Accessibility links

Gadhafi Death Has Repercussions for Arab Spring

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Fighters with Libya's interim government celebrate at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli October 20, 2011.

Fighters with Libya's interim government celebrate at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli October 20, 2011.

The killing of Libya's ex-leader Moammar Gadhafi may prove a cautionary tale to autocrats in the region who face uprisings of their own. But Gadhafi's death will have the most immediate impact on the transition in Libya itself.

It was a bloody end to a bloody rule.

The images of Gadhafi apparently set upon by his enemies and dragged through the streets signaled a new and violent twist to the uprisings sweeping the Arab world this year.

Image taken from amateur video posted on a social media website and obtained by Reuters, October 21, 2011, shows former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, covered in blood, after his capture by NTC fighters in Sirte.

The first of the region's ousted strongmen, Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled into exile. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was put behind bars. Those upheavals, as well as Libya's, have been keenly watched by protesters in Yemen, Syria and beyond.

"The killing of Gadhafi, the dictator, is sending a shock wave to the burdened president of Yemen, who still wants to stay in power," said political analyst Said Sadek, a professor of politics and sociology at the American University in Cairo, "and Syrian president [Bashar al] Assad who would now see that the three top dictators of the Arab world, Mubarak, [Zine el Abidine] Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gadhafi, are gone. And not to mention [Iraq's] Saddam Hussein in 2003. I think now they will have nightmares."

Advantages versus disadvantages

But the killing of a longtime ruler can bring problems of its own.

While numerous other factors come into play, Saddam's execution helped rally his supporters, amplifying the sectarian violence that plagues the country to this day. Tunisia, on the other hand, has moved far more quickly toward a new order, holding elections Sunday.

Rania al Malki, a political analyst and editor in Cairo, argues there may be advantages to a death like Gadhafi's over a trial or exile.

"I think his death means closure," Malki said. "We have sensed the constant lack of closure in a place like Egypt. Our former president is being tried and this has kept an open wound opened for a very long time. And it will, because it reminds people again and again of what happened before and of the martyrs that were killed during the uprising."

It's a point, she argues, even more important in Libya, where the death toll was so much higher, and prolonging the suffering of public reminders would be worse.

Cairo professor Sadek says there may also be political and security advantages to the way events unfolded in Libya.

"This rationale is that if you don't get rid of those old regimes and its leading members they will cause havoc and they will destabilize the country," Sadek said. "I think what happened [Thursday] is very good for the transitional council in Libya. It will open the gate for the new political process. It would also undermine any support of the old supporters of Gadhafi to continue the war and continue causing trouble for the Libyan people."

Moving forward

The death of Gadhafi also means one of the common causes uniting the opposition forces now set to run Libya is gone.

"It's going to have to go through a period of lack of clarity," Malki said. "It's going to have to go through a period of internal strife and struggle, but also at the same time there's going to have to be a lot of internal dialogue for the Libyan people to decide how they want to see their country built, which direction they want to go, and how they want to renew their entire system and create new institutions."

Malki calls the next immediate future a "teething stage," one that any country that has gone through what she terms "this horrible ordeal" would have to endure.

But at this point, both Malki and Sadek believe the shared misery of the past and its irrevocable closure, will help bind Libyans enough to reach some kind of compromise on the way forward.