The Middle East deck just got reshuffled – again.
Al-Jazeera is reporting that Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi has been killed. Footage on YouTube confirms that fact: a single clip of a quite dead Qaddafi, bare chested, lying on the ground with his eyes open and mouth finally shut. No one likes to see a fellow human dead—no, scratch that. This is a welcome sight. Libya’s future is still a huge question mark. Someone worse than Qaddafi might take his place. The country could splinter into warring factions, al-Qaeda might set up bases there. All things are possible, but this much is true: with Qaddafi and his thugocracy in charge, everything was impossible.
The Libyan people have decisively, for the time being, won their freedom. What they and the surrounding powers do with it is up for grabs, but it is a new beginning.
As for the West, it is a time to embrace this new beginning. The fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched down there earlier this week on a brief trip shows the importance the United States places in the oil rich land. (Coincidence that Qaddafi turns up dead two days after Clinton rolled into Tripoli? Maybe those Obama people really are badass…).
Western leaders who tried to cozy up to Qaddafi should look at his corpse and learn. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it’s that dictatorships are a bad bet. Even dictators with boatloads of petrol and cash. The party inevitably ends, and never well.
What does this mean for the rest of the Middle East freedom movements? As our contributor Micah Halpern pointed out, Qaddafi’s overthrow does not necessarily mean Bashar Assad in Syria will be easy to oust. In August he outlined the differences:
.. it is almost ludicrous to even think about applying the lessons learned from Libya to the events that are still unfolding in Syria.
The first and most important difference between Libya and Syria is weaponry. The opposition in Syria has almost no weapons; the opposition in Libya is well armed. They are not well trained and their weapons are not of the highest caliber, but compared to the paltry supply the Syrians have, the Libyans boast impressive firepower.
The second and almost as important difference is military intelligence. The opposition in Libya benefited from the aid of British and French special forces and intelligence operatives and from intelligence gathering provided them by the United States, France and England. The opposition in Syria is on its own. In addition to having no weapons and training, they have no friends lending them military support or feeding them crucial intelligence.
While the world cheered on Libyan opposition forces, Syria’s opposition forces have few friends, no leverage and no power. They are cannon fodder for the Syrian military.
Col. Muammar Gadhafi was almost universally disdained — his rhetoric, his female bodyguards, his total disregard for human life, his active participation in acts of terror. Over the years, Gadhafi successfully offended and alienated so many people, not only in the West and but also in the Arabic world, that even Arabs wanted to oust him. He also considered himself to be an African rather than an Arab, and that also greatly upset his Arab-leader colleagues.
In the West there was a wall-to-wall coalition supporting the ousting of Gadhafi. That support spread to significant parts of the Arab leadership. Even the Arab League called for the fall of the Libyan dictator.
Assad, on the other hand, is a gentlemanly despot: educated, a physician, forced to obey his father’s orders and take up the mantle of thugocracy after the death of his brother. The beginnings of the uprising against Assad were almost totally ignored by the world media.
There has yet to be any orchestrated international protest or public outcry censoring or criticizing Assad. There are no Syrian groups in exile pushing for their freedom or lobbying for their cause on the airwaves. In contrast, there was an almost constant barrage of Libyans in exile begging for international assistance and keeping their cause alive in the media.
And what does it mean for Israel?
Libya never took part in any of the major wars against Israel, but it did provide financial and other backing for Palestinian terror groups over the years. Anti-Israel sentiment in Libya is high. This despite the fact that one indelible footnote to the Libyan Revolution was the boost it received when a young Israeli, Noy Alloshe, posted a video mocking Qaddafi for his “Zenga Zenga” speech. That video went viral and helped further remove the fear associated with the dictator.
But in the political realm, overtures Israel made to support the rebels were rejected. If you want to read some chilling language, see the comments from Libyans following a YouTube post by a Libyan Jew who returned to Tripoli to restore a synagogue there. The man barely escaped with his life. As we reported on October 10:
David Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi was ousted in a rebellion, agreed Sunday to return to Rome on a military transport scheduled to leave Tuesday, according to The Jerusalem Post.
On Yom Kippur eve, hundreds of protesters called for Gerbi’s deportation and carried signs reading “There is no place for the Jews in Libya,” The Jerusalem Post reported. The protesters attempted to forcibly remove Gerbi from his central Tripoli hotel, he told the Post, but were stopped by hotel and Libyan security, and government officials.
Gerbi began trying to clean up the site of the Dar al-Bishi synagogue earlier this month but said he was forced to leave the site by armed men. He said since then he has been holed up in his hotel room.
He said he had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders to clean up the site.
Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, had told Reuters that he was applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community and planned to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.
Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.
Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.
As in Egypt and elsewhere, years of propaganda have brainwashed entire populations against Israel and Jews. Repairing that damage will take time.
In the meantime, Israelis will likely take away at least two lessons from Qaddafi’s death: In the digital age, you can use the tools of social media and the Web to communicate directly with once hostile populations. And, in the roiling cauldron of the Middle East, there is little reason to rush into agreements with so-called leaders who by tomorrow may be naked and dead on YouTube.
Gilad Shalit is free and Moammar Qaddafi is dead—not a bad way to start a new year.
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