BENGHAZI, Libya, (Reuters) – Libya’s new rulers declared the country freed from Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years of one-man rule today, saying the “Pharaoh of the times” was now in history’s garbage bin and a future of democracy and postwar reconciliation beckoned.
But as thousands gathered in the second city Benghazi to hear authorities announce “liberation”, Gaddafi’s rotting body remained unburied and on show to locals wearing masks against the stench in a cold store in Misrata, a situation that may vex some Muslims for whom rapid burial of the dead is a duty.
There was no direct reference to what some outsiders saw as Misrata’s ghoulish display in a speech by National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who kneeled in prayer after taking the podium in Benghazi.
He renewed an earlier promise to uphold Islamic law.
“All the martyrs, the civilians and the army had waited for this moment. But now they are in the best of places … eternal heaven,” he said, shaking hands with supporters.
Some fear Jalil, a mild-mannered former justice minister, will find it hard to impose his will on his fractious revolutionary alliance, pointing to Misrata’s insistence on displaying Gaddafi’s body and that of his son Mo’tassim and to the lack of a clear account about how they met their end.
There is international disquiet about increasingly graphic and disturbing images on the Internet of abuse of a body that appears to be Gaddafi’s following his capture and the fall of his hometown of Sirte on Thursday.
But the immediate reaction to today’s announcement was jubilation.
“We are the Libyans. We have shown you who we are Gaddafi, you Pharaoh of the times. You have fallen into the garbage bin of history,” said lawyer Abdel Rahman el-Qeesy, who announced the creation of a new government portfolio to deal with victims of the conflict.
“We declare to the whole world that we have liberated our beloved country, with its cities, villages, hilltops, mountains, deserts and skies,” said an official who opened the ceremony in Benghazi, the place where the uprising erupted in February and which has been the headquarters for the NTC.
Cheering crowds waved the tri-colour flag.
Gaddafi, who had vowed to fight to the end, was found hiding in a drain after fleeing Sirte, the last bastion of his loyalists. He died in chaotic circumstances after video footage showed him bloodied and struggling at the hands of his captors.
With big oil and gas reserves and a six million population, Libya has the potential to become very prosperous, but regional rivalries fostered by Gaddafi could erupt into yet more violence that would undermine the authority of Jalil’s NTC.
“There is a yawning security and political vacuum in which brewing political disputes, factionalism and security problems pose a serious risk of derailing or prolonging transition,” said Henry Wilkinson of Janusian security consultants in London.
In Misrata, people queueing for a chance to see Gaddafi’s body saw no reason for a rapid burial, apparently heedless of concern in Tripoli about how the NTC is perceived overseas.
“We brought our children to see him today because this is a chance to see history,” said a man who gave his name as Mohammed. “We want to see this arrogant person as a lifeless body. Let all the people see him.”
The declaration of liberation is intended to set the clock ticking on a process to set up a multiparty democracy, a system Gaddafi railed against for most of his 42 years in power.
In 2007 Gaddafi, whose “state of the masses” was seen by many Libyans as despotism, called democracy a sham in which people were “ridden like donkeys” by powerful interests.
Some analysts fear that without strong leadership the revolution could now collapse into armed infighting, preventing the country from ever attempting the novelty of the ballot box.
The lack of a clear plan for Gaddafi’s burial suggests to some analysts that there is justification for fears of a descent into leaderless turmoil.
An autopsy has been performed, and a medical source told Reuters that Gaddafi’s body had a bullet in the head and a bullet in the abdomen.
“There are multiple injuries. There is a bullet in the abdomen and in the brain,” the medical source said.
The autopsy was carried out at a morgue in Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Local officials said Gaddafi’s body would now be brought back to the cold store at an old market in Misrata where it has been on public display.