By ANTHONY SHADID
DJERBA, Tunisia — The idealism of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, where the power of the street revealed the frailty of authority, revived an Arab world anticipating change. But Libya’s unfinished revolution, as inspiring as it is unsettling, illustrates how perilous that change has become as it unfolds in this phase of the Arab Spring.
Though the rebels’ flag has gone up in Tripoli, their leadership is fractured and opaque; the intentions and influence of Islamists in their ranks are uncertain; Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi remains at large in a flight reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s; and foreigners have been involved in the fight in the kind of intervention that has long been toxic to the Arab world.
Not to mention, of course, that a lot of young men have a lot of guns.
No uprising is alike, but Libya’s complexities echo in the revolts in Bahrain, Syria and, most of all, Yemen, suggesting that the prolonged transition of Arab countries to a new order may prove as tumultuous to the region as Egypt’s moment was stirring.
Unlike at the start of the year, when the revolutionary momentum seemed unstoppable, uncertainty is far more pronounced today, as several countries face the prospect of stalemate, sustained conflict or power vacuums that may render them ungovernable. Already in Yemen, militant Islamists have found a haven. Across the region, the repercussions of the uprisings are colliding with the assumptions of the older, American-backed system: control of oil, the influence of a reactionary Saudi Arabia, an Arab-Israeli truce, and the maintenance of order at the expense of freedom in a region that for decades has been, at least superficially, one of the world’s most stable.
In just the past week, Colonel Qaddafi lost his capital, Tripoli; the United States and European countries called on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to step down; the president of Yemen, still recovering from burns suffered in an attack, has promised to return; and the relationship between Egypt and Israel descended into crisis, to the jubilation of many Egyptians who saw a more assertive government as a windfall of Mr. Mubarak’s fall.
“There is going to be a transfer of power in our societies, and a new order has begun to take shape in the region,” said Michel Kilo, an opposition figure in Damascus, Syria.
Already, Israel has begun to face what it feared the revolts might unleash: foreign policies in the Arab world that reflect deep popular resentment over the plight of Palestinians. The most puritanical Islamists, known by their shorthand as Salafists, have emerged as a force in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with suspicions that Saudi Arabia has encouraged and financed them. Alliances have begun to be redrawn: Turkey and Syria’s growing partnership ruptured over Mr. Assad’s ferocious crackdown, which has provoked international condemnation but shows no signs of ending.
As with all the revolutions, the fall of the leaders will be seen as the easiest step in a long, rocky and wrenching struggle to build anew.
“The question of the successor government in Libya is going to prove far more difficult than ousting the old government,” said M. Cherif Bassiouni, an expert in international law who has led human rights commissions in Bahrain and Libya.
Nothing feels certain these days, not least in Egypt and Tunisia, and conversations about the uprisings often mention the French Revolution, which required long years to usher in a new order. No one talks in terms of months about these revolts, given the seismic forces at play, from the empowerment of Islamists to the economic trauma.
“We’re heading toward the unknown,” said Talal Atrissi, a political analyst in Lebanon. “The next era will witness battles and conflicts between actors inside countries bent on crushing each other and proving their existence on the political scene.”
“It will be full of challenges, large and severe,” he added.
As unpredictable as Libya’s revolution may prove, it still unleashed jubilation across the region. Yemen’s beleaguered government flooded the capital with troops over the weekend to stanch more demonstrations inspired by Colonel Qaddafi’s fall. On Al Jazeera, images of the Libyan leader were interspersed with lines from a song played during Egypt and Tunisia’s revolts: “I am the people, the people of honor and struggle,” sang Um Kalthoum, an Egyptian diva of another era. In Damascus, an activist saw the intertwined fates of Mr. Assad and Colonel Qaddafi, who in a defiant message broadcast Wednesday called the people who overthrew him rats and traitors.
“We don’t want a merciful end for Qaddafi and his sons,” said Aziz al-Arabi, a 30-year-old Syrian. “Please keep him alive. We’d love to see them humiliated.”
Across the region, young people who have driven the revolts have shared vocabulary as well as tactics. “Irhal,” or leave, has skipped from Egypt to Yemen and Bahrain, where in the streets of Sitra, strewn with rocks from nightly clashes with the police, protesters have made it plural — not only must the king go, but his family as well. Walls there read “silmiya,” or peaceful, recalling similar slogans in Syria. Residents there have imported the Egyptian term “baltagiya” to describe the state-sponsored thugs they face.
Iran’s revolution a generation ago was followed by a grinding war with Iraq, the birth of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the politicization of Shiite Muslims across the Persian Gulf. The Arab world is now embroiled in three revolutions (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) and three full-fledged revolts (Syria, Yemen, Bahrain).
“Sometimes instability is a necessary evil, and you need it to have stability,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a project of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and that is based in Qatar. “To dislodge a brutal dictator is going to require bloodshed.”
So far, Libya’s revolution seems the most uncertain. Even now, parallels are being drawn to the fall of Mr. Hussein, who cast a long shadow before he was captured over a country whose divisions deepened, then erupted into civil war. The remnants of his regime were long underestimated, by Americans and others, until they contributed to an insurgency that remains a searing lesson in imperial folly.
“Some compare post-Qaddafi Libya to post-Saddam Iraq,” wrote Bashir al-Bakr in the leftist Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. “The Libyans, according to that view, will not be in charge of their own decisions. They will find themselves shackled by heavy commitments, and they will lack the ability to escape them at the present.”
For many in the region, foreign intervention has deprived Libya’s revolt of the luster enjoyed by Egypt and Tunisia, inspiring suspicions, as in Iraq, that the West simply covets its oil. As Sateh Noureddine, a columnist, put it in another Lebanese newspaper, Al-Safir, NATO’s support “will not be for free, and Libya will pay for it.”
In that, he captured the ambiguity over what represents opposition these days in the Arab world, old labels defying their old assumptions. Syrian rebels denounce Hezbollah, which prides itself on its resistance to Israel. Bahrain withdrew its ambassador from Damascus as it carried out a crackdown on its Shiite majority that smacks of apartheid. And Colonel Qaddafi, in his message, praised his loyalists as revolutionary youths.
“Forward, forward,” he cried, his trademark refrain for never-ending struggle.
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
See online: After Arab Revolts, Reigns of Uncertainty