By any rational standard, it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago. Maybe soon they all will be: One conflict ended April 11 in the Ivory Coast. But the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved. After all, we ask ourselves: Why don't Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh take the offers of comfortable exile apparently extended to them and leave? It would probably be better for their physical safety, and for their bank accounts. Following weeks of fighting and bargaining and demonstrations, what more do they have to prove?
That sort of reasoning assumes that what divides these strongmen from their adversaries are issues as benign and susceptible to compromise as, say, Medicare and tax rates. But these men are not horse-trading politicians as such; they have been fighting for something far more age-old, basic, and less susceptible to compromise: territory and honor, at least as they define it. Their world is not one of institutions and bureaucracies through which they rule; it is a world of dominating scraps of ground through dependence on relatives and tribal and regional alliances.
In such a world, figures like the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, are without virtue. They ruled in the Western style through institutions and bureaucracies, and when those institutions -- the military and the internal security services -- refused to shoot people in the streets, those leaders had no choice but to meekly resign and quickly go into internal or external exile, perhaps without having made the deals necessary for their protection afterward.
Of course, in moral terms, a figure like Gbagbo is especially despicable. To satisfy his ego, he has brought the Ivory Coast to the brink of anarchy. I am not excusing him, but merely trying to partly explain him. In his mind, he fought an election and garnered close to half the votes. And those votes were not because of his position on this or that social or economic issue, but because of what he represented tribally and regionally: He is a southerner from the non-Muslim south of the country. To give in too soon would have been to betray his regional and religious solidarity groups. In places without sufficient economic development, like the Ivory Coast, elections often end up reifying differences based on blood and belief. To fight it out until he was cornered in the basement of his palace, and even then, for his opponents to have to call on the French to help dislodge him, is not a sign of moral weakness from his point of view, but of manly virtue. (The same, of course, might be said of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gunfight with U.S. troops near Mosul in 2003 -- except that they, the spoiled-brat, gangsterish sons of the Stalinesque ruler, were by no means self-made men. Thus, they belong in a lower category of specimen than Gbagbo, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)