Brian Whitaker writes:
Just a few days before completing his 42nd year in power, Muammar Gaddafi appears to have become the third Arab dictator to fall in the past eight months.
Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was the first to go, hounded out of the country in January after 23 years in power. In February it was the turn of Hosni Mubarak, when a popular uprising by the Egyptian masses ended his 29-year rule.
In the wake of that, hopes of political change swept across the region as protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, plus others on a smaller scale in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria and Oman.
But then came a hiatus, prompting speculation that the Arab spring was running out of steam. The opposition in Bahrain was brutally crushed, the Yemeni youth movement was sidelined by tribal warlords and military chiefs jockeying for position, while protests in Syria brought deadly reprisals and failed to make much of a dent on the Ba’athist regime.
The question now is whether the events in Tripoli will change the picture once again. While they may prove inspirational to opposition activists across the region, the Libyans’ own achievements in battling against Gaddafi are also overshadowed by their dependence on Nato support.
As for Arab leaders, it is unlikely they will lose much sleep. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad may reasonably conclude he is safe so long as Nato does not intervene and the Libyan experience has little relevance to Yemen where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, still recovering in Saudi Arabia after being injured in a bomb attack on his own palace last June, flatly refuses to resign.
Arab rulers in the Gulf are also unlikely to draw lessons from Gaddafi’s fall, viewing him as an ill-behaved and troublesome eccentric who insulted almost all of them at some point, and whose comeuppance is no less than he deserved.
In terms of Arab geopolitics, Libya – unlike Iraq or Egypt, for example – is one of the less important states, and perhaps even more inconsequential in the future without Gaddafi’s unpredictable antics to place it in the spotlight.
It is in north Africa, rather than the wider Middle East, that the effects of the Libyan revolution will mostly be felt. Together, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia form a contiguous bloc of post-revolutionary states, which ought to prompt some soul-searching further west, in Algeria and Morocco. Algeria’s government faced riots earlier this year and fended them off by spending money, a palliative that cannot work indefinitely.
In Morocco too, where King Mohammed recently introduced a mildly reformist constitution in response to demonstrations, events in Libya can be expected to maintain or increase the pressure for more comprehensive change.