They voted with their feet.
And in doing so, they helped to force Mr. Qaddafi to flee his final stronghold into the hands of fighters for a Libyan democracy.
Such freedom to choose or reject one’s leaders remains the essence of the Arab awakening. That point was made not only in Libya again on Thursday, but it will also be on display Sunday in Tunisia, one of Libya’s neighbors. Tunisians – who ignited the Arab Spring nine months ago – will hold the first free, multiparty elections since the regional uprising began.
To sustain the ongoing Arab revolutions, principles matter. Many of Sirte’s civilians were simply fleeing the battle over their city, but both Libya’s transitional government and NATO went out of their way to hold their fire and set up a siege that would allow the people to leave. That strategic patience, driven by a reverence for life, was in stark contrast to Qaddafi’s threat in March to strike the rebel-held city of Benghazi – a threat that justified NATO’s military intervention.
In Tunisia, Sunday’s election has been set up to be fair and transparent, even including a welcome mat for international poll-watchers. Political activists were given extra time to form political parties – just one part of building the necessary institutions for a stable democracy.
The vote will set up a 218-seat assembly to write a constitution. While the election will be important in measuring the strength of the popular Islamist party, An-Nahda (The Renaissance), its greater significance is as yet another powerful template for the Arab world.
Given the violence and street confrontations in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, along with the uncertainty over Egypt’s elections, Tunisia needs to be the leading example for the long road to representative government. It already set the model for peacefully overthrowing the authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
President Obama says the United States has “enormous stake” in a “successful outcome” in Tunisia. But it is Arabs who have the greatest stake in the progress of events in liberated Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. With each principled step comes more freedom.