The Striking Arab Openness to Intervention

The Arab public seems to prefer Washington to Qaddafi. How long can that last?

For a region that has been obsessed with Western imperialism, and to a degree still is, one of the most striking aspects of the current Western-led international intervention in Libya has been the absence of major opposition to it in the Arab world. In fact, the only world leader who is misreading the current state of affairs is Hugo Chavez who in the past several years has managed to gain a degree of popularity both for being seen as standing up to American foreign policy and for vigorously criticizing Israel in its 2008 Gaza war. Standing by his friend Muammar al-Qaddafi and portraying the international intervention as an episode of Western imperialism has fallen on deaf ears in the Middle East—and probably ruined his reputation among the Arab public for some time. It is also striking, particularly in historical perspective, that France, a former colonial power in North Africa, would try to "redeem" itself in Arab public opinion after its missteps in the Tunisian revolution by actually intervening militarily in another North African nation.

Muammar al-Qaddafi himself labels the intervention a "colonial crusader" war, trying to capitalize on two of the biggest fears among Arabs and Muslims. Yet there is little evidence that his message is resonating. Arab media and blogs, and wider public sentiment seen in the ongoing demonstrations remain decidedly against him. While we have not had scientific public opinion polls to capture feelings on the street, I have conducted preliminary research with my team using popular websites to try to offer some measure of the public reasoning on Libya. Not surprisingly, there has been ambivalence about intervention, as Arabs are caught between the sense that someone has to intervene to stop Qaddafi on the one hand and mistrust of Western powers on the other. Ideally, they would have loved to see the Libyan story evolve the way of Tunisia and Egypt, but they sense that was not to be. As a consequence, those who oppose the Western intervention remain a minority. (For a flavor of reader comments on two popular websites, and, please see the translation below of 25 consecutive comments on each site. Overall only 28% of Al-Jazeera comments, and 36% of Alarabiya's opposed military intervention.)

Even more striking at a time when the public is trying to replace autocratic rulers is that both the public and governments have opposed Qaddafi; rarely does one find broad support of this sort on an issue as potentially divisive. There are a number of things that explain these attitudes.

First, timing. The fact that the Libyan uprising started immediately after the Tunisian and the Egyptian protests (which captured the imagination of Arabs everywhere) put the public decidedly on the side of the demonstrators in Libya. I was in Tunisia and Egypt as the Libyan uprisings were taking root and the sympathy was clear in the streets as well as in the media.

Second, people see the revolutions as "Arab," not just national in nature. While early on, the discourse was about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, by the time the uprisings emerged in Libya, talk was more about the Arab awakening and Arab revolutions—with expectation of more change to come across the region. No one wanted the train to be stopped by Qaddafi.

Third, Qaddafi's brutality. Certainly government brutality is hardly rare in the Middle East, but two things made this case particularly hard for the Arab public to ignore: The noticeable use of the military (and mercenaries) against the demonstrations in sharp contrast to what went on in the Tunisian and the Egyptian cases. More chilling were the explicit threats, first by Qaddafi's son, Saif Al-Islam, and later by Qaddafi, in which he called the demonstrators "rats" and threatened to purify Libya house to house, person by person.

Fourth, Qaddafi is the perfect prototype of the leader the Arab public wants to dethrone. He sees himself as above and beyond country perhaps more than any other ("God, Muammar, Libya”). And people believe he views himself as God's gift to Libya and to the Arabs; after the death of the popular Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970, Qaddafi reportedly remarked that he was a leader without a country and that Egypt was a country without a leader—then called for unity with Egypt. And in these revolutions that are more about dignity and freedom, many see Qaddafi as an embarrassment to their Arab identity.

Fifth, governments have been sensitive to Arab public opinion from the outset. The unprecedented Arab League action of calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya was in part out of deference to pervasive Arab public opinion on this issue. No one wants to be on the public's bad side in times of revolution. This was particularly true of Syria, which was clearly ambivalent about Western intervention but didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb.