Middle East

Middle East/North Africa

The Libyan Surprise

Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in a Dec. 9, 2003, file photo. On Dec. 19, U.S. President George Bush announced that Libya had renounced all its programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons (Photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP-Getty Images).

In time for the holidays, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minster Tony Blair opened a surprise package full of political mileage: On Dec. 19, they revealed that after nine months of secret negotiations, Libya had agreed to acknowledge, dismantle, and allow inspections of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

Libyan commentators extolled the disclosure, and indirectly Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, although it was not a prominent news story.  A Dec. 22 editorial by Abd al-Hafiz al-Adl in Tripoli’s Al-Jamahiriya called the decision “historic and brave,” predicting that it “will be an example that is both an inducement and a method for working for world peace.” The lead editorial in Azzahf al-Akhdar (Jan. 1) denied that Libya was acting out of fear of U.S. reprisals. A fearful Libya, it argued, would keep its WMD as a defensive measure, in the style of North Korea.

In the greater Arab world, the revelations routinely have been labeled the “Libyan surprise.” Yet many writers claimed they were not shocked at Tripoli’s turnaround, given Al-Qaddafi’s erratic track record. Hamad Salimayn wrote in his Al-Bayan column (Dec. 21): “In actuality, the surprise doesn’t come from Libya or its decision to eliminate weapons of mass destruction...the surprise hides in the American-British furtiveness around the secret negotiations with Libya.”

Most Arab observers saw the disclosure in the context of the region’s new realities, including Saddam Hussein’s capture, Iran’s signing of a protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on Dec. 18, and revelations about the interception in Italy of a shipment of illicit material heading for Libya in October. Yet many saw the tipping point as Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, under which the United States attacked Iraq in March 2003, just as Tripoli began its negotiations with Washington. Writing in Al-Dustour (Dec. 23), Hilmi al-Asmar despaired: “The sense of triumph expressed by the American and British administrations...means that the policy of ‘the big stick’ has borne fruit.”

“It seems that the colonel is the first man who has learned the moral of the fate of Saddam Hussein,” Yassir al-Zaatirah wrote in Al-Dustour (Dec. 23). Ahmad Dhiban was blunt in his Dec. 23 Al-Ra’i op-ed: Libya gave a “free electoral gift to American President George Bush.”

Al-Qaddafi’s embrace of realpolitik did get some favorable reviews. On Dec, 22, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, editor-in-chief of Al-Sharq al-Awsat, called it a “lesson in sane dealings with the political reality, the likes of which have been absent from the Arab rationality for long decades.”

Numerous Arab writers used Libya’s move to renew criticism of Israel’s WMD programs. The lead editorial in Al-Ahram (Dec. 22) saw an “opportunity to achieve a greater goal.” The Dec. 23 Al-Quds al-Arabi editorial said: “Israel knows full well that the Libyan and Iranian cooperation...did not come from a position of strength, but rather as a result of concentrated American and European pressures.”

Some of Al-Qaddafi’s critics welcomed the move but questioned his motives. In the Daily Star (Jan. 6), former Jordanian official Adnan Abu Odeh responded to the statement by Sayf al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the president’s son, that Libya is now “protected”: “Libyans are now not protected [in general], but protected from Washington....”

While Ahmad al-Ruba’i embraced Al-Qaddafi’s move in a Jan. 18 Al-Sharq
op-ed, he said that Libya desperately needed to change its repressive domestic policies. An even more pessimistic prognosis on the issue of reform came from Al-Dustour’s al-Zaatirah (Dec. 23), who bemoaned, “Libyans lose and will continue to lose because it is delusional to suppose that the leader will be transformed into a follower of democracy and human rights...the only thing they win is for the colonel to remain a crown of thorns on their heads.”