The Monitor's View

Libya can now reimagine itself

With Qaddafi no longer in control after a six-month civil war, Libyans can finally begin to create an identity based on the ideals of democratic citizenship.

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Three down (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) and many more to go.

That’s the country-count for successful revolutions in Arab countries since January.

Libya has been the most hard-fought – a civil war, not civilian-led protests. But after six months of fighting and an aerial assist from NATO, Muammar Qaddafi’s effective rule over Libya “has come to an end,” as President Obama said Monday.

Recommended: Spots to watch in the battle for Tripoli

Now for the most difficult part.

As the pro-democracy rebels led by the National Transitional Council (NTC) expand their control over the capital, Tripoli, they will need to forge a new Libyan identity – one not based on the empty nationalism of Pan-Arabism, common geography, shared history, or even Islam.

No, to avoid this North African nation splintering along tribal lines or to prevent another dictator, Libyans must reimagine themselves as citizens.

That means realizing they can share common values embedded in a constitution that creates stable institutions based on inclusive elections, free media, impartial justice, and civilian rule over a unified military.

Libyans are off to a good start. The NTC has already issued an interim constitution, announced policies of national reconciliation, and set up plans to prevent revenge violence.

The country has other advantages, such as oil wealth, a small population (6.5 million), and billions of dollars in locked-up funds sent abroad by the Qaddafi regime – not to mention the tourist draws of Mediterranean beaches. At least 10 to 15 percent of the Libyans who fled the country during Mr. Qaddafi’s 42-year rule can bring back democratic experience and investment. And the United States, Europe, and key Arab states like Qatar are also willing to help stabilize Libya.

The five months of fighting have given Libyans time to awaken to the possibility of democracy in their country. Through Arab satellite TV and the Internet, they were able to see their two Arab neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, begin to democratize.

Libya’s 20th-century history is littered with attempts to both unite its many tribes and to find a collective identity. From being part of the Ottoman Empire to being under Italian colonial rule to years living with an awkward monarchy and finally to Qaddafi’s divide-and-rule authoritarianism, Libyans have been heirs to that century’s worst types of rule.

Now they can create a clean slate, one based on the aspirations of their youth and informed by recent democratic revolutions around the world. Most Libyans now share the same hopes, which allows them to shape a new reality for all.

As they develop a democracy, they will need to devise constitutional ways to accommodate the interests of minorities. In Libya’s case, that means balancing the interests of tribal groups, without giving them veto power. That is part of what democratic citizenship is all about. One’s identity is based on such high ideals as finding one’s own good in another’s.

The unity and stamina of the rebels in their long fight to overthrow a dictator will do them well in the greater battle to find that Libyan identity, based on the universal values that bind all democratic communities.

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