Muammar al-Qaddafi's fall won't just mark the close of an awful dictatorship -- it will end the Arab world's disastrous half-century-long affair with utopian governing fantasies.
If Muammar al-Qaddafi falls, as seems increasingly likely, he will land with the rending crash of an immense, rigid object, like the statue of Saddam Hussein pulled down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. This is not because, despite his own delusions, Qaddafi mattered to the world remotely as much as Saddam did. Rather, it’s because the Jamahiriya, or stateless society, he fostered in Libya constitutes the last of the revolutionary fantasies with which Arab leaders have mesmerized their citizens and justified their ruthless acts of repression since the establishment of the modern Arab world in the years after World War II.
Qaddafi and the other junior officers who overthrew Libya’s King Idris in a bloodless coup in 1969 were inspired by the revolt of the Free Officers in Egypt, who had similarly deposed an unpopular, pro-Western monarch in 1952. The Free Officers under Gamal Abdel Nasser declared a new socialist regime, confiscating the properties and eliminating the privileges of the old elite. Especially after the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations in 1955, Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, which would dissolve colonial borders in order to establish an Arab superstate, became the default ideology of a generation of young thinkers and activists in the Middle East.
The leaders of the Libyan coup also called themselves the Free Officers. Nasser’s own reputation had been destroyed by the disastrous outcome of the 1967 war with Israel, but Qaddafi and his co-conspirators saw themselves as the new generation of Arab revolutionaries. “Tell President Nasser we made this revolution for him,” Qaddafi said in the aftermath of the coup. “He can take everything of ours and add it to the rest of the Arab world’s resources to be used for the battle [against Israel, and for Arab unity].” Over the next few years, Qaddafi would forge pacts with his neighbors, including Chad, Egypt, and Sudan — all of them far more populous than Libya — in a vain and mostly ludicrous pursuit of Nasser’s dream of a pan-Arab state.
The Libyan leader’s ambitions turned out to be yet more grandiose than Nasser’s. Qaddafi’s Green Book, first published in 1975, offered a design for a state ruled directly by its own citizens with none of the usual mediating institutions — parties, parliaments, even central government. The revolution would abolish as well the institutions of private ownership. “Whoever possesses the house in which you dwell, the vehicle in which you ride or the income on which you live,” Qaddafi wrote, “possesses your freedom, or part of it.” This freedom, however, belonged not to the individual but to the collective, for “the individual is linked to the larger family of humankind like a leaf is to a branch or a branch to a tree. They have no value or life if they are separated.” The Green Book was an exercise, if a daft one, in utopian totalitarianism.
Qaddafi did in fact succeed in destroying Libya’s political and economic institutions — though only, of course, to remove obstacles to his own brand of despotism. Arab elites came to view him as a loose cannon and a dangerous crank. And yet his revolutionary language and his open support for violence against Israel and the West made him for a time a popular hero in the Arab world. In A History of Modern Libya, Dirk Vandewalle writes that “to many in Libya and within the region, there was something riveting and audacious about his analyses and his proposed solutions.” Qaddafi “spoke the unpalatable truths that others” — those elites — “did not dare to articulate.” Libya’s hero offered deeply satisfying answers to the growing Arab sense of failure.
The revolutionary ideology was the opiate of the Arab world, distracting citizens from the manifest failure of their rulers. In The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Fouad Ajami describes how an older cosmopolitanism, in tension with the West but assimilating its influences, began to give way in the 1950s to both sectarianism and totalitarian designs. Pan-Arabism broke on the shoals of the 1967 fiasco — even if Qaddafi didn’t get the message — but Palestinian radicalism offered itself as an alternative unifying ideology. The militants argued, as Ajami writes, “that ‘guerrilla warfare’ or ‘wars of national liberation’ or ‘revolution’ would deliver Arab society from its superstitions and weaknesses.” That, too, of course, turned out to be a hollow fantasy, though hatred toward Israel remains an instrument of solidarity and mobilization in the Arab world.
The terrain of the Middle East is littered with these Ozymandian shards: pan-Arabism, Palestinian militancy, the “secular socialism” of the Baath Party in Iraq, the Islamic revival of Sudan (now facing the threat of disintegration), and finally the Jamahiriya. The ferocity and swift spread of the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated the bankruptcy of these ideologies and highlighted the disgust of citizens who know all too well they’ve been sold a bill of goods. The rage in Libya, a relatively affluent and well-educated state by Arab standards, has been especially shocking; Qaddafi’s citizens obviously view him not as a crank but a monster.
The statues are crashing to earth. This is the Arab world’s exit into history — an exit from a sterile, walled-off place into a land of painful and consequential choices. The protesters assure journalists, and one another, that they are prepared for the burdens of citizenship, even if their experience of citizenship is only a few days old. They ought to be fully inoculated by now against glittering schemes that direct their attention away from their own well-being toward some remote good or distant enemy.
But are they? The vacuum created by the collapse, not only of regimes but of belief systems, no matter how decrepit, could all too easily be filled by other all-encompassing systems — thus the fear that Islamic radicals will hijack the revolution in Egypt, or that Bahraini Shiites will topple that country’s Sunni regime and then profess their fealty to Tehran. History provides plenty of analogies: It took barely a decade for Russians to throw off the yoke of Communism, tire of their messy experiment with freedom, and embrace Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarianism.
Libya is the country most likely to replace one totem with another. By eliminating all rival institutions, Qaddafi has ensured that there is nothing, and no one, to take his place. And should the country descend into chaos, the homegrown jihadists known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, supposedly “rehabilitated” by a foundation run by the dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, might well make a bid for power, or at least seek to reorganize themselves. A post-Qaddafi Libya is likely to need outside help. Perhaps the Arab League should view the country as its first exercise in state-building.
As for the others — which at this point means Tunisia and Egypt — it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that on balance their new regimes will be less hospitable to the United States and Israel than were their predecessors. But those regimes will almost certainly be better for their citizens themselves — more accountable to the public, more focused on human development, less ideological and bombastic. And if they’re not, the voters can throw them out and try someone else.
In his inaugural address, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said of the new countries of the developing world, “We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom.” This was not just inaugural hot air. Whatever its foreign policy, a government whose legitimacy depends on delivering the goods to its citizens rather than on demonizing outsiders — including the West — will ultimately be a better partner for the United States.