The imminent fall of Moammar Gadhafi after 42 years of dictatorial rule is good news for Libya and the international community. The surprisingly quick end to the six-month civil war now becomes a test for the opposition. It must restore order, protect members of Gadhafi's regime and begin to form a functional democracy. The West, which gave the rebels the means to succeed, must be as engaged in building up the new government as it was in bringing down the last one.
Rebel forces took control of central Tripoli on Monday after pro-Gadhafi troops ceded much of the capital without a fight. The quick turn of events, after months of chaotic and brutal fighting, left the city without the physical and economic devastation that usually comes with an armed overthrow. The opposition needs to take advantage of this swift transfer of power. It should secure Libya's military assets, establish command and control over the bureaucracy and set the stage for democratic rule. After four decades of tyranny, Libyans should not be pacified with empty promises and calls for patience. The opposition is an unknown, both domestically and on the international stage. Its first steps will set the tone for how Libyans and the world will greet the new government.
The first order of business is for the rebels to morph from a band of loosely allied insurgents into capable administrators. The National Transitional Council will need to see to the basics, from providing security and utility service to rebuilding Libya's all-important oil industry. The new government must demonstrate its commitment to human rights. And it must start almost from scratch in introducing Libyans to the norms of a pluralistic society. The West can help by giving the council speedy access to the billions of dollars in Libyan assets frozen by overseas governments during Gadhafi's rule.
The United States and the Europeans have an especially important role to play. The military support that NATO provided the rebels went far beyond the U.N. mandate to protect civilians from Gadhafi's forces. Having effectively put the rebels in charge, NATO now needs to help unify the opposition under a single umbrella. It needs to push for a fair power-sharing arrangement in the near term among the various rebel groups. It needs to impress upon the new government the importance of instilling confidence in the world community. The United States and Europe would have more leverage if they had not prematurely recognized the rebels as Libya's legitimate government. But NATO can still shape the fledgling government through its use of security and development assistance.
Nobody really knows how the rebels will govern. President Barack Obama also cannot count on congressional support for any high-profile role in Libya, given his refusal to even seek Congress' authorization for the military campaign as required by the War Powers Act. The administration should remain engaged in these early months to help the new government deliver on the call for democracy. This is a chance for Libya to move even further away from its history as a state sponsor of terrorism, and to play a more positive role in Africa and the Arab world.