In recent weeks, dictators across the Middle East and North Africa must have been afflicted with a severe case of agoraphobia ― the morbid fear of open spaces. After all, the groundswell of antigovernment protests have all occurred in squares ― Tunis’ Nov. 7 Square, Cairo’s Tahrir Square and, more recently, Tripoli’s Green Square.
By far, Libya’s experience has been the most tragic. On Tuesday, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s embattled leader, cut a bizarre figure as he gripped an umbrella in the rain, declaring that he would fight the rebels to ‘the last bullet’. His defiance is testament to an unwritten law: The more defiant the dictator, the more detached he is from reality; the more detached he is, the more likely his fall. The writing is already on the wall for Gaddafi and his goons. Many of his own soldiers have mutinied, scores of his diplomats have resigned, while parts of the east of the country is now under rebel control.
But the worry is that unlike in Egypt, where opposition elements could plausibly take over following the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, no such option seems available in Libya. Gaddafi, who practiced scorched-earth politics, crushed much of the country’s opposition in his 42 years in power.
So what will happen should his regime collapse, as it is more than likely to? The worst-case scenario is a descent into total chaos. Another, only slightly worse, alternative is a stalemated civil war between Gaddafi-controlled Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east.
For years, countries in the region have shared some common denominators: a dearth of jobs, falling incomes and an abject lack of political accountability. No wonder, in recent days, protesters in Libya have raised the tricolor flag of King Idriss, who was deposed by Gaddafi in 1969. This expressed a yearning for the Libya of old, when people were hopeful.
What is unfolding in the region is momentous. Even the harshest critics of former U.S. President George W. Bush would concede that his much-touted “democratic tsunami” in the Arab world is now occurring, albeit spontaneously rather than by design. This, however, does not mean that all the dominoes are set to fall. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, for example, have adopted rearguard strategies comprising dialogue, handouts and reform. One cannot be sure the region will see the same sweeping change that Eastern Europe experienced in the early 1990s, when more or less stable governments succeeded bankrupt communist regimes. The Middle East and North Africa are not Eastern Europe. The consequences of the recent upheavals in the region will take years, perhaps decades, to unfold.