WASHINGTON — With Thursday's death of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's de facto leaders face the challenge of preserving the fragile unity they enjoyed while the deposed dictator was on the run as they begin transforming their war-battered nation into a democracy after 42 years of tyrannical one-man rule.
The task is daunting. The National Transitional Council, the top revolutionary authority, confronts an array of problems: bringing the rag-tag militias that ousted Gadhafi under control; recovering looted arms; halting revenge attacks on Gadhafi loyalists; caring for thousands of casualties; restoring oil production; repairing war damage, and keeping a lid on regional tensions and radical Islam.
At the same time, the self-appointed group of former officials, academics, military officers and others — who are riven by personal and ideological differences — must proceed with an ambitious democratization plan. It includes holding Libya's first free elections within eight months of what is expected to be a declaration Saturday of "liberation" from Gadhafi's rule.
Libya begins its new era with advantages over other former authoritarian-ruled states for which the period between civil war and the establishment of the first elected government is historically the most dangerous.
Libya's infrastructure remains relatively intact, some government offices continue functioning and where they don't, self-organized civic groups have taken over. There is little prospect of the sectarian or ethnic turmoil that convulsed Iraq.
The National Transitional Council enjoys respect among Libya's 6.4 million people as well as international recognition, and it soon is expected to win access to $110 billion in assets frozen by sanctions on Gadhafi's regime.
"When I was in Tripoli last month, the water was on, the electricity was on, the police were on the streets and the garbage was being picked up," said Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Relations in Washington. "I walked around at night without fear, and I ran in the morning without problems. You still can't do that in Baghdad to this day."
Serwer and other experts, however, agreed that things could still go very wrong.
"The days ahead will not be easy," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The Middle East revolutions remind us that creating a free and tolerant political order is a more difficult challenge than removing a dictator."
One of the National Transitional Council's gravest problems will be disbanding the militias that arose to fight Gadhafi with weapons that flooded out of looted military bases as the armed forces splintered between pro- and anti-regime units, experts said.
"There are an uncountable number of militias roaming the country, and these militias are really taking the law into their own hands," said Diana Eltahway, an expert on Libya with Amnesty International. "Among the biggest challenges will be trying to absorb them in whatever becomes the police force and national army or disarming them.
"Some cities have encouraged the police to go back to work. But the only people in Libya who don't have guns are the police," she said, adding that there are an estimated 7,000 detainees — former Gadhafi officials, fighters, other loyalists and suspected African mercenaries — being held around the country.
Some militias come from western areas that put up the toughest resistance and played key roles in capturing Tripoli. Their leaders have been unwilling to withdraw from the capital, unsure about the power-sharing intentions of the transitional council. It has been headquartered in Benghazi and dominated by members from the surrounding Cyrenaica region, where the uprising erupted.
One of the strongest militias is from the western city of Misrata, which withstood months of devastating siege by pro-Gadhafi forces. The contingent led the offensive on Sirte, captured Gadhafi, took his bloodied corpse back to the city and paraded it through the shell-pitted streets.
A key test will be the National Transitional Council's ability to implement the democratization plan it unveiled in August, which calls for the group to move from Benghazi to Tripoli and form a transitional government within 30 days of the liberation declaration. The group until now has been unable to agree on the transitional government members.
The transitional government would have three months to arrange national elections for a 200-member Public National Conference, which would select an interim prime minister and a committee that would draft Libya's first democratic constitution, followed by holding the first free and fair general elections.