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What Impact Could Gaddafi’s Death Have on Arab Spring Unrest?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The execution of Col. Muammar Gaddafi earlier this week closes one chapter on Libya’s version of the “Arab Spring” movement. Where the country goes from here, and what the other members of the movement learn from the overthrow of Gaddafi, is likely, however, to be the more difficult part of the story. Now that NATO has ostensibly achieved its goal in Libya, some Syrians are calling for international backing to their efforts to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Others question whether Gaddafi’s violent end, which leaves no opportunity to hold him accountable for four decades of oppressive rule, will quell the chaos that has enveloped that country for the past several months.

As Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a New York Times column Thursday, that Gaddafi’s death provides clues to “the real risks of chaos and extremism” that could spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. “Democracy is about much more than removal of dictators and elections,” he wrote. “The rule of law, due process, human rights and the vital need for a democratic culture is yet to emerge in the region.” Particularly troubling, he added, was the way Gaddafi’s body has been handled and the mobile-phone recording of his capture and, later, his corpse. What will Libyan’s learn from Gaddafi’s rise, rule and fall?

Gaddafi’s death does, of course, offer one example of what happens to leaders who appear to lose their grip on reality, believing that they are still supported by their people and blaming outsiders for stirring rebellion. Speaking to Scientific American in August as Gaddafi’s power was slipping away, Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs, and director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University, said, “It’s quite clear that the rebels are in control, but things will not really be fully clarified until Gaddafi is either killed, forced to surrender when there’s no one left around him or goes down in a blaze of bullets.” Clarity, unfortunately, will have to wait at least a little while longer.

Gaddafi became the second Middle Eastern dictator to escape accountability through death, after the equally hectic execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2006. The process of holding Gaddafi accountable could have played an important role in Libya’s reconciliation, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a writer about Arab issues in the United Arab Emirates and a nonresident fellow at the Dubai School of Government, wrote in The New York Times on Thursday. It remains to be seen what impact the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will have on that country’s fortunes.

Gaddafi’s death suggests some parallels between his legacy and that of another famously anti-American leader—Osama bin Laden—both of whom became victims of revenge. Their deaths seem to satisfy not just the need to right a wrong—they also provide individuals with a measure of relief as well as a means of deterrence of future harm. “[Revenge is] designed to deter individuals from imposing costs on you in the future after that individual has imposed costs on you in the first place,” Michael McCullough, a psychology professor and director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami, told Scientific American following the killing of bin Laden in May.

Some speculate that Gaddafi’s end could re-invigorate remnants of the Arab Spring in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. As Reuters reported, some Syrian demonstrators have been heard shouting, “Gaddafi is finished. It is your turn now Bashar!” Yet Syria’s situation is quite different from Libya’s, cautions Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. As Hamid pointed out in The New York Times, 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,” he added.

In the end, Libyans must live with the outcome of their revolt against Gaddafi. Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, wrote recently in the Times that the best way for them to do this for “NATO to withdraw immediately and for the U.S. and its allies to back off in word and in deed.”

Image courtesy of DefenseImagery.mil

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jgrosay 8:52 am 10/24/2011

    I guess “execution” is not an appropiate word for the Gaddafi’s death. Murder looks closer to the real facts.

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  2. 2. swelswel 12:58 pm 10/31/2011

    Muslim Country which have oil rich and also anti America .If they want to live .They should purchased Atom Bomb from North Korea and also Missile form North Korea. If NATO or United State of America attack on them. They should fire missile on London , New york and all supporters . After Saddam Husein and Qaddafi and 1000000 Afghan person murder.Now Your number Iran, Saudi ARAB, Serra ….etc…

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