It was one thing for the Arab world to watch as two of its strongmen were ousted by popular protest within weeks of each other. That was shocking enough.
It’s been quite another to watch a third — by far the most brutal of them — bloodied, battered, and then dead; his body later displayed like a trophy and photographed by dozens for posterity.
You can be certain though that the gruesome images of Moammar Gadhafi’s final moments have been contemplated by many in the Middle East with grim satisfaction. And it isn’t only because he has long been viewed as a lunatic and an embarrassment to the region as a whole.
It is also because the Arab people have been largely sympathetic to the uprisings that have swept the region, not least that of the Libyans. No surprise, most of them can relate to the motives behind the revolts: they too have had to live with the utter lack of freedom, authoritarian cruelty, and economic stagnation that come with autocratic, Arab despotism.
And just like the Libyans were inspired by their neighbours' ousting of their leaders, others still fighting for their freedom will be inspired by Gadhafi’s ghastly demise.
Added to the fall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, you can just imagine the hope it all brings for what’s possible in their own countries. Almost instantly after the news broke, Syrians active online dispatched congratulations to the Libyans, praying that their turn was next.
"You’ve had your day of justice. We hope ours will come soon," said one tweet.
It is the kind of inspiration that George W. Bush's administration had hoped for in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture, but didn't get.
Though many Iraqis celebrated at the time, it was still Americans who "got him." And in a region wildly sensitive to foreign —read Western — intervention, that did not sit well. And neither did Bush's insistence that Iraq's liberation was the start of an "Arab spring."
There was foreign intervention in Libya’s case too, you might argue. And it may be that NATO bombs are what won the day. Yet there were few cries of foul.
Because it was Libyans who asked for that intervention, repeatedly, and insisted that it come from the skies, and not on the ground as in Iraq’s case. And only after thousands of them kept coming back to face Gadhafi’s aircraft and 14 mm bullets in Benghazi, and only after they had first liberated that city themselves.
And, one might add, only after several key defections, including the first, that of Mustapha abd al Jalil. Once Gadhafi’s justice minister, he went on to form the National Transitional Council, the body which unified the anti- Gadhafi voice at the time, and called on the world to save Benghazi from annihilation.
So if the Libyans themselves hadn’t risen up in the first place, NATO wouldn’t have considered intervening, and Gadhafi would almost certainly still be alive and in charge.
A valuable lesson
That’s the lesson the Arab world takes away from Gadhafi’s fall, and it’s a valuable one.
Many if not most in the Arab world likely believe it was the Libyans who "got" Gadhafi.
In those pictures he was surrounded by Libyan fighters, not foreign troops. It is precisely the image — if not the exact circumstances — that both the NTC and NATO wanted right from the start, to avoid the Iraq mistake and the baggage that came with that.
Among Arabs those nuances count for a lot. And so those images will undoubtedly breathe new life into the flagging uprisings in Syria and Yemen. They will also give pause to the autocrats who still rule them.
Arab editorials in today's papers openly wondered who would be next in what they now willingly call the Arab Spring, and what might be on the minds of the possible candidates as they watched Gadhafi’s final moments.
It is a very different Arab world than it was when Saddam was caught. This Arab Spring, sparked singlehandedly by a desperate Tunisian young man, is all about people, and therefore legitimate in the eyes of most of the region. The old rules lurk behind the scenes, but they are weakening as the people continue to press for substantive change.
Even in countries where there has been no large scale protest, old regimes have clamoured to introduce change. Saudi Arabia would not have given women the right to vote and run in municipal elections without the Arab revolts. Jordan has had two governments resign in the span of months in the name of introducing reform.
A messy affair
The Arab Spring has been a messy affair, and it will continue to be, and in some countries, spring may never come. But in each of those countries where it has or will, it unfolds differently — as evidenced by those affected so far — and with different speeds and efficacy.
Having world powers on your side certainly seems to help--whether it's moral or military. In future, other revolutions may or may not involve foreign intervention, and we may yet see an example that involves only regional intervention, without the involvement of Western powers.
But the one common, requisite ingredient in all of them has been a willing people. People who have broken the barrier of fear, who refuse to remain silent — even after they might have managed to fell longstanding regimes, as in Egypt's case.
After now watching three strongmen fall in successively higher degrees of humiliation, you can bet the continuing uprisings will have a renewed momentum.
There are people who are still very willing and determined to bring about change, even oust their own leaders, complicated and as deadly fraught as it might be. It’s just a matter of how they will make it happen.