Cairo, Egypt—On Fridays, Tahrir Square has become a patriotic carnival. It is packed with thousands of Egyptians, who stroll around decked out in nationalistic paraphernalia, picking at popcorn. They are mostly focused on their own country’s situation, where the toppling of Hosni Mubarak has given way to an uncertain political future, but they are also deeply concerned about the events unfolding in neighboring Libya. This past Friday, a man impersonating embattled Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi—fully robed, with an umbrella in tow—set up a mocking sideshow. “I will resist the Zionist incursion into my great homeland of Shobra!” he declared, referring to a lower-middle-class Cairo neighborhood, before moving on to other shtick. His large audience laughed hysterically, snapping pictures with their camera phones. Then the moment of levity ended, and the mood turned serious. “Qaddafi must go,” said a young woman carrying the flags of both Egypt and Libya. “He is crazy.”
Egyptian attitudes on Qaddafi are complicated. Approximately one million Egyptians work in Libya, and many are outraged by Qaddafi’s murderous crackdown, which has already claimed the lives of over 1,000 people according to conservative estimates. Many of the Tahrir faithful are disgusted by the crackdown, and pre-Qaddafi Libyan flags and anti-Qaddafi signs are ubiquitous in the square. But when these protesters were asked whether they would support foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s assault and prevent further carnage, the response was nearly unanimous: The United States should keep out of it. This, they explained, was an Arab problem, for Arabs to solve.
“We are one Arab nation,” said one protester. “We don’t want interference from America. We don’t want to repeat Iraq.” Another was more blunt: “My advice to America is not to put its nose in the Middle East. We can force him [to go], but we need more time. I’m talking about the Middle East—the Islamic countries, the Arab countries. We can do it ourselves.” These views are familiar. Whether it was the United States evicting former Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or the International Criminal Court bringing charges against Sudanese dictator Omar Al Bashir, Arab publics have always shunned foreign moves against even the most violent Arab dictators. They tend to view non-Arabs’ intervention into the affairs of Arab countries as humiliating, exposing the weaknesses of Arab states and treating them, in the words of one protester, “like kids.”
And when asked whether Arab countries themselves should intervene in Libya, the protesters were split. Those who supported an Arab-led intervention generally wanted air strikes, viewing the insertion of ground troops as imperialistic. “We must free Libya from Qaddafi,” said a Libyan-flag-hoisting protester. “Egyptian air strikes are fine, but not American. It has to be Arab.” But others viewed the prospect of air strikes launched by an Arab country as too outrageous. “No Arab will kill any Arab. It is forbidden for any Muslim to kill another Muslim,” yelled protester Ahmed Ismail, breathlessly.
This is one of the conundrums of foreign policy in the new Middle East. Even as the newly-empowered democrats sympathize with their co-agitators in other countries, it is clear that they harbor strong Arab nationalist feelings—so strong, in fact, that they may prevent them from supporting action to save other Arab democrats. The idea that no Arab may kill any Arab seems paralyzing in light of the fact that Muammar Qaddafi is already killing many of his fellow Arabs. Plus, an Arab-led effort against Qaddafi remains highly improbable, since most Arab regimes have obvious reasons for wanting to avoid the precedent of ousting a dictator for acting too brutally. And in the aftermath of domestic revolts, the armies of Tunisia and Egypt have been worn too thin in policing their countries to even consider a mission against Qaddafi.
What’s more, there is a strong case for Western nations to act against Qaddafi in spite of opposition by the Egyptian public. Arab publics are an important foreign constituency in any policy decision pertaining to the Middle East, but they are hardly the only constituency. Libyan rebels themselves are calling for various forms of intervention, and around the globe, people are watching in horror as Qaddafi deploys his air force against his own people—raising the specter of a drawn-out civil war, or massacres like those in Bosnia or Rwanda.
But the fact remains that strong feelings of Arab solidarity persist, even after the autocratic authors of these ideas have departed. The Middle East remains a frustratingly ideological place, with publics reflexively hostile to even the most well-intentioned, and necessary, Western humanitarian efforts. Reversing this phenomenon will take time—perhaps a lot more time than Muammar Qaddafi needs to wreak havoc.
Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.