In Libya's Rebel Capital, Celebration and Concern About What's Next

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Alexandre Meneghini / AP

A crowd in Benghazi, Libya, celebrates on Aug. 22, 2011, the news that Muammar Gaddafi's government is collapsing

Residents in the rebel capital of Benghazi rejoiced Sunday night over the news that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's government was collapsing. Men fired automatic machine guns throughout the night and red streaks from their bullets lit up the sky. People flocked to the courthouse downtown off the coast, celebrating the apparent fall of the dictator who ruled this country with an iron fist for 42 years. "I never thought I would see the end of Gaddafi," exclaimed Ali Farjani, 28. Behind him blue and green fireworks exploded over the Mediterranean Sea.

The collapse of Tripoli came swiftly following a string of recent regime setbacks. Gaddafi forces retreated from the key eastern oil city of Brega last week as rebel units took the western town of Zawiyah, 30 miles (50 km) west from Gaddafi's capital. But the final push to topple him came in Tripoli itself. Sensing the rebels were poised to enter the city, residents there were emboldened to rise up after six months of watching the country slowly fall into the opposition's hands.

As the regime imploded, Gaddafi's spokesman warned of a last stand. Moussa Ibrahim warned that Gaddafi loyalists "are coming to defend" Tripoli and "if the leader steps down, it will be a massacre." Earlier this week, the head of the rebels' political body known as the National Transitional Council (NTC) echoed Ibrahim's sentiments. "Gaddafi will not go quietly. He will go amid a catastrophe that will touch him and his family," Mustafa Abdel Jalil told the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

But Gaddafi's closest confidants appeared to surrender without a fight. His sons Saif al-Islam and Saadi were captured, and his Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi escaped to Tunisia. Reports surfaced that Gaddafi himself had been captured and turned over to the International Court of Justice, but the body's representative in Libya denied that a handover had occurred. "We have no information about this," Benghazi criminal-law professor Ahmad Jani says.

As Gaddafi loyalists fled and were captured on Sunday, rebel officials discounted Ibrahim's threat. "We heard this talk after the rebels took the east in February," NTC member Hassan al-Drui says. "It did not happen in February and it won't happen now."

The NTC said it has been planning for Gaddafi's fall for months and also said it was rushing fighters into Tripoli to prevent looting and killings. "We will secure the capital and ensure everyone is protected," says the rebels' military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bany.

But some officials conceded that the NTC's ability to keep order in Tripoli would be a difficult task given that its command centers are in Benghazi and the units leading the charge 650 miles (1,050 km) away in Tripoli are only loosely under its command. "These things are complicated, and the fighters don't have that much experience in these situations," said an NTC representative who asked that his name be withheld because he was speaking about a sensitive topic.

Outside the courthouse some of the revelers echoed these sentiments. "There will be people who want to take vengeance," said Ali Rizqi, 26. "And there are tribal conflicts that will probably pop up." Some analysts warn that Libyans may be tempted to seek revenge against tribes favored by Gaddafi. The Libyan leader relied on the Megraha and Warfalla tribes to keep the population in check for four decades. Their regions — located to the east and south of Tripoli — remained largely loyal to him throughout the six-month conflict. "The Megraha and Warfalla supported Gaddafi for so long," explains Salah Senoussi, a political-science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. "People are angry about that and may want to get back at them." Sporadic cases of revenge killings have occurred in areas under rebel control in the east, but the NTC has largely succeeded in cooling tempers and ensuring order.

As it awaits the definitive fall of Gaddafi, the NTC is preparing the way for a transition to democracy. In March, Abdel Jalil told a Spanish newspaper, "As soon as the regime falls, we will have six or seven months to call elections." But today people in Benghazi were not thinking about elections as they celebrated the demise of a leader they had lived in fear of for four decades.