- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
The scenes of the joyous reception for Libyan "Freedom Fighters" entering Tripoli with little resistance yesterday sent an electric shock through the Arab public. The Jordanian blogger Naseem Tarawnah beautifully captured this regional effect: "Staying up last night to watch the events unfold on the streets of Tripoli, I cannot help but feel the sense of confidence that swept across the region last night; radiating from TV, computer and mobile screens." My Twitter feed could barely keep up with the rush of excited declarations that Assad must be watching Tripoli on TV and seeing his own future.
The reactions yesterday once again show the potent and real demonstration effects which characterize today’s highly unified Arab political space.I don’t see how anybody watching al-Jazeera, following Arab social media networks, or talking to people in the region could fail to appreciate the interconnected nature of Arab struggles. It’s the same sense of shared fate and urgency that those who follow the Arab public sphere could feel in February and March. I supported the NATO intervention in Libya in large part because of that powerful Arab popular demand and the likely impact of the outcome in Libya across the region.
Now, as Syrians march chanting "Qaddafi is gone, now it’s your turn, Bashar!" and excited protestors in Yemen’s Change Square shout "our turn tomorrow!" there’s suddenly a chance to recapture some of that lost regional momentum. It has been a long time since there has been such a unified Arab public sphere, or such hope that the long summer’s stalemate might be broken and the momentum of January and February reclaimed. As one put it, "the fight isn’t over in Yemen & Syria; Libyan friends remind us when we think its over we’re closer to victory than we think."
Everybody understands that there is a long way to go and that the new Libya will face many challenges. Nobody thinks that the new enthusiasm from Libya will on its own magically end the stalemate in Yemen or stop the bloodshed in Syria. But the impact of Qaddafi’s fall is resonating powerfully across the region in all the right ways.
The Arab public embraced the Libyan uprising in February, which began less than a week after Mubarak’s fall. They saw the Libyan revolution as part of their own common story of peaceful, popular challenges to entrenched authoritarian rule. They watched in horror as Qaddafi responded with brutal military force, and as his forces advanced on Benghazi they desperately called for the world to help.
I heard a lot of skepticism about this Arab demonstration effect after the NATO intervention began. Skeptics pointed out, quite correctly, that the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria seemed undeterred by the NATO show of force. But they generally ignored, or just didn’t care about, the overwhelmingly positive response at the time in most of the Arab public. The Arab public, watching the battle unfold on al-Jazeera and online, understood that a massacre had been prevented by the intervention.
A significant portion of American and Western commentators were quick to assume that Arabs would view the Libya intervention through the lens of Iraq. I assumed that too, at first. But the debate that I saw unfold in the actual Arab public sphere was entirely different and forced me to change my mind. While there were certainly Arab voices warning of imperialism and oil seizures and Israeli conspiracies, the overwhelming majority actively demanded Western intervention to protect the Libyan people and their revolution. The urgency of preventing the coming massacre mattered more to them, and despite all the legacies of Iraq they demanded that the United States and the international community take on that responsibility.
As for the demonstration effect on regimes, it is worth recalling that both Syria and Yemen saw significant escalations at exactly that moment which hardly seem a coincidence. The Syrian uprising really began to take root after the regime’s heavy handed response to rising protests in Deraa on March 18. Its violence in Deraa set in motion the cycle of repression and mobilization, which has brought hundreds of thousands of Syrians into the streets and turned Assad’s regime into an international pariah. The repertoire of escalating international condemnation, targeted sanctions, and International Criminal Court referrals now being deployed against Assad’s regime debuted in Libya.
March 18 was also Yemen’s "Bloody Friday," when Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces opened fire on a large demonstration at Sanaa University. Over the following days, massive protests erupted across the country, al-Jazeera broke away from its wall to wall Libya coverage to focus on Yemen, and the defection of Major General Ali Muhsin and a host of government officials, ruling party members, and military officers made it appear that the regime’s end was near. Saleh refused to step down and Yemen descended into the grinding political stalemate it’s in today. But that shouldn’t make us forget how close Yemen was to real change in those weeks. Perhaps now there will be one final chance to push toward closure in Yemen before Saleh returns.
Libya lost its central place in the Arab public sphere as the war dragged on. Even if al-Jazeera continued to cover the war heavily, the agenda fragmented and darkened. Arab attention was consumed by new setbacks and stalemates, from the brutal repression in Bahrain to the incomprehensible stalemate in Yemen, to the escalating brutality in Syria. But over the last two days, Arab attention refocused on Libya. Arabs from Yemen, to Syria, to Morocco experienced Qaddafi’s fall as part of their own story. And they are clearly inspired, galvanized and energized.
Arab activists across the region will now likely try to jump-start protest movements which had lost momentum. Some will succeed, others won’t. Arab leaders such as Assad and Saleh have had to watch the final moments of a counterpart who gambled on violence, and might (though regrettably probably won’t) rethink whether they want to continue to that endgame. There are obvious limits to such demonstration and diffusion effects. Each country has its own political structures, its own balance of power, its own regional and international context. The effects of external stimuli, whether inspiration from a successful revolution or discouragement from failed uprisings or signals from outside actors such as the United States, are always filtered through those local situations. But they do matter.
I’ll leave the broader questions about the outcome of the war to others, though I think it’s pretty clear that the outcome vindicates President Obama’s approach. Had he not acted, Qaddafi would have won and that would have been bad. He didn’t panic as events unfolded, even as virtually the entire policy community decided that the campaign had turned into a quagmire, stalemate, or fiasco. He understood that while six months may seem like a century in Twitter time, it’s actually not that long of a time for such a campaign. He correctly resisted demands for a more aggressive action such as a land invasion and occupation which would have radically changed the game in highly negative ways. Nobody would claim that the intervention went smoothly or according to some master plan, but on the whole it has thus far avoided most of the worst case scenarios and now has the chance — still only a chance — for a positive outcome.
I hope that people do pause for at least a moment to acknowledge all of these points before they leap from "it’s a quagmire" to "now comes the hard part." Nobody is under any illusions that post-Qaddafi Libya will have an easy path; I would say that the ratio of people warning against declaring "mission accomplished" to those actually doing so is extremely high if I could find a single one making the latter case. The dictator’s fall does not bring a resolution to all of the problems. The NTC has major challenges ahead of it, and the international community has to do what it can to help Libya make the transition to a democratic and tolerant regime. That help, by the way, absolutely should not include any U.S. military presence — no peacekeepers, transitional stability forces, or anything else.
But those are questions for another day. For now, it’s back to al-Jazeera to watch the Arab world react and adapt to a new day in Tripoli.