Backtracking on Libya: the Arab world breaks ranks

Over the weekend, Arab League chief Amr Moussa slammed the international air strikes on Libya only to backtrack a day later in what is widely being seen as a sign of the Arab League's legendary disunity.


It was an all-too familiar display of backtracking, a quintessential show of Arab world disunity that elicited groans in Middle Eastern policy circles, Western capitals and among many ordinary Arab citizens, who have grown weary with the way the Arab League works – or doesn't work, as is more often the case.

The international sighs followed Arab League chief Amr Moussa’s statement on Sunday slamming Western military strikes on Libya over the weekend.

“What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone,” said Moussa on Sunday. “What we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians."

Moussa’s criticism came as France, Britain and the US were striking targets in Libya, armed with a UN resolution that specifically mentioned the March 12 decision by the Arab League calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over the North African nation.

Western powers sensitive to any portrayal of the international Libyan operation as an attack by the West on a Muslim country, had placed unprecedented weight on the calls for a no-fly zone resolution by the Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Moussa’s statement at such a critical time was not welcome in policy circles that had pushed for an international intervention in Libya.

It was however seized by pundits and columnists wary of another Western involvement in a Muslim nation.

But by Monday, the backtracking had begun.

At a press conference with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo on Monday, Moussa stood by UN Resolution 1973, which was passed late last week.

"The Arab League position on Libya was decisive and from the first moment we froze membership of Libya,” said Moussa, before adding, “...then we asked the
United Nations to implement a no-fly zone and we respect the UN resolution and there is no conflict with it."

Over the course of its 66-year existence, the Arab League has established a reputation of disunity, showcased in the popular Arabic quip, “the Arabs have agreed not to agree”. This time, Ban Ki-moon, the seasoned diplomat, was having none of it.

"It is important that the international community speak with one voice to implement the second council resolution," said Ban, referring to UN Resolution 1973.

‘Caught up in the old narrative’

Although Moussa is firmly back on the international-one-voice bandwagon, his seemingly inconsistent Sunday comments did leave many experts scratching their heads.

Splits already appearing in coalition

“When European powers and the US go to war in the Arab world, there are basically two narratives,” explained Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor at US Newsweek magazine.

“The western narrative is about victory, while the Arab narrative is about victims. Clearly, Gaddafi’s people want the narrative of victims,” explained Dickey, referring to uncorroborated official Libyan reports that a children’s hospital had been targeted by Western airstrikes. “I think Amr Moussa was caught up in the old narrative.”

Who is Amr Moussa?

A fixture on the Arab diplomatic scene for decades, 73-year-old Moussa was the Egyptian foreign minister before he was relieved of his post by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for allegedly being too strident in his anti-Israeli rhetoric.

But as Arab League chief, Moussa remained close to Mubarak until the latter’s fall last month, when Moussa threw his hat into the upcoming Egyptian presidential ring.

Dickey believes that Moussa’s populist comments on Sunday were made with an eye on the presidential race.

“I don’t think he was speaking for the Arab League, he was not speaking as the chief of the Arab League, he was speaking as an Egyptian presidential candidate,” said Dickey. “It’s not about the Arab League, it’s about Amr Moussa.”

When one Arab state attacks another

Domestic considerations have always trumped international agendas and in the Arab world, the Libyan operation is particularly sensitive especially because Arab leaders are never comfortable with the image of one Arab state attacking another.

While the Gulf Arab states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are -committed to aiding the international military operations in Libya, they have been notably short on providing details of their military involvement in policing the no-fly zone.

On Sunday, French Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire told reporters that Qatari warplanes planned to join the international operation alongside French jets. While Qatar's state news agency confirmed the country's aircraft are participating in enforcing the no-fly zone, it did not provide any details.

Similarly, the UAE has not publicly outlined its contribution to the international mission.

It's foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, was at a weekend meeting in Paris to coordinate the coalition effort. But he declined to provide details over the weekend and during a press briefing in the Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi on Monday, Al-Nahyan did not take questions from reporters.

When Arab leaders meet

Members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the UAE and Qatar have joined Saudi forces in Bahrain to support the nation's Sunni leadership following pro-democracy protests mostly by Bahrain’s oppressed Shiite majority.

The GCC’s cross-military operation to prop a regime that has brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protests has raised eyebrows across the Muslim world, where many Sunnis and Shiites are monitoring how Gulf Arab leaders will react to the prospect of the Arab Spring washing up on their shores.

"It's a double standard," Mohammed Tajer, a lawyer defending detained protesters in Bahrain told the Los Angeles Times over the weekend. "The Arab League consists of dictatorships that want to protect their own interests."

In the end, the Arab League support for a Libyan no-fly zone, according to Dickey, is not so much about ideological issues rather than personal grievances. “We tend to look at it as an ideological clash of autocratic presidents and emirs versus the people,” said Dickey. “That’s not the way Gulf leaders see it. They see it in very personal terms.”

And Gaddafi has few friends among the Arab world leadership.

With the Saudi ruling family, a powerhouse in the Arab League, for instance, there has been a historic rift with Gaddafi.

At a 2003 Arab League summit in Egypt, the mercurial Gaddafi launched a vitriolic tirade - broadcast live on Arabic TV stations across the Mideast - against then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

The Saudis have never played up their differences with Gaddafi, but they’ve never forgotten it either. Neither have several longstanding Arab leaders, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Just don’t expect them to publicly detail their involvement in Libya though. Arab leaders, like Moussa, have a home audience to cater to - especially at a time when ordinary Arabs seem to be on the winning side of the historic fight for democratic rights.



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