The offer of Arab nations to participate in the military operation against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi has taken many experts by surprise.
The United Arab Emirates is sending at least 24 fighter jets to help enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya, while Qatar has pledged six. I’ve heard from sources that Egypt plans to supply Libyan rebel forces with small arms, and that Jordan and Saudi Arabia have offered logistical and intelligence support. There are also unconfirmed reports that elite fighting units from several more Arab countries have arrived in eastern Libya to assist the rebel forces.
Saudi Arabia, whose air force is among the strongest in the region, could play an even more active role if needed. During Desert Storm, General Khaled bin Sultan, the eldest son of the Saudi king, explained that it was easy to integrate his country’s air units with the main coalition force as Saudi Arabia’s military doctrine, training methods, weapons and combat capabilities are compatible with those of the United States and UK. He was also impressed by the coalition’s “brilliant array of modern aircraft weapons, some of which have never been used in combat before.”
Now Arab nations will have a chance to test the aircraft and weapons they purchased from the West in the skies over Libya.
The world has not seen this kind of grand East-West coalition since 1991, when about 40 countries, including a dozen Arab and African ones, closed ranks against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait. But most of the Arab world opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, seeing it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and an example of U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of another country.
Coincidentally, air strikes against Libya began on March 19, and the first large-scale attack was launched under the full moon on March 20, eight years to the day after the start of the Iraq war.
Why has the campaign against Gaddafi garnered Arab support in contrast to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?
A foe to kings
Muammar Gaddafi has always been an outcast in the Middle East. His neighbors have cooperated with him at times, but mistrust and hostility have remained throughout. Gaddafi’s unpredictability and flamboyant populism were viewed as threats.
It’s not surprising that wealthy Arab monarchs would distrust Gaddafi, who came to power in 1969 after overthrowing King Idris. Colonel Gaddafi has never hid his contempt for royalty, which he has openly demonstrated to his Arab neighbors in his usual, eccentric way.
Saudi King Abdullah allegedly can’t stand Gaddafi. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Libyan ruler said at an Arab League summit in Egypt that the Saudi royal family was in the pocket of the Americans. Abdullah, then a crown prince, called the Libyan “brother,” as Gaddafi liked to be addressed, a liar: “You are a liar and your grave awaits you.” The exchange took place in front of other Arab leaders, ministers and aides.
Arab monarchs cannot forgive the Libyan regime for refusing to participate in Desert Storm, and instead continuing to provide both moral and humanitarian support to Saddam Hussein. And despite his alleged distaste for royalty, Gaddafi declared himself the “king of kings of Africa” after turning away from the Arab world that spurned him.
More than revenge
Kings were not Gaddafi’s only detractors. He has also subjected his own people to his whims, stripping them of their private property only to return it later. And he sought to spread his wild ideas to neighboring countries. In the early 1970s, he tried to join Libya, Egypt and Sudan in a loose federation. When Egypt refused, he organized a “march of thousands” against Egypt. Libyan demonstrators crossed the Egyptian border and marched for several hundred kilometers, creating a diplomatic rift with Egypt.
Gaddafi has threatened to pull out of the Arab League on several occasions, making its Secretary General, Amr Moussa, increasingly nervous. He called on his Arab brothers not to fear “Persian” Iran, but to cooperate with it in the spirit of Muslim brotherhood. Gaddafi warned Arab allies of the United States at the March 2008 summit in Damascus that they could meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Yassir Arafat (who Gaddafi and some Arabs believe was poisoned) if they do not unite. He closed his fiery address by saying, “The Arabs have nothing, not a single currency or an integrated economy. All they share is endless conflict.”
The Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone over Libya was instrumental. In its request to the UN Security Council, the League endorsed “all necessary measures” to protect civilians except “a foreign occupation force,” though it essentially okayed that, too.
But the Arab leaders were not just seeking revenge against Gaddafi for his past offences. They also sensed the changing mood on the Arab streets.
From joy to tears
Support for the Libyan rebels flows partly from the revolutionary mood in the region. But this is not the only source of support. Muslim believers also hate Gaddafi for repressing Islamists, who can be found in the ranks of the rebel fighters. While the international community is distracted with Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are cracking down on their own opposition movements.
The Arab League has already expressed concern over the severity of the attacks on Libya. They claim that they had only endorsed targeted strikes on government airfields, fighter jets and air defense systems as a way to guarantee a no-fly zone, which would protect rebel forces and civilians alike.
“The cruder actions the coalition takes and the longer it fights, the more it will lose the backing of the Arab public, including those who initially supported the operation,” said Egyptian political analyst Mazen Abbas, a member of the Arab Press Club in Russia. This will certainly happen if the coalition introduces ground forces, he added.
Amr Moussa was savvy enough to understand this. “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,” he said on Sunday.
The popular Arab-language newspaper Al Hayat wrote: “The joy over the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime could quickly change to tears.”
Political analyst Hassan Shami says this could spell the end of the Arab Spring: “Arabs don’t want this kind of democracy. They don’t want a foreign invasion. They don’t want foreigners grabbing their oil.” Shami warns his fellow Arabs to “get out [their] handkerchiefs, as bad news is bound to follow soon.”
Yelena Suponina is a Moscow News political analyst specializing in the Middle East; she holds a degree in philosophy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.