Two questions are paramount: safeguarding the people in Tripoli, the Libyan capital and colonel’s stronghold, as power slips away from him, and mapping out a course for a post-Qaddafi government and civil society.
There are imponderables in this situation, of course. No one knows if large numbers of people in Tripoli will want to fight opposition forces, or are simply keeping their heads down until the regime collapses. And no one can ensure that a transition to a free and democratic Libya, the goal of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, can be achieved, or achieved without corrosive wrangling among disparate opposition forces.
Four experts discussed these issues on Wednesday at a meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, and came to varying conclusions.
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said the British government does not expect hand-to-hand, house-to-house combat to bring Tripoli under opposition control. But he said many people there are anti-Qaddafi and awaiting his downfall.
“Tripoli is a hostage city, with (regime) snipers on roofs” to keep people intimidated, he said.
Ashur Al-Shamis, editor of the anti-Qaddafi, London-based newspaper Akhbar Libya, said people in Tripoli are talking of liberation within months, or weeks.
“We need to help Tripoli to implode peaceably,” he said. “The question is how do we remove a stinking, dying carcass?”
He stressed that, after liberation, there must be an amnesty for everyone, including people who served the current regime.
“This is not a time for settling scores,” he said. “We have a great restorative job ahead,” requiring power sharing with the coalition of opposition forces and people still under Colonel Qaddafi’s control.
An early requirement, he said, will be to agree on a constitution and elections. “We must not allow Libya to go back to the failed state it was 42 years ago (at the time Colonel Qaddafi seized power in a military coup).”
These are all aims of the National Transitional Council, which was formed on March 5 in Benghazi and has since set forth principles of democracy, freedom and tolerance that no one in the Western democracies could find remiss.
Mr. Burt said a British team is now in Benghazi to determine what the country will need after liberation to achieve these goals and to help ensure a smooth transition to a new form of government.
Speakers at the meeting who appeared most skeptical about the transition running smoothly were Sir Richard Dalton, a Chatham House expert and former ambassador to Libya, and Lindsey Hilsum, a foreign affairs correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 television.
Sir Richard pointed to cash problems that already face the opposition administration in Benghazi, with oil not flowing out of the country. “Eastern Libya is at a total standstill,” he said. “It has a crisis economy.”
No one can say, he added, if there will be a steady advance of opposition forces leading to an uprising in Tripoli. He also said the United Nations has been slow in coming forward to assist with the Libyan transition, and said more needs to be known about the possibility of a negotiated settlement, as advocated most recently by the International Crisis Group.
Likewise, he said the National Transitional Council needs to be more open in explaining how it intends to run the country during the transition period.
Ms. Hilsum said the complete lack of normal governmental institutions under Colonel Qaddafi, such as a parliament, presents a serious problem. And she foresaw a conflict between internal opponents of the regime and exiles.
She also said clear ideas of how people in Tripoli can be protected, if there is fighting for the city, are lacking, and she did not rule out the possibility of some revenge killings taking place after liberation.
None of the speakers expressed any concern as to what happens to Colonel Qaddafi, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and might therefore find it difficult to obtain sanctuary outside Libya.
That, said Minister Burt, is not a concern of the British government.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East