Arab world divided on Libya no-fly zone

The Arab world is largely supportive of Libya's rebels and a no-fly zone to protect them, but is unsure how it feels about Western intervention on their behalf.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A pro-Qaddafi protester holds a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as a group of protesters try to block the path of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as he leaves the Arab League headquarters on his way to Tahrir Square, after meeting with Arab League chief Amr Moussa, in Cairo March 21.

The US and allied bombing raid that began this weekend opened a floodgate of competing emotions across the Arab world, which supports the Libyan rebels but is wary of more Western intervention in the region.

Arabs are watching the strikes against Muammar Qaddafi's regime with a blend of relief for the help to outgunned rebels, trepidation about ulterior motives of Western intervention, and envy in volatile countries where calls for international backup have gone unheeded.

The Arab League initially supported the campaign but began to back away Sunday, calling a crisis meeting after the group's chief, Amr Moussa, told reporters that the league had endorsed a no-fly zone, not bombings. The confusion over what a no-fly zone entails persisted among ordinary Arabs, too, as Libyan state television reported at least 48 civilian casualties, a figure that couldn't be independently verified.

"My whole generation grew up with Desert Fox in '98 all the way up to the Iraq war, and then the Israeli occupation as well, so that tends to feed into a desire not to see Western political or military intervention," said Heba Morayef, of the Cairo office of Human Rights Watch. "In the case of Libya, however, it's more complicated."

In a region where news of Western warplanes striking a Muslim nation typically elicits rage and vows of revenge, the initial support for Operation Odyssey Dawn shows just how isolated Qaddafi had become in the Middle East.

President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, another pariah state, is a lone voice in support of Qaddafi, perhaps fearful of a similar uprising at home.

Few others in the region would miss the flamboyant colonel, who appeared to take delight in berating and goading fellow leaders. He has a long history of stunts at the annual Arab Summit, such as smoking cigars on the conference room floor to show contempt for the speakers or trading insults with the Saudi king in a fight so heated that it had to be taken off the air.

"Usually, Arab rulers tolerate each other, no matter how idiotic they are, in order to survive," said Mohamed Qahtani, a Saudi human rights activist. "But the guy is insane, there's no question about it. He's unacceptable in every way."

The tiny Persian Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates reportedly are taking part in the Libya campaign. In contrast, Gulf countries are silent or complicit in attacks on protesters in Bahrain and Yemen, where dozens have died in the past week. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to help defend the Bahraini government, and there's little uproar over Yemen's vicious campaign against rebels.

Atiaf al Wazir, a Yemeni-American blogger and activist who lives in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, said she's against Western intervention in Yemen now that she's seen bombs fall on Tripoli. She added that Qaddafi is a "brutal tyrant" who left rebels a choice of slaughter or outside assistance.

"I have mixed feelings about the Western military action against Qaddafi, but if I were in Libya, I would've called for the same help," al Wazir said. "I don't think Libya is going to turn into another Iraq. This is different – the Libyans are actually calling for Western military action. In Iraq, there was no invitation."

Syrian authorities have sealed off an entire town to contain the revolt emerging against one of the region's most repressive regimes, but the protests barely registered amid the nonstop media coverage of Libya. Egypt's historic referendum Saturday – the first polls since a popular uprising led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last month – likewise received short shrift.

In Tunisia, where the overthrow of a corrupt dictator in January launched the so-called "Arab spring," many expressed solidarity with the Libyan opposition on Sunday – but some were suspicious of the true goals of Western intervention.

Others noted bitterly that the US and Western powers haven't stepped in to support other popular revolts in the Arab world, and some wondered whether protecting Libya's massive oil resources was the real reason for the military campaign.

"Why Libya and why not Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, or Egypt? I hope they have humanitarian objectives and it isn't about oil," said Khaled Chaker, a nurse who was sipping espresso at an outdoor cafe.

Chaker and his two friends said the US-led invasion of Iraq began with a no-fly zone and worried that Libya would go down the same track. Qaddafi is determined to stay in power – "like Hitler," Chaker said – and would force the Western allies into a drawn-out campaign.

Supporters of the rebels choose their words carefully when expressing relief over the Western involvement, pointing to Bosnia as a precedent rather than Iraq or Afghanistan. In 1993, NATO enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia to protect civilians from Serbian offensives. That intervention lasted two and a half years.

Libyan activists also stress that Qaddafi was the first to drag foreigners into the fight, dispatching African mercenaries to fire on peaceful demonstrators.

"The person dropping bombs on cities is Qaddafi, not the West," said Masoud Buisir, a Libyan composer who left Cairo on Sunday to join the rebels in his home country. "It's a relief that the international community acted, even if it's a little bit late. They're here to help us, and we appreciate it."

(Allam reported from Cairo, Bengali from Tunis, Tunisia. Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed from Alexandria, Egypt.)

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.