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, executed their critics, and squandered national resources. By the 1980s, Islamist movements were gaining ground across the region, buoyed by Iran's Islamic Revolution and the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Arab societies turned more conservative, and Islamic movements dislodged pan-Arab and secular parties, exerting significant influence over cultural and personal life. In an effort to crush any challenge to their authority, the region's autocrats built elaborate security apparatuses aimed at both Islamists and secular opponents. The Arab liberation movement would end in betrayal, exile, and carnage.
Now, one by one, the strongmen have begun to teeter and fall. A new generation of revolutionaries has fostered a revitalized sense of pan-Arab identity united around demands for broad political and social rights. As the protests that began in Tunisia have spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, each uprising has been inspired by the others. A vanguard of civilian leaders is beginning to emerge from the revolts, and although they draw on some of the old Arab nationalist doctrines, such as anticolonial rhetoric and resistance to Israel, they are well aware of the failures of Qaddafi's generation.
At the height of Arab nationalist and pan-Arab fervor, leaders such as Nasser sought to mobilize political support across borders by appealing to the idea that Arabs are bound by a common language, culture, history, and political identity. Today's revolutionaries are using similar rhetoric in their struggle against authoritarianism. It is no accident that the crowds in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere have been largely peaceful and repeat the same Arabic slogan: Al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam ("The people want the fall of the regime"). Arabs are inspired by one another's methods and goals, and they no longer accept a social contract in which they effectively make peace with government repression, arbitrary laws, state-run media and censorship, and single-party rule, in exchange for security and stability. Instead, they demand justice, freedom, and dignity. "The people should not fear their government. Governments should fear their people," read a popular placard in Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this year.
The current Arab revolutions are different from those of the mid-twentieth century in one crucial way: They are not top-down movements like those that brought the autocrats to power. They are not being led or instigated by military men or charismatic figures. The age of the Arab strongmen is over, and although it remains unclear who or what will ultimately take their place, today's revolutionaries are redefining Arab nationalism by making it more populist and grassroots.
The Arab rebels of today should examine Qaddafi's legacy and avoid the pitfalls of the old nationalist movements. When Qaddafi rose to power, he personified Arab rejection of the vestiges of colonial rule. The son of a young Bedouin couple, he was raised near the desert settlement of Sirte. In his teenage years, even before enrolling in the Libyan military academy at the age of 19, he listened to Cairo Radio's program "The Voice of the Arabs" and memorized Nasser's speeches. In 1969, the Egyptian leader's anti-imperialist rhetoric impelled Qaddafi, then a 27-year-old captain, to lead a coup against King Idris, who had handed over Libya's newly discovered oil riches to Western companies that shared little of the wealth.
At first, the coup brought prosperity to ordinary Libyans. Qaddafi's regime forced foreign oil firms to relinquish majority stakes in Libya's oil fields and hand over larger shares of the earnings. Other leaders in the region followed Qaddafi's example and demanded concessions from the oil giants in the name of Arab nationalism. One of those leaders was Saddam Hussein: In the early 1970s, Saddam oversaw the seizure of Iraqi oil assets from foreign companies just as oil prices were beginning to soar. The windfall enabled him to modernize rural Iraq, distributing land to farmers and mechanizing agricultural production. Iraq would become one of the richest countries in the Arab world -- and one of the most repressive.
In the same way, Qaddafi built schools, housing, hospitals, roads, and highways. He led a campaign to expand free education and health care and tried to create new industries. In 1969, life expectancy in Libya was 51; today, it is 77. And although per capita annual income -- about $14,000 in 2010 -- is lower than that of other oil-producing states, it is significantly higher than neighboring Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia.
Despite this initial burst of prosperity, much of Libya's oil wealth, like Iraq's, was squandered or siphoned off by the dictator and his cronies. Like other Arab leaders of his generation, Qaddafi quickly became a despot. He suppressed all opposition with purges, public trials, torture, and executions. His operatives assassinated dissidents in European capitals, and he dragged Libya into a destructive conflict with its southern neighbor Chad. He also made serious enemies in the West in the 1970s and '80s by backing terrorist groups and individuals such as the Irish Republican Army, Germany's Red Army Faction, Abu Nidal, and Carlos the Jackal. After Libyan agents were implicated in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya, and Qaddafi became an international pariah.