US & Canada

Viewpoint: A changing Middle East

Fighters from Libya's interim government celebrate in Tripoli the news of the death of Col Muammar Gaddafi. Photo: 20 October 2011
Image caption Libyans across the country celebrated long into the night the news of Col Gaddafi's death

In a year of extraordinary images of revolutionary change across the Middle East, perhaps best captured in the vast and inspiring gathering in Tahrir Square, there is now a bookend, the brutal and bloody image of a vanquished Muammar Gaddafi.

The protesters in Tahrir Square sent a clear and compelling message to President Hosni Mubarak. It is time to go.

After trying to silence and then disperse the crowds, he recognised he could not change the picture - and his military refused to turn its weapon on the Egyptian citizens in that picture.

Mubarak stepped down, only to see himself in a cage in a courtroom facing corruption charges, yet another memorable visual.

More likely than not, he will die in Egypt under house arrest, but before he sees the inside of a prison cell.

'King of Kings' falls

Having watched Mubarak fall and his neighbour, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, flee Tunisia for Saudi Arabia, Muammar Gaddafi made a different choice.

Unlike Egypt, he unleashed his army and proxy forces against his people. Eventually, under siege from a rebel force backed by Nato (with Arab League and United Nations behind them), he left Tripoli, but not Libya.

He stayed, lost his throne and ultimately his life.

The grainy cell phone video of the deposed and captured leader, and the chilling still photos of a bloodied and deceased dictator, once Africa's "King of Kings", sends an equally compelling message to other leaders who continue to confront demands for change by their respective populations, and choose to resist.

One can assume, for example, that events in Libya in recent days were watched closely in Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad famously declared earlier this year that Syria was immune from the forces of change sweeping the region.

He is not immune, even if his situation is different than Gaddafi's - there will be no Nato intervention.

Image caption Three Arab leaders down, two more to go?

But the risks associated with his ongoing and violent repression of the Syrian people have definitely gone up. Bashar may find a way to survive and die in office, like his father, Hafez al-Assad. Today, that likelihood is just a little less certain.

For all leaders in the region, even the more stable and legitimate monarchies, the rules of the game have fundamentally changed. Even one year ago, they ruled with a sense of entitlement, impunity and inheritance. Now the status quo is gone and the future uncertain. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Through corruption and cronyism, the first families of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya amassed fortunes at the public's expense.

They saw themselves as beyond the reach of the law, having co-opted judicial institutions that normally keep governments accountable and contain official abuse.

They assumed that they would be able to keep presidential power within the family - at the time he stepped down, Mubarak was planning two presidential campaigns, one his own and the other for his son, Gamal. Now they are both under arrest.

'The hard part'

For Libya, the death of Gaddafi makes the immediate future a bit brighter. Most importantly, it reduces the likelihood of a violent and destructive insurgency.

As we saw with the battle for Sirte, Gaddafi sustained some residual support within the country and certainly the financial wherewithal to hold out and handicap the interim ruling entity, the National Transitional Council, for an indefinite period of time.

The fall of Sirte, and the capture and death of Gaddafi, provides the NTC another burst of legitimacy and the opportunity to unite the country behind its leadership.

Given the tribal nature of Libyan society, this is easier said than done. But the sudden and conclusive end to Gaddafi's 42-year reign should encourage.

Libya's major political and tribal leaders will get off the fence and cooperate with the NTC, at least for now.

But even if the status quo is gone, nothing guarantees that Libya (or the other countries in transition for that matter) will achieve the "inclusive, tolerant and democratic" society that President Obama called for yesterday.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Tripoli on Tuesday, "Now comes the hard part."

Even before Gaddafi's death, the NTC tore down the walls surrounding his ruling compound in Tripoli.

But inside those walls, there were few institutions to enable Libya to achieve a functioning government. It will have resources - a major advantage over, say, Afghanistan - but the government will need to be constructed from scratch.

The international community can help, not with boots on the ground, but with focused technical expertise, strategic patience and a willingness to engage whoever emerges as Libya's leadership.

After all, not so long ago, the United States and European countries were deeply engaged with Colonel Gaddafi, despite his past sins and obvious flaws. The rules of the game have changed for everyone.

The new leaders of the region will come to power not because they are entitled, but because they are chosen. The international community, including the United States, should respect those choices.