Artillery shells and airstrikes, not placards and peaceful protests, sent Moammar Kadafi fleeing from his fortress: The Libyan uprising has made it clear that even the most brutal leaders may be endangered icons in a region reshaped since the first stirrings of revolt late last year.
The 6-month-old Libyan revolt tapped into the spirit of revolutions that swept Egypt and Tunisia, but its darker narrative sobered the early euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring. Libyan protesters began peacefully but were quickly confronted with the tactics of a leader who bombed hospitals and unleashed tanks on mosques.
There was worry that violent resistance would damp world support, especially after young Egyptians armed with Twitter accounts instead of assault rifles emerged as rebel darlings. That has not happened. As fighters backed by NATO warplanes roll into the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the rebels with their raised Kalashnikovs are the new heroes.
Their astonishing success — caught in real time on satellite television across the Middle East — may alter what unfolds in rebellions in Syria and Yemen, which have endured months of bloody crackdowns. It is not clear whether the dissidents in these nations will shift from peaceful disobedience to armed insurrection, but Libya has shown that the Arab Spring can be set to harsher rhythms.
Some detect such rumblings in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has battered protesters with tanks and gunboats, killing at least 2,200 people, according to the United Nations.
“There is a lot at stake, and the [Syrian] regime is giving no other alternative to the opposition except to resort to arms before it’s all over. We’re getting there,” said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. “There is an international reluctance to alter the regime in Syria. But if there is a determined opposition, the outside world will have to change.”
It appears there is no guaranteed survival strategy for a despot these days. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried force and then a veneer of compromise before he was toppled. Assad and to a lesser extent Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has backtracked on conciliatory gestures, have borrowed from Kadafi. But the protesters in Syria and Yemen have often been as tenacious in their largely peaceful pursuit as the guns and clubs raised against them.
Assad and Saleh are ignoring international condemnation in hope of outlasting the tumult. This is tricky; a top general in Yemen has defected from Saleh, taking his soldiers with him. Troops loyal to Saleh have been out in force in recent days because of fear that Kadafi’s fall may inspire new passions. Small numbers of Syrian soldiers have abandoned their ranks, and if the trend widens it could aid protesters in an armed uprising or spark a coup.
But Assad, unlike Mubarak, has the bulk of the military behind him and is determined to crush his opponents.
The danger is prolonged stalemates that could demoralize the opposition and jeopardize regional stability.
President Obama has urged Assad to step down and has asked Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from injuries suffered in a bomb attack by a rival clan, not to return to Yemen. The protesters are defiant, but so far many are wary about crossing the line into violence.
“There is no plan to take up arms,” said Wissam Nabhan, a member of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria in the town of Maaret Naaman, near the northwestern city of Idlib. “No one is considering it. It simply won’t work. It will only damage our movement.”
Nabhan said he hoped that international pressure, such as sanctions and diplomacy, will upend Assad. The Libyans, however, pleaded for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization no-fly zone that effectively stalled Kadafi’s war machine and propelled rebel advances. But in a region where many despise international military intervention as an echo of imperialism, the victory over Kadafi is tainted by the glimmer of Western warplanes overhead.
“We certainly wouldn’t want NATO to fight in Syria,” said Ziad Fares, a journalist in Idlib. “That will only create chaos and sectarian strife” between the majority Sunni Muslims and the ruling Shiite Muslim Alawite sect, which controls the military and to which the Assad family belongs.
The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq was regarded by many in the Middle East as another sign that Washington was suppressing the Arab states. But the intervention was more palatable for Libyans, who were steeped in the all-encompassing cult of Kadafi and a bit detached from the Arab world’s disdain for the United States and the West over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other passions.
Libya also did not have the strategic geographic and political importance of Syria and Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about what’s going on in Yemen because of the borders and many other tribal considerations,” said Mustafa Labbad, head of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
“Syria is the balancing force in the region,” Labbad said. “And while Gulf states and most Arab countries would want to see an end to Assad, still there would be supporters for him such as Iraq and Iran and even Israel, who’s afraid of the emergence of yet another new regime in the Middle East.”
Libya has shown, like Egypt before it, that the shattering of the existing order slips into messy and uncertain designs for the future
The new masters of Libya, a land of suspicion and fractious tribes Kadafi exploited for decades, are gun-toting rebels who may have disparate agendas when it comes to building a government and spending the country’s oil wealth. There is also fear of a burgeoning Islamic extremism if rebel leaders cannot tame chaos and instill unity.
Similar tribal divisions bristle in Yemen, and sectarian and religious differences are undercurrents in Syria. So far protesters in Syria and Yemen, which is brimming with guns and is the region’s poorest country, have trodden at the edges of these dynamics. Armed revolt against Yemen’s Saleh could ignite a civil war and provide the country’s Al Qaeda branch more entrenched footing.
There probably is trouble ahead, but the Libyan rebels’ toppling of the third Arab dictator this year has reenergized a protest movement.
“The Arab people are thinking that we will end this year with four or five leaders being toppled,” said Mohammed Masri, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.
“What is interesting is that the Arab Spring is like an internal force. It’s like the 1848 revolutions in Europe. It starts in France, then Austria. You can’t stop it — this is the important thing.”
Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo bureau and special correspondents Alexandra Sandels and Roula Hajjar in Beirut contributed to this report.