The Arab Spring has now witnessed the death of its first Arab dictator. The end of Moammar Gadhafi's mercurial, dictatorial reign is a great achievement mainly for the Libyans who fought for eight months to free their country and also for the Obama administration, which with European allies staged an air campaign that helped topple the regime.
But Libya's future now hangs in the balance. And it is unclear whether the Libya's Transitional National Council (TNC) will be able to restore stability and extend its writ throughout the country.
No one is certain whether the TNC is up to the job. "Will this week be remembered as the day Libya started its descent into a new civil war or the day in which a bright new page was turned in this North African country's history?" wrote Sultan Al-Qassemi, a non-resident fellow at the Dubai school of government, posing the question that is now dominating Arab homes and Twitter feeds.
Mahmoud Jibril, the acting prime minister, confirmed Gadhafi's death to reporters on Thursday — though not the precise circumstances, which remain unclear. But he did not announce an end to the conflict, the liberation of the country, or provide any details about the TNC's plans to establish a more representative "transitional" government. He must do so quickly.
Ethan Chorin, a former U.S. diplomat in Libya and expert on the Libyan economy who is writing a book about the collapse of the old order, is guardedly optimistic about Libya's prospects.
Chorin says that Libyans must take charge of their own future. But he hopes the TNC will address the basic needs of the people by establishing order, treating the 30,000 wounded in the war (which could cost up to a billion dollars), confiscating stray weapons, and above all, ensuring an end to the revenge killings of the past weeks.
Although TNC officials have issued many statements urging Libyans not to engage in such behavior, acts of revenge could shatter whatever fragile consensus exists within the country.
A warning sign came last July, when Abdul Fattah Younes, the former head of the rebels' armed forces who had defected from Gadhafi's army and Interior Ministry, was killed by one of the militias under still-mysterious circumstances. A senior TNC official said it was an act of revenge for Younes' former actions in Benghazi.
To avoid a bloodbath, agrees Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan activist, the TNC must move quickly to restore order within the country and disarm and consolidate the many competing militias into an armed force under a central government's control. The neighborhood militias must be disarmed and made to feel a part of a single, national effort.
It remains unclear whether the TNC will be able to do this. While there are many capable, impressive people within the council, Libyans accuse both Jabril and the TNC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil of failing to counter effectively the growing regional, tribal, and ideological differences of the country.
The TNC has issued admirable statements about its commitment to openness, freedom, democracy, and its opposition to terrorism. Can it turn these words into practice? According to the plan drawn up this summer, elections are to be held within eight months of the declaration of a transitional government. But the TNC should not rush into elections.
Libya has a lot of social and economic reparation work ahead. The oil has started flowing again, fitfully, but the ruptures in its social and political fabric may prove harder to heal.
There is some genuine cause for optimism. Libya is not an inherently violent country, and Libyans are not inherently extremist. Its indigenous Islam and religious traditions are relatively tolerant and non-doctrinaire. The regime itself, despite its Islamic trappings, was largely secular.
The Islamists within the rebel ranks have been increasingly divided, so there is no coherent opposition to the secular, democratic principles outlined by the TNC.
Libya has a substantial middle class, many of whom were educated in the West and sympathetic to it. Its young people have proven themselves bold and courageous.
Finally, the country is oil rich. If managed well, Libyan oil will make not just one family but all of its 4.5 million people very rich.