Jubilant Libyans celebrated overnight, but the gruesome end to Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal 42-year rule signaled a stark warning to despots and dictators: the convulsive changes of the Arab spring are far from over.
In strife-torn Syria and Yemen, in the simmering discontent of the Gulf States and even in huge Saudi Arabia, the sweeping aside of a third Arab dictator will unnerve rulers and energize pro-democracy forces.
In Libya, the enormity of re-building a society wracked by four decades of misrule and fear has yet to replace the euphoria that the Gadhafi era has finally been extinguished.
The circumstances of Col. Gadhafi’s death, apparently captured alive but wounded, then killed will provoke questions of whether he was summarily executed.
Other Arab dictators, including Syria’s embattled Bashar Assad, whose security forces have killed thousands of protesters and Yemen’s wounded Ali Abdullah Saleh, who clings to power in a state on the verge of civil war, will have watched the colonel’s bloody demise.
While Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia January and Egypt’s deposed Hosni Mubarak talked into internal exile before being hauled into court, the Libyan ruler who styled himself as Africa’s King of Kings ended up dragged through the streets.
As each successive Arab dictator has been ousted, the violence unleashed to retain power and the violence needed to topple the regime has increased exponentially. That may serve as a sobering harbinger that the worst in yet to come in the Middle East.
With Col. Gadhafi dead and the last of his forces fleeing in disarray, NATO was expected to wind down its air campaign. British, French, Canadian and Italian warplanes have flown thousands of bombing sorties over the last seven months. One of the last apparently hit Col. Gadhafi’s armoured car as he tried to flee the last stronghold in Sirte, his birthplace.
In Washington, President Barrack Obama was claiming a new sort of mission accomplished.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” the president said. `”We did exactly what we said we were going to do in Libya.”
Mr. Obama’s deliberately low-profile strategy kept America’s major military contribution out of the limelight while letting other NATO nations – including Canada – fly the majority of the strike missions. That kept the air war supporting the Libyan rebels from looking like yet another American conflict in a Muslim nation.
“We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century,” Mr. Obama said.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “Gadhafi’s days are over … never again will he be in a position to support terrorism or to turn guns on his own people.”
The crucial role of western warplanes in tipping the military balance in Libya seems unlikely to serve as a model in other Arab Spring uprisings. It’s hard to imagine a NATO bombing campaign in Syria.
Meanwhile, the difficult and uneven path to Arab democracy remains.
Tunisia, a relatively small, rich and homogenous state, holds elections this Sunday. But Egypt’s fitful progress is still marred by violence and bitter divisions over the role of the military as well as widespread and crippling poverty.
Libya, after two generation of rule by a ruthless megalomaniac and a bloody war that left thousands dead and the economy paralyzed, is just beginning to consider life after Col. Gadhafi.