part of the TNC. Bringing a durable democracy and representative government to a country that never had anything that resembled a true, open civil society will greatly depend on the Libyan's public's desire and willingness to support the TNC through an unprecedented transition wrought with uncertainty. By their sacrifice and resilience, Libyans have earned the historic right to enjoy a belated and durable "Arab Spring."