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Incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo stands after a meeting in Abidjan December 28, 2010. Three west African presidents met incumbent Ivory Coast leader Gbagbo on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum from the ECOWAS regional bloc to step down or face removal by force.

THIERRY GOUEGNON/Reuters

If Côte d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbagbo physically leaves the presidential office from which voters have ejected him by their ballots, democracy will have triumphed. So too will a muscular strategy to support democracy in places where it has not yet taken deep root.

The strategy is best illustrated by the active intervention by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Its 16 members, resolute in insisting Mr. Gbagbo step down, have mooted the idea of military force to remove him. It would not be an idle threat: ECOWAS has in the last 20 years intervened with soldiers in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and once before in Côte d'Ivoire, to help unseat tyrants or keep peace.

Much has been made of the cleavages within Côte d'Ivoire – the duly elected president, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim with a power base in the north of the country, while Mr. Gbagbo is a southern Christian. But ECOWAS itself is united across these differences; Goodluck Jonathan, its chair, is the Christian President of Nigeria, the region's largest power.

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The UN Security Council has played a complementary role in making life difficult for Mr. Gbagbo. The UN's operation in Côte d'Ivoire had a large mandate, from monitoring the election to dismantling militias. By now doubling as a personal guard for Mr. Ouattara and his government in waiting (surely not part of its original calculation), it has taken a brave stand, preventing Mr. Gbagbo from beating the opposition into submission.

International pressure alone, though, will not force respect for an election result. Thousands of Ivorians have stood by their votes with additional acts of courage, demonstrating in the streets or withdrawing work after Mr. Ouattara's call for a general strike, and hundreds have died.

Mr. Gbagbo's grip is weakening, but he may take heart from the case of Robert Mugabe, who is still President of Zimbabwe in a power-sharing relationship with the weaker Morgan Tsvangirai, though he lost the first round of a 2008 presidential election to Mr. Tsvangiari. But the strategically applied pressure on Côte d'Ivoire, from without and within, means that Mr. Gbagbo should not get his hopes up.

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