Muammar Gaddafi’s appeal for Arab solidarity in the face of foreign air strikes fell on deaf ears across the Middle East on Sunday, but support for his opponents was mixed with deep suspicion of Western motives.
Western forces have unleashed their biggest military attack in the Arab world since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, targeting Gaddafi’s air defences and armoured vehicles near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east of the country.
A few hours after the first missiles struck, Gaddafi called on “citizens of the Arab and Islamic nations” and other developing countries to “stand by the heroic Libyan people to confront this aggression”.
But Arabs from North Africa to the Gulf, many demanding political rights for the first time, dismissed the appeal from a leader whose four decades of authoritarian and capricious rule have exhausted any reserves of sympathy.
“It is now clear and understandable that Arab people want to get rid of their leaders, so leaders should simply leave and not fight their people and force foreign nations to interfere,” said Mohamed Abdel Motaleb, a bank employee in Cairo, where mass protests toppled veteran president Hosni Mubarak last month.
“I am very much against foreign troops fighting in Libya, but Arab leaders should not let that happen through their stubbornness and refusal to quit power”.
A Libyan government official said 64 people died in the Western air strikes and the head of the Arab League, which supported Libyan no-fly zone, said the organisation had not endorsed attacks on ordinary Libyans.
“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,” Amr Moussa said, announcing an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss Libya.
The overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine bin Ali — as well as mass protests against leaders in Yemen and Bahrain — have restored a dormant Arab pride which was crushed by decades of autocracy and foreign intervention.
But many people in the Arab world, while anxious to see the end of Gaddafi’s rule, felt that the resort to Western military action has tarnished Libya’s revolution.
“Who will accept that foreign countries attack an Arab country? This is something shameful,” said Yemeni rights activist Bashir Othman.
OIL OR DEMOCRACY?
Support for military action was also muted by deep-seated suspicions that the West is more concerned with securing access to Arab oil supplies than supporting Arab aspirations.
“They are hitting Libya because of the oil, not to protect the Libyans,” said Ali al-Jassem, 53, in the village of Sitra in Bahrain, where protests by the Shi’ite Muslim majority against the Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family have triggered military reinforcement by neighbouring Gulf Arab forces.
A spokesman for Bahrain’s largest Shi’ite opposition party Wefaq questioned why the West was intervening against Gaddafi while it allowed oil-producing allies to support a crackdown on protesters in Bahrain in which 11 people have been killed.
“We think what is happening in Bahrain is no different to what was happening in Libya,” Ibrahim Mattar said. “Bahrain is very small so the deaths are significant for a country where Bahrainis are only 600,000.”
In Iraq, where U.S.-led forces invaded eight years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, opposition to Gaddafi was tempered by the years of violence which Iraq endured after Saddam’s downfall, as well as anger at perceived double standards.
“Bombing Gaddafi’s forces is a step in the right direction but turning blind eyes to the slaughter of innocent protesters in Bahrain is a step in the wrong direction,” said Amir Ahmed, owner of a home appliance shop in Baghdad’s Karrada district.
The leader of Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said many people had spelt out their support for the protests in Egypt and Libya, “but when Bahrain is involved… their ink dries up”.
“What is the difference between the Al-Khalifa regime and the regimes of (Hosni) Mubarak and Gaddafi?” he said in a televised speech on Saturday night.
But criticism of the West has not translated into support for Gaddafi, who has bemused or infuriated leaders across the Arab world during his four decades in power.