A Perverse Nostalgia for Gaddafi Takes Hold in the West

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

We were bound to come to it: a lament for the fall of Gaddafi. Mali had come apart, and there were "strategic analysts" bemoaning the demise of the Libyan dictatorship. Thousands of Malian Tuareg mercenaries enlisted by Gaddafi had returned to Mali with weaponry and little to do. In the Financial Times of Jan. 14, Gaddafi was described as the "West's ally in the fight against jihadist groups." Britain, France, and the United States should have spared him: he had kept the lid on disorder in the Sahara. To be sure, he had intended mass slaughter in Benghazi, but two years later, it was time to utter the impermissible: perhaps the West's strategic interest would have been served by his iron grip on his country.

A few days later, the nostalgia for the Libyan dictatorship was in full bloom. The four-day standoff at a natural-gas plant in the Sahara between the Algerian security forces and a band of terrorists led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, part pirate, part jihadist, was to serve as a vehicle for a full-scale revisionism about the fall of Gaddafi, and about the harvest of the Arab Spring as a whole. In a compelling piece of analysis and reporting, Robert F. Worth in The New York Times gave this revisionism its fullest expression to date. The jihadist surge in North Africa, he wrote, was proof that the "euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt has come at a terrible price." Worth quotes the warning that Gaddafi had made as he attempted to hold off the tide. "Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea. We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats." You have to hand it to Gaddafi: even as he brought down Western airliners and sowed mayhem wherever he could, he had a gift of posing as a useful ally of the West. To the bitter end, he held on to the claim that he was preferable to the chaos that would sweep in were he to fall. Little more than a year after he was pulled out of a drainage pipe and given the brutal end meted out to him, there was retrospection that the penal colony he ran was not such a bad thing for the peace of North Africa after all.

Two years on, we speak of the Arab rebellions in a manner we never did of the fall of communist dictatorships. A quarter century ago, it was only cranks who bemoaned the end of the communist tyrannies in Europe. There was chaos aplenty in those post-communist societies and vengeful nationalist feuds; those captive nations weren't exactly models of liberalism. In Yugoslavia, a veritable prison of contending nationalisms, the fall of the state that Josip Broz Tito held together by guile and fear, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder, had put on display the pitfalls of "liberty" after decades of repression. And still, faith in the new history was to carry the day.

That moment in freedom's advance was markedly different from the easy disenchantment with the Arab rebellions. Those had been dubbed an Arab Spring, and it was the laziest of things to announce scorching summers and an Islamist winter. The Arab dictatorships had been given decades of patience and indulgence, but patience was not to be extended to the new rebellions: these were to become orphans in the court of American opinion. American liberalism had turned surly toward the possibilities of freedom in distant, difficult lands. If George W. Bush's "diplomacy of freedom," tethered to the Iraq War, had maintained that freedom can stick on Arab and Muslim soil, liberalism ridiculed that hopefulness. This was a new twist in the evolution of American liberalism. In contrast to its European counterpart, American liberalism had tended to be hopeful about liberty's prospects abroad. This was no longer the case. The Arab Awakening would find very few liberal promoters.

Nor was American conservatism convinced that these Arab rebellions were destined for success. Say what you will about the wellsprings of conservative thought, the emphasis is on the primacy of culture in determining the prospects of nations. For good reasons, Arab and Islamic culture was deemed to present formidable obstacles to democratic development. The crowd would unseat a dictatorship only to beget a theocratic tyranny. Iran after the Pahlavis was a cautionary tale.

In all fairness, the Arabs themselves had not trusted their own ability to overthrow entrenched tyrannies. On the eve of the changes that swept upon the Arab world in late 2010, monarchies and military despots alike seemed to be immovable. Better 60 years of tyranny than one day of anarchy, goes a maxim of (Sunni) Islam. Fear of chaos played into the hands of the rulers. Who in late 2010 would have predicted the fall of Gaddafi? He had ruled for four decades; he had the instruments of repression and the oil wealth of the state at his disposal. There was no national army to speak of, no institutions, no settled bureaucracy, and no room for a free economy. The glue of the realm was the ruler—his megalomania, his cult, his erratic will. On his western border was Zeine al-Abdine bin Ali, master of Tunisia. He had been a policeman before his rise to power in 1987: over the course of a quarter century, he had put in place a kleptocracy that revolved around his family—and that of his reviled wife. Tunisians knew better than to run afoul of the extended ruling clan. No one could have foreseen the storm that an impoverished fruit vendor from a forlorn town would unleash on the country with his self-immolation.

Protesters in Tunisia in January of 2011 during the beginning of the Arab Spring. Alex Majoli/Magnum

And the rule of Hosni Mubarak, anchored in the Army and the police and a servile political party, seemed to confirm the image of Egypt as the "hydraulic society" of Oriental despotism. Egypt had known tumult in the first half of the 20th century and a rich history of labor unrest and political agitation. But in the reign of Mubarak, the country seemed broken and domesticated. So secure was the ruler and his immensely powerful wife, the couple set the stage for dynastic succession. One of the ruler's two sons was everywhere, pronouncing on political matters big and small. Sycophants surrounded the dauphin, placed their bets on him. The ruler had closed up the political universe, and 80 million Egyptians had become spectators to their own destiny.

From one end of the Arab world to the other, this seemed like the dictators' paradise. History's democratic tides had bypassed the Arabs. There was no intellectual class with the tools and the temperament necessary to take on the rulers. The intellectuals had been cowed or bought off or had opted for exile. On the margins of political life, there was a breed of Islamists biding their time. The secularists were too proud, too steeped in the conceit of modernism to take the religious alternative seriously.

There is no need to retrace the course of the storm that upended the autocratic order. We know it broke upon Tunisia, but that it was in Egypt, on Jan. 25, 2011, that the rebellion found a stage worthy of its ambitions. Eighteen magical days of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square overthrew the Mubarak dictatorship, and provided the impetus for a wider Arab revolt. This had always been Egypt's role and gift in Arab life—to show other Arabs the way. In record time, revolts would hit Libya, Bahrain, Yemen. Even Syria would succumb to the contagion. Two years later we can see both the things Arabs had in common, and the specific maladies that afflicted each of the lands. Egypt and Tunisia had a strong sense of national identity, and old bureaucracies. The regimes had fallen but the state had survived. There was no massive bloodletting: the ballot was the arbiter of the new order, and it went the way of the Islamists—Annahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The chasm between the Islamists and their secular rivals would come to shape Tunisian and Egyptian politics alike.

Protest in Cairo February 11, 2011. Alex Majoli/Magnum

Libya was a ruined country, a war had been fought to topple the dictator; foreign intervention had given the Libyans freedom from the despotism. The country was awash in arms, but the Islamists had not carried the day. A national election in 2012 thwarted them. Old tribal alliances, and a nascent secular coalition of professionals and ordinary Libyans who had taken up arms against Gaddafi, along with former exiles who returned to reclaim their country, prevailed at the polls. Regionalism remains a nemesis—the split between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica had not gone away, indeed it had intensified under the dictatorship.

Bahrain's rebellion, a principally Shia revolt against a Sunni dynasty, came up against the harsh limits imposed by Saudi power. There is a causeway that connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, appropriately named after the late King Fahd. The causeway was put to use as the Saudis dispatched their troops to Bahrain to put down the rebellion. The regime rode out the challenge, but the crisis endures, and there is no end in sight to the estrangement between the populace and the rulers. An American naval base serves as the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet; it gives the Bahraini dynasty room for maneuver. Yemen rid itself of the cynical acrobat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had kept the wretchedly poor land on edge. But Yemen's troubles are bigger than a ruler's failings. The place, the Arab world's poorest country, is running out of water, and there are secessionist movements in both north and south. The sacking of a despot has not ameliorated the misery of the land. This is Afghanistan with a coastline, al Qaeda's new frontier.

The Arab Awakening met its cruelest test in Syria. The fissures of the country had been concealed by the dictatorship, and they were to give the new rebellion the fury and poison of a religious schism. It had been forbidden to speak of the Alawi-Sunni cleft in the country. The orthodoxy of the regime had insisted on its secularism, the sectarian identity of the rulers was the truth that was off-limits for four decades. No sooner had the rebellion erupted in the Sunni countryside than Syria was to be plunged into a sectarian war. As the rebellion approached its second anniversary, an estimated 60,000 people had been killed. In the north, the ancient city of Aleppo was reduced to rubble. Several hundred thousand Syrians had fled to neighboring countries. The rebellion has not been able to topple the regime, and the rulers have not been able to crush the rebellion. The very future of Syria—its borders and territorial unity—has been called into question. Clearly, this was not the place for a peaceful, democratic transformation. This was the forbidding landscape of an unsparing religious war. A rebellion that is answered by fighter planes and cluster bombs and Scud missiles bespeaks of a country with a pathology all its own.

In Syria, the bloodiest theater of the Arab Spring, an estimated 60,000 have died. Moises Saman/Magnum

These were, on some level, prison riots that had erupted in the Arab world. The dictators had robbed these countries of political efficacy and skills; in the aftermath of the dictators, we were to see in plain sight the harvest of their terrible work. These rulers had been predators and brigands: they had treated themselves and their offspring, and their retainers, to all that was denied their subjects. The scorched earth they left behind is testament to their tyrannies. Liberty of the Arab variety has not been pretty. But who, in good conscience, would want to lament the fall of the dictators?