August 31, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 733

Arab Reactions to Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi's Downfall – Joy Mixed with Concern

August 31, 2011 | By N. Mozes
Libya | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 733


The fall of Libyan leader Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi was received in the Arab world with joy mingled with apprehension. Alongside warm congratulations to the rebels for the victory, and official recognition of the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people,[1] fears were expressed regarding Libya's future and the possibility of continued Western presence and influence there. Other reactions addressed the impact of the events in Libya on Syria and its regime.

Fear for Libya's Future

Alongside great optimism, the toppling of Al-Qadhafi inspired many fears regarding the future of Libya and the NTC's ability to overcome internal disputes, unite Libya's tribal and other factions, and prevent further bloodshed and a backslide into total anarchy. Such fears are justified for several reasons. To begin with, the Libyan opposition itself is divided and comprises various elements whose common denominator is limited to opposition to the Al-Qadhafi regime. Furthermore, after 42 years of dictatorship, Libya lacks a true political culture, as 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, wrote: "Libya is not like Egypt or Tunisia. It does not have a civil society, [but is divided into various] tribes, clans, and regions. Whoever claims otherwise is arrogant, and is attempting to disregard basic facts. The Libyan opposition that fought fierce battles and sacrificed thousands of martyrs in order to topple [Al-Qadhafi's] dictatorship is a motley crew of various political and ideological streams, which united under [the banner of] hatred and hostility toward the [Al-Qadhafi] regime that turned the Libyan people into lab [rats] for its insane ideas. For this reason, it is no surprise that [Al-Qadhafi] referred to the people as 'rats' in his famous speech.

"Now that the unifying element is gone, the cracks that exist [within the opposition] must be addressed... in order to prevent a brutal civil war that will destabilize the country and harm its unity. It is unreasonable that, after being united under dictatorship, [Libya] should crumble under the slogans of liberty and democracy..."[2]

The Qatari daily Al-Sharq likewise voiced concerns over the possibility of civil war in Libya, and called on the Libyans to join ranks even if they had until now fought on opposite sides: "...The descendants of the first commanders of Islam in Libya are today required not to divert the principles of their 'holy revolution' toward calls for insane revenge. [They must be wary lest] their noble goals pull them toward the waves of blind revenge against their brothers in the homeland, and lest they demand that [these brothers] account for the grave sins of their tyrant, who pointed swords to their throats and forced them to bear arms against their brothers in order to defend his throne, instead of Libya and the Libyans. Moreover, a Muslim rebel must not [plunder] any public or private property in this war... [for] all in Libya were victims of Al-Qadhafi's oppressive regime. Now that they have been set free from this nightmare, all are obligated to turn over a new leaf so that they may inhale the fragrance of freedom and cooperation in rebuilding the new Libya."[3]

Al-Sharq also urged the NTC to take advantage of the international support for their cause in order to build up efficient national institutions that respect human rights, to rid itself of all the distortions of the previous regime, and to adopt the new road map drafted by Qatar, the Libyan Liaison Group,[4] the U.N., and various regional organizations.[5] The Saudi daily Al-Madina called on the NTC to spread tolerance in order to put Libya on the proper track, and to be on guard against attempts to divide the country, before drafting a new constitution and holding elections.[6] Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, called on the Libyans and Arabs to unite around NTC Chairman Mustafa 'Abd Al-Jalil, whom he called "the Libyans' [Nelson] Mandela."[7]

One of the issues raised in the articles was the inclusion of Islamist elements in the new Libyan regime. 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan called to allow the Islamists to take part in shaping Libya's future, saying: "Whether moderate or extreme, they are the ones who bore the greatest burden of the military effort... NATO and its commanders would be wrong to try to prevent them from reaping the fruits of their victory and to deny their role and right to participate in shaping Libya's future identity..."[8]

In contrast, Muhannad 'Abd Al-Hamid, columnist for the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Ayyam, warned against the forces of extremist political Islam, which he said were striving to replace Al-Qadhafi's tyranny with their own brand. He called on clerics, intellectuals, and legal experts to draft a new constitution that would unite the Libyan people under national, democratic principles regardless of the current balance of powers.[9]

NATO's Role

Some of the concerns for Libya's future revolve around the price it may have to pay for Western assistance in ousting Al-Qadhafi. Some have claimed that NATO's intervention was not due to humanitarian concerns alone, but was motivated by economic and diplomatic aspirations. For instance, Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is known for its anti-Western orientation, wrote: "...Everything that happened in Libya over the [past] five months suggests that the Western leaders, who [once] embraced Qadhafi and reached into his pockets full of his people's resources, are now embracing the rebels and reaching straight for the resources... They will not allow the voice of the natives to continued being heard. They will bring forth Libyan leaders chosen by the Western apparatuses to fill the truly [important] positions [in the country]..."[10]

Even harsher towards NATO and the rebels was Talal Salman, owner of the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, which is identified with the March 8 Forces. He wrote that Al-Qadhafi's crimes "do not exonerate the 'rebels,' do not render them 'liberators,' and do not make NATO a 'defender of peoples' or a 'savior'... [NATO] violated people's dignity in Libya and used its fleets to destroy cities and towns and carry out massacres. The Libyan people became the victim of all the murderers – [both] NATO with its planes and destroyers, and Al-Qadhafi's brigades with their artillery, tanks, and missiles..." Though he ultimately held Al-Qadhafi responsible for NATO's intervention – saying that, like Saddam Hussein before him, he had brought a colonial occupation upon his land – Salman stressed that, while the West claimed it was working to liberate the oppressed peoples from tyrannical rulers, it would also "prevent them from [independent] national decision, and from [realizing] their national resources and identity, so that they will end up back under the threat of foreign hegemony..."[11]

A similar concern was voiced by 'Adel 'Abd Al-Rahman, columnist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. Though he acknowledged NATO's role in toppling Al-Qadhafi's regime, which otherwise "would have ground the bones of the Libyan revolutionaries," Al-Rahman nevertheless characterized the Western involvement as "a worrying and negative intervention... aimed at robbing Libya's resources and leaving it under the hegemony of the imperialist West." He wondered whether the Libyans would be able to throw off NATO's yoke, whether the West would let Libya develop and build a civil state, what limitations it would impose on Libya's new leaders, and whether it would let everyone participate in the government or limit participation to members of a small group trained by the West.[12]

'Abdallah bin Bakhit, who writes for the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, criticized the Arab public for undergoing a complete "conceptual reversal" and abandoning its opposition to Western intervention: "Until not long ago (in fact, until today), we criticized the intervention of foreign forces in Arab and Islamic conflicts... Today, we condemn the Western forces for not intervening. We accuse them of helplessness or of conspiring [against us]... The Arab media everywhere did not stop reminding people of the enemy – colonialism, Zionism, and the Crusaders – but apparently this had no impact at all on the Arabs... [Today, they] cheerfully watch NATO's bombs falling, as though they were watching Arab planes bombing Israel. How did we arrive at this consensus, unprecedented in history?... The reliance on NATO, and the popular Arab and Islamic consensus [in favor of this reliance], represent a [complete] conceptual reversal, and this is too dear a price to pay for the heads of Al-Qadhafi, Assad, or any other leader. An intelligent man does not give up a house worth 8 million riyals for only 50 riyals..."[13]

NATO's Intervention Prevented Years of Conflict

Al-Arabiya TV director 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed dismissed this criticism against NATO, which he said had intervened only after the rebel forces had retaken Benghazi and expelled Al-Qadhafi's forces from the city. He also stressed that the majority of fighters on the ground were Libyans, not foreigners, and defended their willingness to accept NATO's assistance. He explained that these rebels, few and poorly armed, had been up against an immensely superior force: an army with advanced weapons, vast capital, and the ability to recruit mercenaries. Therefore, he said, "claims that condemn them for accepting foreign aid are [nothing but] the luxury of those who are not suffering and have no compassion for the suffering of others."

He added: "Had the international coalition not come to the assistance of Kuwait, the Kuwaitis would have been dispersed throughout the world today. Had NATO not set out to fight the Serbs, Kosovo would have been a graveyard for millions of Muslims today. Had the Palestinians been able to receive aid from any international force, they would have rushed to ask for its help. Without the Allies, the French would not have been able to liberate their land from [occupation] by Hitler's forces. In Libya, it was the Libyans that sparked the revolution, and nearly all [the fighters] on the ground are [locals]. The [acceptance] of foreign help is no mark of shame on them. The whole world wants to get rid of the madman from Libya; [in fact], the superpowers tried to get rid of him in the past, but failed. It was only natural for the rebels to seek foreign aid that could shorten [the duration of the war], instead of [letting] the struggle, bloodshed, and destruction carry on for years."[14]

As'ad Haidar, columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, likewise justified the acceptance of NATO's help, saying: "The Libyans, and the Iraqis before them, were no criminals or traitors for getting rid of Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi and Saddam Hussein using American tanks and NATO planes. The criminals are those who gave the Libyan and Iraqi peoples a choice – between death and death. A point comes when the oppressed have no choice but to enlist the help of the devil in saving themselves from the oppressive hangman..."[15]

Muhannad 'Abd Al-Hamid, columnist at the PA daily Al-Ayyam, likewise said that the rebels should not be blamed for accepting NATO's help, but stressed that a distinction must be made between NATO's agenda and the agenda of the new, free Libya, and that boundaries must be set to NATO's involvement there, in order to protect Libya's independence.[16]

The Arab Leaders Must Learn a Lesson from Al-Qadhafi's Fate

The success of the Libyan rebels inspired hope among many writers that other peoples in the region would likewise succeed in ousting the dictatorships under which they live, particularly the Syrians. Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "It would be wrong to reduce the political earthquake in our region to [the events of] 2011, described as the 'Arab Spring'… Numerous events that occurred in our region in recent years indicated that many Arab regimes were coming to an end... These regimes failed to uphold the concepts of state, construction, or development to the slightest degree. On the contrary, they allowed themselves to break the law and had no respect for their citizens. They relied on false slogans and childish tricks, on [both] the domestic and external [levels]…

"This year saw the fall of [Tunisian president] Zine Al-'Abidine ben 'Ali and [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, and now Al-Qadhafi's time has come... [President 'Ali] Saleh of Yemen and [Bashar] Al-Assad of Syria are still in place, of course, [but] both are bound to fall... because few [leaders] in our region [ever] learn a lesson...

"The world will be a better place without General [Al-Qadhafi], his regime, and his sons. The region will shrug off the leaders and regimes that have brought it nothing but destruction and devastation, and delayed growth. Another implication [of Al-Qadhafi's downfall] is that the international community can now [turn to] dealing with Yemen and Syria..."[17]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Hamad Al-Majed assessed that Al-Qadhafi's fall would intensify the protests in Syria and inspire fear in the Syrian regime: "The terror that overwhelmed Al-Qadhafi as the rebels' victories multiplied is [surely] shared by the top echelons of the Syrian regime, and the rebels' knocking on the gates of Tripoli has clearly been heard by Bashar [Al-Assad]."[18]

Rajab Abu Saraya, a columnist at the PA daily Al-Ayyam, wrote, in a similar vein, that the fall of Al-Qadhafi's regime has reassured all the Arabs that the era of dictatorship is over and the era of popular democracy is at hand. He assessed that the change would also come to Mauritania and Sudan, and to the Arab monarchies, which would become nominal monarchies, in which the king does not rule the country or control its resources. He also assessed that Al-Qadhafi's fall would affect the Arab's relations with the West and with North Africa.[19]

An editorial in the Qatari daily Al-Watan stated: "The Libyan people... has taught leaders like Al-Qadhafi, who are digging in their heels, shutting their ears, and seeking an open military confrontation with their peoples... that this confrontation, if it comes, God forbid, is bound to be won by the people. Al-Qadhafi, who relied on his battalions and mercenaries, and employed every possible means of violence and murder, [eventually] found himself isolated and in despair, and today, nobody knows what has become of him."[20]

Conversely, other articles warned against repeating the Libyan scenario in other Arab countries. Prominent Syrian oppositionist Michel Kilo advised the Syrian regime to reassess its situation in light of Al-Qadhafi's downfall, and to find a just and feasible solution to the Syrian crisis, which will satisfy all the sides, before it is too late. He urged the regime to institute reforms and democracy, and cautioned that only the formation of a broad popular front would prevent foreign intervention in Syria.[21]

Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which supports the resistance camp, likewise warned against calling for foreign intervention in Syria and Yemen under the pretext of assisting the protesters. He wrote: "In Syria and Yemen there are madmen and collaborators who are calling upon the West to interfere, and to bomb, kill, destroy, and burn, in order to pave the way for them to take over [the country] in the name of freedom and progress. After [what happened in] Libya, it may be necessary... to make every effort to protect Syria, Yemen, and the other Arab countries from [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey] Feltman's rats."[22]

'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is known for its anti-Western orientation, expressed similar concerns, saying: "[I] fear that after NATO has succeeded in replacing the regime in Libya, it will begin making similar plans for Syria, especially considering that there are several groups among the Syrian opposition which will welcome such intervention... If such intervention occurs, it will achieve the exact opposite [of what has happened in Libya], as the situation in Syria is more complicated than the Libyan situation."[23]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Only when Al-Qadhafi's ouster became certain did Arab states begin to recognize the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Prominent among these countries were Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq, Bahrain and Morocco, as well as the Palestinian Authority. Some countries even allowed the replacement of the flag above the Libyan embassies by the flag adopted by the NTC.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 23, 2011.

[3] Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 22, 2011.

[4] Formed in March 2011 in order to direct international efforts concerning Libya, the group comprises representatives from Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and human rights organizations.

[5] Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 23, 2011.

[6] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), August 23, 2011.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 23, 2011.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 23, 2011.

[9] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), August 23, 2011.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 23, 2011.

[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), August 22, 2011.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), August 23, 2011.

[13] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 24, 2011.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 25, 2011.

[15] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 23, 2011.

[16] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), August 23, 2011.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 22, 2011.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 22, 2011.

[19] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), August 23, 2011.

[20] Al-Watan (Qatar), August 23, 2011.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 23, 2011.

[22] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 23, 2011.

[23] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 23, 2011.

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