The Striking Arab Openness to Intervention

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.

Sixth, score settling. Over the years, there has hardly been an Arab government that Qaddafi didn't manage to alienate, embarrass, or even threaten. And even for many who would normally be uncomfortable with the idea of foreign intervention against a sitting regime, Qaddafi was a greater evil. The Saudi position, for example, was partly due to specific animosity toward Qaddafi; he was accused of trying to assassinate the king. Even the popular leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nassrallah, who had no kind words for the West or its intentions, reserved his strongest criticism for Qaddafi, with whom he had a long-standing feud over the disappearance of the Shiite Lebanese leader, Mousa Sadr, in Libya in 1978. Nassrallah also countered Qaddafi's preposterous proposition that the West was behind the Arab revolutions and defended them as indigenous and genuine.

Seventh, the position of opinion shapers. The most watched television stations in the Arab world, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyyah, both took on a supportive tone about the revolution in Libya and gave the country considerable attention. It quickly overtook the coverage of Egypt and Tunisia. Importantly, the Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi—who has a popular program, "Shariia and Life” on Al Jazeera, and who was the principal speaker in Tahrir Square on the day Egypt celebrated the revolution—not only attacked Qaddafi and called on the Libyans to get rid of him but also justified the international military intervention, even saying that under some specific circumstances collateral damage in such interventions can be justified.

Eighth, the seeming reluctance of the international community, especially the United States, to intervene, made it hard to argue that the West was itching to act. In fact, until the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, Arab commentaries, including headlines on Al-Jazeera, were beginning to criticize the West for walking away from their "responsibilities." In some ways, one can say that the US attempt not to make the Arab revolutions about Washington early on helped reduce the suspicion that Washington and the West are now intervening for the wrong reasons.

Finally, the pervasive sense in the Arab world that Arab and Muslim countries are incapable of intervening effectively, especially in times of revolution. This is an argument that many have used (including Yousef Qaradawi) to justify inviting foreigners to intervene. At the popular level it is not even clear that the Arab publics seeking to remove regimes from power wanted to feel beholden to these rulers if they did the right thing in Libya. They may have been happy to see Egypt carry out the mission, but everyone understood that Egypt's transition made this impossible.

All this gave the international intervention considerable space to succeed. And as the Qaddafi forces made use of their military superiority in the past week to reverse some of the rebels' gains, the pressure from a good segment of the Arab public is for more Western intervention, not less; most see the survival of the Qaddafi regime to be the worst outcome. This of course does not translate into a sudden embrace of the United States and the West—or trust in their intentions. As is evident in the complied Arab reader comments below, attitudes remain ambivalent, based as they are on a long history and a complex set of issues that are likely to surface again sooner, rather than later (especially on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). But the Arab revolutions have created some new prisms through which Arabs are looking at the world and at the United States specifically—and for now these are more positive for the United States than at any point in the recent past.


Public Opinion Online:

The Lebanese-based Annahar Newspaper ran an online poll of its readers from March 21 to March 28 asking if they approved or opposed "The Western intervention" in Libya finding that 57% of its readers approved and 43% opposed.

Al-Jazeera: has also been running a poll asking its readers if they supported arming the Libyan rebels finding that 80% are supportive and 20% are opposed.