Contagious illusions of Gaddafi’s power

The resilience of the Libyan regime is creating a false sense of security among other Arab despots, analyst argues.

Gaddafi’s use of brutal force against rebels in Libya has emboldened other autocratic rulers across the Arab world [AFP]

The mayhem in Libya has given rise to many illusions. Among Arab dictators, it revived hopes of the possibility of escaping the fates of Ben Ali and Mubarak through the use of brutal force. Gaddafi’s model of the iron fisted ruler, who fights to the last drop, has been emboldening Arab dictators to brutally suppress any form of dissidence.

In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has unleashed his thugs to massacre protesters in Taghyeer Square at the heart of the capital.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has opened fire randomly on demonstrators in Daraa and Latakia, while in Jordan next door security services have violently dispersed a peaceful picket demanding reform.

Gaddafi has been inspiring fellow despots to shift fear to the people’s camp through the use of terror.
Shell-shocked, Arab leaders had watched as Ben Ali boarded his jet and fled the Carthage Palace. With Mubarak’s ejection from Cairo, their panic turned into despair.

The “Tunisian-Egyptian flu”, as Saleh had called it, appeared to be inescapable. No one could be immune from the infection; no one could be spared its fatal outcome.

Then began the briberies. In Saudi Arabia, a 36 bn dollar plan to “re-launch the economy” was announced with a 15 per cent salary increase for public sector employees, and generous grants to students and the unemployed. In Jordan, a $125 mn package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products like sugar was offered, while in Syria, the heating oil allowance for public workers was raised by 72 per cent.

Desperately, like one awaiting execution, they sought to buy time and delay the inevitable.
But the message Gaddafi’s bloody resistance sent his comrades was that the game was by no means over. So back we are to the talk of “exceptions”. We had initially been warned that Egypt was not Tunisia, then that Libya was not Tunisia or Egypt, and now that Yemen and Syria are not Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya.

The list keeps growing longer all the time, largely owing to the region’s fundamental interconnectedness. For Arabs do not only share a geography and language, but common crises and aspirations too.

The earthquake that struck in Tunis, then in Cairo, has sent aftershocks across the region, from its westernmost corners in Casablanca, to its easternmost shores in Muscat.

Though divided into 22 states and statelets, some monarchical, others republican, some rich others poor, Arabs share the common misfortune of living under the harshest and most backward forms of government, and are united by their yearning for emancipation and democratisation.
But the Libyan quagmire is not only reviving Arab rulers’ hopes of survival. It is also breathing life into the corpse of “humanitarian interventionism”.

This thoroughly discredited notion is being resurrected from the dead to serve as a vehicle for riding the wave of change sweeping across the region and redirecting its course.

With the loss of Ben Ali and Mubarak, international powers suffered the devastating loss of their priced doctrine of stability implemented since the aftermath of World War II, which meant propped-up dictators, forced political stagnation, and lucrative arms deals.

But as “ship stability” sank under the weight of Arab street protests, these have begun to jump across to “ship democracy”.

This hesitant, awkward move is by no means complete, however. For while shouting “revolution!” in Libya and Syria, the West is quietly supporting old allies in Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, the Emirates, Morocco, and of course, Yemen, lest the uprising should expand to Saudi Arabia, its chief ally in the region. The logic seems to be “a friend is only a friend while salvageable”.

Changes were “too big, too fast”
Arab rulers were not the only ones to have been taken aback by the turn of events in the region. Their allies were caught equally unprepared. The changes were simply “too big, too fast” as an American official put it.

All Washington, London, Paris, and Rome could do was watch in dismay, besieged as they were by an Arab street determined to make its voice heard and shape its future.

Libya handed these powers a way out of powerlessness and inaction. As the possibility of saving a Gaddafi isolated in Tripoli – along with their huge arms deals and business contracts – shrunk each day, they shifted positions joining the rebels’ camp instead.

From supporters of despotism and corruption they moved to repaint themselves as makers of change and democratisation.

Such claims may have stood a chance of being taken seriously if the world had been spared the amusing spectacle of the benefactors feuding over the noble alliance’s leadership, with Sarkozy eager to recover his losses in North Africa (after Tunisia and Egypt), Berlusconi and Cameron terrified of squandering hard won privileges, and the Americans anxious to keep a close eye on revolutionary Egypt next door. The gruesome scramble over the war spoils has only just begun.
While Tunisia and Egypt have presented Arabs with an inspiring model of change at minimal cost, Libya has stirred hopes among their rulers of the possibility of clinging on to power through naked violence and the threat of civil war.

For their allies on the outside the brutal conflict has been a golden opportunity to wash their hands off their past and turn the course of change in their favour. The likelihood, however, is that the hopes pinned on Libya will turn out to be little more than illusions.

The Arab political order, rotten to the core as it, is beyond salvation. Most republics would not withstand the wave of change, while the majority of kingdoms and princedoms would be forced to undergo extensive reforms that would turn them from absolute to constitutional monarchies.

This Great Arab Revolution which has been seething in the region’s guts over generations, fuelled by a long, bleak record of political repression, economic failure, social marginalisation, and a dignity bruised in Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon is simply beyond containment or control.

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a freelance writer specialising in the history of European Perceptions of Islam. Her work has appeared in a number of leading British papers including the Guardian and the Independent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.