The implosion of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s 41-year-old rule will put a new spring in the step of the Arab revolutions and demonstrate once again that these entrenched autocratic governments are not invincible.
From the Atlantic coast to Gulf shores, live images on Arab satellite channels of rebels pouring into Tripoli, trampling on pictures of Qaddafi and chanting: “From alley to alley, door to door,” taunting the leader with his own threats to hunt down his enemies, will rattle Arab leaders facing similar revolts.
Arab capitals have been enthralled as street protests forced former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country he had ruled for 23 years, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power and now Qaddafi’s government to decompose.
Arabs, who this month have seen Mubarak and his sons appear behind bars and who now see the rule of the longest-serving Arab ruler collapsing, must wonder what else is possible.
From Syria to Yemen, Arab autocrats who sought to use force and repression to contain pent-up popular aspirations and fend off uprisings must have pause for thought after events in Libya.
“It is an important development because it shows there are different ways in which Arab regimes will collapse. It just shows once you get a momentum developing and the right combination — a popular will for change, and regional and international support — no regime can withstand that,” Beirut-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri said. “Syria has this combination of a popular uprising with regional and international backing. These authoritarian regimes, even if they are strong, collapse in the end. We have three transitions now, Tunis, Egypt and Libya, and more are to follow.”
Khouri said a revolt in Bahrain by a Shiite majority seeking more rights from the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family had failed because it lacked regional and international backing.
It is true, experts say, that Qaddafi’s downfall depended crucially on Western military intervention, which evidently is not going to be repeated in Syria or elsewhere — debt-laden Western powers, still deeply involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, have no appetite for new fronts in the Muslim world.
The five-month NATO bombing campaign in Libya prevented Qaddafi’s forces from recapturing the rebel city of Benghazi and quelling the revolt that erupted on Feb. 17, which would have been a discouraging reversal for restive Arabs elsewhere.
“It shows that if the protesters, opposition, freedom fighters or rebels in Yemen or in Syria persist, they may be able to topple the regime,” Middle East analyst Geoff Porter said. “People’s views of the Arab spring were formed by Tunisia and Egypt, where protests lasted up to a month. They thought Libya will be impossible because it didn’t fit the Tunisia and Egypt model. Libya’s protests will encourage and embolden protesters in Syria and Yemen, although they miss a big component which is the support of NATO.”
Scenes of popular rejoicing in Tripoli after Qaddafi’s forces apparently melted away suggest many in the capital had loathed their leader, but had not previously dared defy him for fear of retribution.
“This is another day, a new page in Libya’s history. We are witnessing a new dawn and a new history of freedom,” said Mohammed Derah, a Libyan activist in Tripoli.