07 March 2011
Put it down to Qaddafi‘s craft or inept handling of the situation by Washington and Europe, but a certain ambiguity has crept into the evolving scenario in Libya. There are different perceptions emerging. Some days ago, he was being ousted by his people. Now, the West appears to be involved in his impending ouster. This is a totally new picture. It will change the mood in the Arab street.
Is Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown killing over a thousand protesters, the dominant narrative? Is his invocation of Libyan nationalism not being unwittingly promoted by aggressive Western plans to “impose” a no-fly-zone and that this tends to neutralize the earlier narrative?
Arab TV channels are abuzz with British Foreign Secretary William Hague‘s conversation with “several Libyan rebel leaders” on the possibility of the “UK along with its western allies” planning to impose a no-fly-zone in Libya. Is Washington now going to help “rebel leaders” in other countries? Has anyone taken note of the Arab summit in Cairo?
Some clarity was introduced into the proceedings by the Central Command’s Gen. James Mathis – “No-fly-zone would have to be a military operation – it wouldn’t be just telling people not to fly airplanes”.
No-fly-zone would require removal of air defence capability, Gen. Mathis said. “Such an operation would mean sorties involving military facilities throughout the Mediterranean” – Cyprus, Sicily, Crete. Obama is clearly on this slope.
How does all this register with the Arab street? Does it not begin to sound like western ganging up against Libya?
If the west had moved with such alacrity against Mubarak or Ben Ali, it may have rehabilitated itself, in some small measure, in popular Arab esteem.
Why? Both, Mubarak and Ben Ali along with a host of Arab dictators are seen by the people to be serving western interests, subservient to Israel.
Qaddafi hardly fits in this gallery. To the contrary, he was the most provocative, nasty anti West, anti Zionism, Arab. No other Arab leader would have had the cheek to suggest that a “home for the Jews should have been located in Alsace and Lorraine”. But even he is human, after all, because after the treatment handed out to Saddam Hussain, he gave up his nuclear ambitions.
Since his was a largely tribal society (different from the urbanity of Tunis or Cairo), far-flung tribes were prone to superstitious practices, a sort of Libyan voodoo. Playing on people’s superstitions was therefore declared a criminal offence. He banned the system of Mullahs or Imams leading Friday prayers.
So, unlike mere Arab dictators, Qaddafi is a maverick megalomaniac draped in spectacle and pageantry – never obsequious, but consistent and unpredictable. But no Islamic fundamentalist which some of the West’s closest allies are.
The challenge he faced from Benghazi 1000 kms east of Tripoli earlier in the 90s was from Islamists opposed to his Islam with a mod twist.
There are some common elements in the wave sweeping the Arab world – fifty percent of the population between 20 and 30, the 24´7 media like Al Jazeera, youth’s impatience with suffocating dictatorships, corruption, unemployment etc.
Equally, there are differences between the countries so affected. For instance, some observers have noted that Monarchies from the colonial days are less vulnerable than US supported republican dictatorships, more despised because they go through motions of elections which are rigged. No such pretense in the monarchies. Attitude to the Palestinians insulates Syria, Hezbullah, Iran from people’s ire on this count.
In which league, then, does one place Qaddafi? He is flanked by Egypt and Tunisia. Benghazi is closer to Egypt where the Armed Forces would not be comfortable with a mercurial, non conformist, always ready to show up Egyptian indifference to Mid East peace.
Neither Egypt nor Tunisia has oil. In this Libya begins to resemble Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, both rich in oil, both “rejectionists” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, exactly the framework in which Saudi Arabia is “moderate”.
Qaddafi may have gone on his own. But noisy western orchestration will place on his head a halo he does not deserve. With his penchant for unpredictability, he has gone and inserted Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a mediator between the regime and protestors. Are western town criers going to blare: “Plague on both their houses!”
(The author is a Distingusihed Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)