Arab leaders don’t relish attacking one of their own. But bloodshed across Libya and Western pressure have forced them into supporting international airstrikes against Col. Moammar Kadafi, who in many ways is merely a caricature of monarchies and autocrats throughout the Middle East.
The Arab League urged the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Now, with French warplanes and U.S. Tomahawk missiles streaking across the North African sky, the league is criticizing the air assault as Arab kings and presidents confront decades-old ironies, religious animosities and fears they will be blamed for siding with Western imperialism.
There are concerns that foreign intervention may reignite Islamic radicalism that so far has not resonated with largely secular protest movements not rooted in religion or ideology. Kadafi has few sympathizers in the region but rallying against him is likely to pose credibility problems for regimes attempting to calm growing dissent at home.
It is a potent combination that highlights the hypocrisy and dangers of Arab politics. The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the Sunni-led nations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, condemned Kadafi’s regime for killing dissidents even as Saudi troops assisted Bahraini security forces last week in a deadly crackdown against Shiite Muslim protesters.
“It’s a double standard,” said Mohammed Tajer, a lawyer defending detained protesters in Bahrain. “The Arab League consists of dictatorships that want to protect their own interests.”
Islamists, who have found scant traction in the region in recent years, have accused Arab leaders of confronting Kadafi to appease the West. They have conjured the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to suggest that Arab capitals are complicit in a Washington-inspired scheme to dominate the Muslim world.
It is not only religious conservatives and extremists who worry about the troubling pattern of Western intervention in Middle East affairs.
The members of the Arab League “have overlooked their own backyards, where discontent is brewing and similar kind of rebellion is already knocking at their doors,” Ajaz Ahmed wrote in the Arab News in Saudi Arabia. “They need to work out a solution … instead of involving the foreign forces, which have a history of occupying Arab lands.”
On Sunday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who a week ago led the call for military action, criticized the withering airstrikes on Kadafi’s forces. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”
Libya has become the dark side of the burgeoning Arab spring. The idiosyncratic and provocative Kadafi has exasperated and threatened Arab leaders for decades. He is an easy man to demonize, providing regional capitals with a bit of diplomatic cover for supporting international action. His forces have targeted hospitals and indiscriminately bombed civilians in rebel-held eastern Libya.
There have been no “demonstrations against the no-fly zone in any Arab city,” said Mustafa Alani, director of the Gulf Research Center in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai. “People might not like it but the only other option is to allow a civil war to develop in Libya; you’re going to create another Somalia. They don’t like military intervention, but in this case it is seen as the lesser evil.”
That attitude is different from the mood in 2003, when tens of thousands of protesters in Egypt and other countries marched against their governments’ tacit support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Those demonstrations were not targeted at toppling regimes; the protests today are more volatile and the leaders more desperate.
“Countries like Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Syria are in a delicate situation,” said Mustafa Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “They’re afraid of setting a new trend in the region that could backlash on them. They wouldn’t want to see foreign powers aiding rebels against their regimes. They also don’t want the prospect of another Iraq.”
So sensitive is attacking another Arab country that most leaders are saying little about their roles in enforcing the no-fly zone. Qatar has publicly offered its military to help in airstrikes. Saudi Arabia and other nations have been more reticent. It is not clear if weapons or aircraft from any Arab country will be tapped by a coalition coordinated by the U.S. and Europe.
The Kadafi dilemma is the latest and most dangerous challenge to the region’s established order. The leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have been overthrown. The police in Bahrain and Yemen are shooting protesters. The Arab world, which has been loath to change for generations, is confronting an unsettling burst democratic fervor that is tearing down icons and demanding free elections.
Kadafi has drawn rebuke from Cairo to Dubai. Arab leaders have not been as harsh in criticizing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s attacks on protesters. More than 40 Yemeni demonstrators were shot and killed by security forces on Friday after weeks of spiraling unrest.
Bahrain’s violent response to protests underlines another issue roiling the Middle East: the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The Arab world is dominated by Sunni regimes, including Bahrain’s, which was startled in February when the majority Shiite population rose up over discrimination and issued calls for reform. Protesters have complained that Arab governments have not condemned Bahrain’s tactics.
Yemen and Bahrain are strategically more important to Washington and Arab interests than Libya, despite the latter’s vast oil supplies.
Saleh is cooperating with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to defeat an Al Qaeda organization that threatens to export terrorism throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf and is regarded by Arab nations as a counter to Shiite Iran’s growing regional influence.
Some analysts suggest the Arab world should be more active in policing its neighborhood rather than relying on Western help, which often leads to failed policies and recriminations.
“The Arabs should participate militarily in the no-fly zone [over Libya] and so far they have not because they are reluctant to do so, they want someone else to do it for them,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “That is not the right position.”
Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo bureau and special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.