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Libya’s lessons for the Arab world
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The imminent triumph of Libyan citizens who have fought successfully to overthrow the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi adds an important chapter to the book of revolutionary transformation that much of the Arab world has been writing this year.

Four things in particular define the situation in Libya: the warfare between the regime and its opponents, the military intervention by NATO, the protracted nature of the struggle for freedom and against entrenched authoritarianism, and the instrument of the National Transitional Council as a tool for regime change. All four have important implications for the ongoing battles for liberty and democracy across much of the Arab world.

The Libyan revolution is especially significant because it represents the first example of a popular overthrow of a regime in those Arab countries where challenged regimes have fought back politically and militarily. This is in contrast with Egypt and Tunisia, where the leadership collapsed and fled when confronted with massive street demonstrations. The military support of NATO was decisive, to be sure, but it followed the eruption of the uprising against Gadhafi by Libyans who initially concentrated their organizational efforts on the city of Benghazi and were prepared to fight and die for their freedom. The overthrow of Gadhafi sends a very strong signal to freedom fighters in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and perhaps other Arab lands to emerge that a determined struggle for liberty will result in victory.

I have been shocked in the last month to hear and read many commentators across the Western world express concern that the “Arab Spring,” as they call it, has bogged down into a hard winter of either regime reassertion and violence in Syria and Libya, or has failed to generate new and stable democratic systems in Egypt and Tunisia. The mistake is that observers have viewed the Arab world as passing through a “spring,” a transitory, serene moment of transfiguration moving swiftly to the splendors of summer.

The reality – from Western political history, especially – is that wholesale national transformation takes time to occur, needs time to stabilize when it does occur, and experiences moments of both rapid advance and stubborn stagnation. The slow, inconsistent pace of the transformations across the Arab world since January are about exactly what history suggests we should expect, especially given two defining characteristics of Arab political systems: Some regimes, like those in Egypt, Syria and Libya have been defined by single-family or one-party rule for over four decades; and second, the magnitude of the immediate challenges in this moment of transformation is too great for any new government to handle smoothly and swiftly – including economic expansion, reasserting security, and creating governance institutions that enjoy legitimacy and credibility.

Bahrain and Yemen will need much more time to reach a decisive conclusion to the political confrontation now defining them, mainly because their powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia has acted to prevent regime change by street demonstrations. Therefore Syria will get the lion’s share of media and political attention now, and the Libyan experience will be relevant in this regard. Military intervention from abroad is unlikely in Syria if events continue in their current path. More pertinent is the important precedent of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a tool for political warfare and national power transfer.

The NTC that was established early on in Benghazi provided three critically important dimensions to the struggle against Gadhafi: a coordinating and planning mechanism, by which all elements of the opposition to Gadhafi could cooperate to achieve their common goal of regime change; a reassuring signal about what would follow the overthrow of the regime; and an address where international supporters could call to register their support and provide practical assistance that has proven vital for success in Libya, and will do so in other cases as well.

We are likely to see something similar happen in Syria in the months ahead, if the opposition groups can forge the minimum consensus needed for such a mechanism to work.

In Syria, international pressure will come through economic sanctions rather than via military intervention. However, political and diplomatic pressure will also play a major role in the months ahead if foreign countries drop their recognition of Assad’s regime and instead deal with a Syrian transitional council of opposition movements. If such a council reflects domestic Syrian popular legitimacy as well as the recognition of regional powers, it would then also attract serious international support, and thus signal the end of Assad’s regime from a combination of domestic and international delegitimization.

Libya’s lessons in this respect are great. They provide a strong emotional impetus as well as logistical pointers to the way forward for other Arabs who have, similarly, fought and are fighting for their rights as citizens and free human beings in their own countries.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 24, 2011, on page 7.
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