In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and even Egypt, the Arab Spring has taken a turn for the worse. Revolutions, it turns out, are quite difficult to pull off. Qaddafi’s death, then, provides a welcome moment of relief and celebration for Libyans. In case they forgot, Syrians and Bahrainis will remember, if only briefly, that autocracies may last for 42 years, but they do not last forever. But this is where the good news ends. Qaddafi’s demise provides a momentary boost, but little else.
Libya, though, does provide a model. And the death of Qaddafi is a reminder that whatever the Libyans did, they did it relatively well, and now they have the opportunity to build their country almost literally from scratch. One thing they did was take up arms. The other thing they did was call—sometimes plead—for foreign military intervention. And they got it.
If anything, these are the lessons most likely to linger in the minds of Syrian protesters. Without foreign intervention, Libyans would not be enjoying their newfound freedom. In recent weeks, more Syrians have been entertaining the notion of not only violent resistance, but of imposed no-fly zones, arms transfers, safe havens and even ground troops. The Libya model is only really relevant to the extent that it can be replicated, and it is unclear that it can.
Libya, then, may be the exception that proves the rule. If they have the stomach for it, brutal dictators can still get away with murder. The Arab spring hasn’t altered that sad and sobering reality. This was billed as the era of nonviolent change. But that narrative looks likely to be eclipsed by one that is much messier and morally ambiguous. Qaddafi, after all, never did get his trial. But I doubt that’s what is on the minds of most Libyans today.