There's more than one way to topple a tyrant. When the Arab Spring began to wilt this summer, when the largely peaceful protests that took down dictators in Tunis and Cairo seemed to have no effect on despots in Manama and Sana'a, when smart people were predicting that the region's revolution would fade, it fell to the ragtag army of rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi to find another way.
It wouldn't be hip: the Berber guerrillas of the Nafusa Mountains didn't pause to set up Facebook pages as they swept into the plains south and west of Tripoli. It wouldn't be telegenic: the rebel leaders in Benghazi could find no Libyan Wael Ghonim to articulate their aspirations in neat little sound bites for a global TV audience. It would be very bloody: estimates of the death toll from six months of seesaw battles range from 9,000 to 15,000. And it wouldn't be entirely an Arab effort, because NATO bombers and drones would play a key part.
No matter. It worked. The Gaddafi regime is broken. While resistance from loyalists could well persist, the Arab Summer now has a victory no less remarkable than the two before. Nobody is more surprised than the rebels themselves. Three days after they took Tripoli's iconic Green Square, many fighters wandered around, firing their Kalashnikovs and antiaircraft guns into the air in celebration and wearing expressions more incredulous than triumphant. The square was to have been the venue for a Sept. 1 celebration of Gaddafi's 42nd year in power. Now it honored the men who had taken him down. Green Square had been renamed Martyrs' Square. A little chest thumping seemed entirely appropriate. "O Tunisians! O Egyptians! O Arabs!" a rebel fighter intoned as he looked into a TV camera and held aloft an old rifle. "Look what [we] Libyans have done."
What will they do next? No one has any illusions about the difficulties ahead. Even as rebel fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21, Mahmoud Gebril, their de facto Prime Minister and a leader of the National Transitional Council (NTC), urged them to be restrained and responsible, especially in their treatment of Gaddafi loyalists. At a press conference in Doha, Qatar, two days later, he tried to allay fears of bloody revenge taking by his fighters. "We will build a new Libya, with all Libyans as brothers," he said.
Having arrived at liberation on its own path, Libya faces the kind of skepticism about its future that attends its newly free neighbors. The concerns are familiar: a tribal war could break out between clans that had supported the dictator and those that had opposed him; the rebel leadership lacks figures of national appeal; the country, long led by one man with an iron will, has weak, unreliable institutions. "The minute Gaddafi is captured or killed, there will be competition between different groups for ownership of the revolution, and it's not clear the NTC is in a position to preside over the transition," says Rosemary Hollis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at City University London. "There will be a struggle for power, with some bloody elements."