The Arab democracy movement sets great store by its independence and now fears that the intervention in Libya will come with a high price tag: it could rob their protest of its legitimacy. Layla Al-Zubaidi comments
Since the beginning of the aerial onslaught on Libya there have been heated public debates in the Arab world about where to stand on western intervention. It is correct that not only many Libyans but also many voices in the Arab world as a whole are in favour – a new phenomenon in the region. Yet at least as many people are still sceptical.
Western intervention – a turning point
For the Arab democracy movement, the western intervention is a turning point. A key factor that previously vouched for their success has now been eradicated: that it was the Arab populations themselves rising up against their dictators – and in some cases even against the West and its longstanding alliances with authoritarian regimes in the region.
In many cases, the powers that be denounced the internet-savvy young generation and secular reformers as "agents of the West", persecuting them as such. They thus set great store by their independence and now fear that the intervention in Libya will come with a high price tag: it could rob their protest of its legitimacy.
Now the very same forces that guaranteed the stability of these regimes for decades have seized control of the situation rather than exhausting all political options. The fact that the UN and the Arab League gave their blessings to the intervention in Libya, unlike the US attack on Iraq in 2003, does lend it greater international legitimacy. For many Arabs, however, that makes little difference.
Firstly, most see the Arab League less as representing their own interests than as a club of aging dictators. Many of the member regimes have continued to brutally suppress the peaceful protests in their own countries over the past few days. Secondly, only the USA, Britain and France can actually put the resolution into practice. And their motivation stems partly from the fact that Libya is an important oil supplier and bridgehead for migration to Europe; Washington in particular also feels threatened by released or escaped Islamist militants.
Gaddafi and his sons made few friends among their Arab neighbours either with their tendency for manic behaviour – which explains why none of their fellow dictators are rushing to their defence. Yet in his delusion of remaining "Revolutionary Leader" for all eternity, Gaddafi differs only by degree from Hamad al-Khalifa, for example, the ruler of Bahrain who had himself crowned king.
The protesters in the Gulf states therefore have a particularly bitter taste in their mouths over the behaviour of their heads of state towards Libya. At the same time as offering itself as a partner for the "protection of Libya's civilian population", the Gulf Cooperation Council to which they belong dispatched troops to Bahrain to support the brutal suppression of the country's opposition.
In a similar development, Saudi Arabia has issued an absurd fatwa declaring the democratic demonstrations "un-Islamic". These double morals have caused barely a ripple of indignation in Europe – no doubt because the countries in question are important allies with their energy reserves and military bases.
It is high time for the states now leading the military operation in Libya to examine the errors in their own policy and that of their Arab allies. Otherwise, the impression will remain that they are trying to purge themselves of past mistakes with the aid of military intervention.
Despite all this, one thing is clear. Although the Arab world is currently in the grip of a unique revolutionary moment, the protest movements involved are very different. The protests in Syria, Jordan and Yemen show that this uprising is far from over. The protesters' courage and confidence are cause for optimism that they will not be co-opted by the West. And this courage and confidence make it very difficult for the remaining autocratic regimes to discredit the call for democracy as a "western import".
Layla Al-Zubaidi is the Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Middle East Office in Beirut.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de