If there was one lesson to be learned from the Iraq war it is that a political vacuum must be avoided at all costs. Libya’s new leaders know this and have made all the right noises about moving to the capital Tripoli to take control of their country. On Friday night, after returning from a conference in Paris where he was promised access to $110bn in frozen assets, Mustapha Abdel Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, said the rebel leadership would be in Tripoli later this week.
But so far he has set no date and some diplomats in Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising against Gaddafi, are once again jittery that this deadline will go the way of previous promises to move. (Some, including our own Dominic Asquith have beaten the rebel leader in setting up office in the Libyan capital.) At the same time, there are good reasons why Jalil should delay.
For a start Gaddafi is still at large. He has a sizable fighting force at his disposal and a long-running guerrilla war peppered with terrorist attacks is not out of the question yet. The security of Tripoli is far from guaranteed.
Anyway, the fighting continues. Rebels outside Sirte are engaged in long-range rocket exchanges with Gaddafi forces and are still waiting for a deal to be struck on Bani Walid, another key regime hold-out
Perhaps more importantly, Jalil needs cash. Moulding political and security alliances will be an expensive business. The militias who fought for a free Libya will want to be paid. Ministers will not want to be given ministries without a budget. It might be unwise to start dishing out jobs and responsibilities until he has those unfrozen Libyan billions in his pocket.
And why upset militia leaders and political rivals now? With the rebels still only in control of a stretch of coastal land, much of the interior remains in the hands of counter-insurgents – regime loyalists who may well welcome defecting members of the NTC (many of whom served Gaddafi until the uprising).
No, if Jalil is to let people down in the hard bargaining ahead, it is better to wait until there are no Gaddafi remnants to join.
This is the dilemma facing Jalil – and Mahmoud Jibril, the head of his cabinet. They must move to Tripoli as soon as they can in order to take control of the country and prevent the sort of political and security vacuum that undermined the gains made in Iraq by removing Saddam. But so too, moving too soon could jeopardise his fragile alliance.