The humiliating death of Muammer Gaddafi, gunned down and apparently dragged through the streets of his home town Sirte, would seem at first sight to be a final punctuation point in the tumultuous change of power in Libya. Another dictator, like Saddam Hussein before him, found cowering in a bolt hole. Finally, Libyans can breathe easier knowing this monstrous and unpredictable figure is gone from their lives.
But his shadow will only be truly lifted if the new Libyan leadership draws the right lessons, not the wrong ones, from his demise. The right lesson is that it is a cathartic moment that clears the ground for Libyan politics to move forward. The wrong one would be to assume that with the death of Gaddafi all those supporters, whose reasons for so tenaciously defending Sirte are now clearer, will fall in line behind the new government in Tripoli. The first statement from interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril hit all the right notes on reconciliation. But his words have to compete with the powerful image of Col Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets. This is much uglier.
The removal of a leader who capriciously threatened his country and its people as if they were his personal property lifts the fear and loathing that had deep frozen any kind of normal politics in Libya for more than 40 years. This now allows a political space free from the fear of disappearance and life-imprisonment that had been the lot of any dissenter for so long. And, given Col Gaddafi’s lingering hold on the minds of his countrymen, nothing less than his very public end was likely to release them from his last padlock on their freedom.
But if the manner of his going is interpreted by part of the country or the region as a crude revenge – as a summary execution not a combat death, let alone the result of a proper justice process – then it could revive, even in death, Col Gaddafi’s power to divide. Martyrs cast long shadows. Those former leaders cooling their heels in The Hague or elsewhere, such as Charles Taylor of Liberia, assorted former Yugoslavian leaders or Manuel Noriega of Panama, are better managed alive than dead, as court exposure of their misdeeds often aids national healing.
But Libya today is where it is: Col Gaddafi is dead. The good news is politics can move on; the question remains how. The leadership of the National Transitional Council has always stressed its temporary character. Now is the time for an act of magnanimity: now its battlefield success is secure, it should form a government of all Libyans, including clans close to Gaddafi and Berber groups who have felt under-represented. There was a long tail to this conflict after Col Gaddafi’s fall, not only because of a residual emotional loyalty but because of the very real stakes his extended kinsmen had in the old system.
When I last visited Sirte, well before the conflict, it showed Col Gaddafi’s beneficence to relatives as well as his capriciousness as a ruler. He had built out the town, once his home village, with fully-fledged ministries, imagining he could make it his Washington. However he had forgotten to include hotels, so had placed many African foreign ministers he was hosting on an Italian cruise ship he had rented for the occasion, an African Union summit. When it looked as though they would vote against his proposal for a united Africa, he briefly tried to ship them out to sea.
This vindictive anger against opponents was felt more seriously by African leaders, who often found he armed and funded their opponents when they opposed him. So with one or two exceptions, few tears will be shed in Africa’s presidential palaces, even though – like all of us – they will be uneasy at the manner of his going. Like his remaining supporters at home, they will want his death to presage a new chapter of reconciliation and healing rather than revenge and score settling. The Arab world, too, will view the violent end of an authoritarian leader who was widely disliked with relief but also disquiet at the violent precedent for regime change in the region.
For Libya’s western backers, particularly France, the UK and US, this is not therefore a moment for euphoria but for quiet relief, and a public call to Tripoli for restraint and reconciliation.
The writer is chairman for Europe, Middle East and Africa at FTI Consulting, and former UN deputy secretary-general.