By seizing most of Tripoli and fighting what's left of the pockets of resistance of Qaddafi forces, Libyan rebels have now almost dislodged the old regime and are expected to begin building their own government.
The most pressing question within the international community and in Washington is about the immediate to medium-term future of the country. Will the Transitional National Council swiftly install its bureaucracies in Tripoli and across the country? Will Qaddafi's supporters accept the new rule or will they become the new rebels? And most importantly, are the current rebels united in their vision for a new Libya?
The following are a few projections based on past statements, known behaviors and geopolitical realities:
1. The Transitional National Council (TNC) Will Logically Move to the Capital and Try to Assert Its Power Over Most Cities and Towns in Libya. The rebel "operation" in Tripoli revealed that a number of officers serving in the Qaddafi armed forces have betrayed their command and ordered surrender to the advancing rebel forces.
This fact could lead to future revenge actions by Qaddafi loyalists, and thus a cycle of violence may well erupt between the new regime and the supporters of the defunct regime.
Hence the first challenge the TNC will have to face is the need to stabilize its own security grip on the country and its institutions in the near future.
Even if the TNC forms a government, the new regime will be assaulted by a Qaddafi insurgency, regardless of the dictator's fate. Strongholds such as Syrt on the coast or Sebha in the southern desert will be to the new government what the Sunni Triangle was to the post Saddam Hussein government in Iraq.
2. The TNC has a Plan, At Least According to Its Leaders. They will dispatch bureaucrats to run the ministries and dispatch their forces to seize and protect state institutions and oil installations.
The interim authority will try to show the world that it is a credible force committed to the country's international commitments. They will continue to sell oil at a decent price, at least for a while.
Europeans, particularly the French, will get their reward for supporting the rebels.
But expect that Qaddafi loyalists, after four decades of undisputed reign over Libya won't vanish easily. They will become the next "insurgents" and will try to destabilize the new TNC government. With thousands of soldiers and security elements on the run or in the hiding among their tribes, these Qaddafi remnants will conduct revenge strikes for a period of time.
3. Libya's Citizens, After Years of Oppression, Torture, and Folly From Qaddafi, Will Enjoy Wider Freedoms and Pluralism. They Will Also Have a Window of Opportunity to Develop a Democracy.
The TNC’s statements have been consistent in promising a “pluralist democracy” once Qaddafi is removed from power. Abdel Jalil, the head of the interim authority, has been diligent in assuring that the rebels are bent on removing a dictator so that the country can become a haven of freedom.
But the window of opportunity may not be wide open endlessly. For another challenge to Libyans –aside from vengeful actions by Qaddafi supporters-- will undoubtedly be the rise to power of Islamist militias within the next government. And add to that the ripple effect from the penetration by jihadists of Libya’s institutions and defense institutions.
The dominant assessment in Washington and Europe since the beginning of the Libyan uprising has been that “we don’t know the rebels,” and thus can’t predict their future moves.”
In fact, we do know who the rebels are and can somewhat anticipate their next major moves: The Transitional National Council (TNC) was formed in Benghazi at the onset of the upheaval by almost all the organized Qaddafi political opposition forces. The TNC includes former diplomats, bureaucrats, military officers from the old regime. It also includes politicians and leaders from movements and groups from the political left, Marxists, Socialists, Arab Nationalists, liberals and Islamists.
The TNC’s real composition can be viewed as secularist and Islamist, the latter being the largest organized group -- read militia -- across the country. Tribal affiliations are important in the build-up of the new government, but the ideological divide will also be a determinant in projecting the future of the country.
Over the past months, we’ve seen the chief mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera ideologue, Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi blessing the “rebels,” particularly their Islamist forces.
Almost all interviews with local commanders on the ground, from inscriptions on their vehicles to war chants, to the narrative of the militiamen, have been unmistakably Islamist, and have had, in many cases, a jihadist, identification.
The minister of information of the TNC is a sophisticated Islamist intellectual who sits on Al Jazeera's board of governors. -- Abdelhakim Belhaj, the military commander of the rebels in Tripoli said "we will only follow what is consistent with Sharia."
All indications are that the TNC has a dual ideological identity: secular and Islamist. And we know all too well what the long term agenda of Islamists is: establishment of an Islamist state -- an emirate on the way to a caliphate.
But the Libyan Islamists, as with their counterparts in Egypt and Libya, are savvy and also understand political tactics. At first, they will walk the walk of a “pluralist-democratic” agenda under the TNC, until the Qaddafi remnants are totally crushed and until ministries and educational and military institutions are secured by their militants.
Oil will flow to the West at a good price to keep foreign pressures at bay. But when the power is solidly in the hands of the new government and the Islamists are well-entrenched in it, the push against the secularists will begin, a national election would be won by the most organized forces, and the building blocks of an Islamist Libya will rise.
As in Egypt and Tunisia, the Obama administration and European governments stood with the rebels in the uprising against the tyrant of Libya. It was the right thing to do. But as in the previous revolutions we've seen in this region, the West abandoned the secularists, liberals and minorities and partnered with the Islamists.
If this repeats itself in Libya, we would have replaced one devil -- the traditional authoritarians -- with a new devil: the Islamist authoritarians.
Walid Phares. Ph.D., is the author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East" and an adviser to members of Congress and the European Parliament. For more, visit www.walidphares.com.