I was almost certain we wouldn’t see much, if any, upheaval in Libya, and even wrote less than a week ago that only the very brave or the very stupid would dare stand up to Muammar Qaddafi’s totalitarian system. As Michael Rubin has pointed out, no country on earth aside from North Korea (and I’d add the possible exception of Turkmenistan) is more oppressive than the vast Libyan dungeon. Even Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party state is lax by comparison.
Hardly anyone in Libya could imagine standing up to, let alone overthrowing, Qaddafi just a few weeks ago, but Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak turned out to be much more vulnerable than anybody expected. They seemed to be pushed out of power so easily. It’s not true that if they can be overthrown that anyone can be overthrown, but the invincibility of the Arab police states has nevertheless been proved a myth. The fear that so grips the hearts of the Middle East’s peoples is breaking.
Some in the foreign-policy “realist” camp are concerned that the Arab revolt is only targeting the nominally “pro-American” states, but that’s not true anymore. The anti-American states are considerably more vicious and more likely to survive for that reason, but all the Arab rulers outside Lebanon and Iraq are despotic. (The real power in Lebanon — Hezbollah — is also despotic.)
The likelihood that all these tyrants will be swept away and replaced with parliamentary democracies is practically zero, but the Arab world has needed a powerful shaking up for a very long time and, for good or for ill, is finally getting it. No one knows where this is going, and nobody can control it. Let’s not pop the champagne corks or slit our wrists until things settle down.