The Arab Spring, as the rapid-fire events that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and have since engulfed Libya and much of the Middle East have come to be known, is a phenomenon of historic importance. Comparisons have been made, not unfairly, with 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of revolutions in eastern Europe, and with 1848, a year which saw revolutions sweep through much of continental Europe. It is far too early to tell where the process will lead, and whether some lasting form of representative democracy will take hold in the region. What is certain is that 2011 marks a turning point, and that there will be no easy going back to the old-style authoritarian regimes that had dominated the Arab world through modern times. Some like Tunisia or Egypt may have begun a serious transition; others like Morocco may slowly shift from an executive monarchy to a constitutional one, where parliament and political parties acquire greater power than before; and still others like Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia may be the last to see major institutional change.
Libya has been something of a special case. In the beginning, Muammar Gaddafi was seen as an heir to the mantle of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of post-1952 Egypt who nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Gaddafi did the same with the oil fields of his country. Subsequently, he was seen as a supporter of terrorist movements, culminating in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. Later he was a strong proponent of African unity, and still later, in his opposition to Al Qaeda, a welcome ally to the West and to a plethora of oil and other multinational corporations (including Canada’s SNC-Lavalin) that rushed to profit from the country’s wealth.
Through it all, however, the regime has been notable for its internal repression. Earlier uprisings in eastern Libya were put down ruthlessly. (This helps explain why the current insurrection against his rule has been most successful in that part of the country.) Nor was any opposition to the regime, however tame, tolerated. Gaddafi laid claim, interestingly enough, to having established a form of direct democracy in his country through a green revolution that had done away with the need for traditional political parties and elected institutions. Popular committees filled the void, controlled, to be sure, by regime loyalists, while Gaddafi himself, abjuring any formal office, exercised his authority as Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. An ubuesque world, made even more so by the ever-changing pronouncements and positions of the Brotherly Leader. Shades of Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and other regimes of a hard-line authoritarian bent.
In the evolution of the Libyan situation in recent years, high-profile Western intellectuals