Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has become the third Arab leader to be deposed this year. The rulers of Yemen, Syria and Algeria are likely to be the most worried.
Opposition movements across the Arab world – and some in Africa – will be emboldened by the sight of another Arab dictator falling from power. Of course, every country is different and it seems unlikely that the Libya scenario - with foreign military intervention - will be repeated elsewhere. But the downfall of another member of the old generation of autocrats adds to the perception that there is a domino effect.
Although grievances had been building up in Libya for many years, some Libyan opposition figures have said that this year’s revolution would not have happened without the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. These provided inspiration, and also meant that the Libyan opposition had friendly countries on their eastern borders. Indeed, the first outward indication that unrest might spread to Libya came in January 2011, when Gaddafi called for the overthrown Tunisian president to be returned to power, in a rambling speech where he appeared somewhat shaken.
The events in Libya must be of particular concern to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria. Al-Jazeera reported that these three countries initially opposed the Arab League’s backing of a no-fly-zone over Libya, which is not surprising given their own domestic circumstances.
The opposition in Syria, where up to 2,000 people are reported to have been killed in this year’s uprising, now appears to be debating the efficacy and ethics of using violence or perhaps even calling for foreign military intervention – a deeply controversial option – in their own country. The apparent success of the attack on Tripoli may encourage the EU to agree on implementing sanctions on Syria’s oil, a key source of foreign currency for the Syrian government. This would certainly add to the pressure on Assad. But the continued impasse in Yemen, despite Saleh still being in Riyadh for medical treatment, demonstrates that a determined ruler can have a surprising capacity to withstand extremely severe economic, political and diplomatic pressure.
Meanwhile, Algeria’s 74-year-old president is increasingly isolated in a fast-changing North Africa. Bouteflika, so far, has not faced a mass uprising, but the ingredients – high unemployment, anger over corruption, disillusionment with an unrepresentative political system – are all there. Rather than carrying out serious reforms, the Algerian government has responded to the Arab unrest with a mixture of money and repression. Algerians may have been deterred by the memory of their 1990s civil war, and by the unsettling example of neighbouring Libya, given the violence and the fears of civil conflict there. Yet this could change in the next few years if the Libyan opposition is able to stabilise Tripoli and consolidate their control over the country.
For their part, the Gulf states have sought to distance themselves from Gaddafi (backing the no-fly zone and, in the case of the UAE and Qatar, participating in the intervention) and President Assad (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria in protest at the bloodshed there). Yet even in the Gulf states, some opposition activists will see Gaddafi’s ousting as a further indication of an inevitable, irreversible change in the relationship between the rulers and their increasingly educated, and increasingly informed people.
Finally, it is worth remembering that Gaddafi’s previous decision to give up plans for nuclear arms in return for a rapprochement with the West and an end to sanctions, has been held up as a model for Iran. So far, attempts to strike a deal have made little progress. But from Tehran today, the Gaddafi model must look less appealing than ever.
Project: Libya Working Group