The Death of the Qaddafi Generation

The Era of Arab Strongmen Comes to an End

Courtesy Reuters

In March 2008, Muammar al-Qaddafi took the podium at an Arab League summit in Damascus to deliver one of his famously long-winded and rambling speeches. Halfway through, he issued a prophetic warning, berating the assembled heads of state for acquiescing to the overthrow and subsequent execution of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. "A foreign power occupies an Arab country and hangs its leader while we all stand watching and laughing," Qaddafi thundered. "Your turn is coming soon!"

The audience broke into laughter. As television cameras panned across the room, the summit's host, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, chuckled. Qaddafi continued, undeterred: "Even you, the friends of America. No, I will say we -- we, the friends of America. America might approve of our hanging one day." There was more laughter. 

They are not laughing now. Qaddafi was the last of the old-style Arab nationalist strongmen, and his death on Thursday marks the end of an era. His contemporaries were the likes of Saddam and of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad -- military men from poor families and hardscrabble towns who fought their way to the top, riding the wave of revolutionary sentiment that swept the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. Their inspiration was Egypt's charismatic military officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who overthrew the British-backed King Farouk in 1952. Nasser's rousing speeches, heard across the region via the newly invented transistor radio, kindled visions of Arab unity. It was a time of upheaval, in which the merchant and feudal elites -- the allies of the old European colonial powers -- were losing their grip. At first, Saddam, Qaddafi, and Assad seemed to embody a promising new era of populist reform.

Arab nationalism began to wane after the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, which left many Arabs feeling betrayed by their leaders. With Nasser's death three years later, the great hope of Arab unity was extinguished. Citizens figured out that their heroes had turned into corrupt, authoritarian despots who suppressed any opposition,

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