Middle East

Middle East/North Africa

Libya Leaves the Arab League

Muammar Qaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (Photo: AFP).

After years of threats, tantrums, and acrimonious public disputes, Libya’s Revolutionary Leader Muammar Qaddafi finally did it. On Oct. 24, Libya’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Abd al-Mun‘im al-Huni, presented his nation’s official request to withdraw its membership from the institution. Two days later, Arab League General Secretary Amr Mousa flew to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and unsuccessfully tried to convince Qaddafi to reverse his decision. Libya’s official reason was not immediately specified, but many commentators in the Arab press were quick to connect it to Libya’s criticism of the league’s inaction over the Palestinian issue and the Iraqi crisis.

Qaddafi certainly gave the league ample warning. Only a few weeks prior, Mousa had been to Tripoli on a mission to placate Qaddafi after the latter had announced his desire to leave the organization. The threats came in a fiery speech lambasting what Qaddafi described as the Arab League’s negligence of the Palestinians, a negligence that made him “ashamed to be an Arab.”

Qaddafi had threatened to withdraw from the Arab League twice before—in March 2002, because Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal for Israel ignored the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, and in 1998, under similar circumstances.

Arab commentators agreed on two points: The Arab League has failed in its mission to foster greater Arab unity, and that as a sovereign nation, Libya has the right to withdraw its membership. But whether Libya made the right decision remains a point of contention.

The focal point of the debate in the Arabic press has been over the Arab League’s raison d’être. Arab journalists’ reactions to Qaddafi’s decision were implicitly tied to their own expectations for the Arab League. In an Oct. 28 op-ed in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, Ahmad al-Ruba‘i mentioned the ever burdensome bureaucracy and difficulties of balancing contradictory Arab interests within the organization. “Everyone knows as well as Libya does that the Arab League is a toothless and clawless institution that doesn’t possess forces to intervene. It hasn’t been able to solve one Arab problem.”

The Arab League, formed in 1945, was intended to create a united Arab front in dealing with the pressing issues of the day, especially European colonialism in the region and the emerging conflict in Palestine. It was also meant to promote Arab culture and language through the financing of educational programs and cultural exchanges. The guiding principle behind the League was the implementation of Pan-Arabism, that is, ideals that stress the unity of all Arabs based on common cultural, historic, linguistic, and religious ties. The Pan-Arab movement sought to revamp the entire colonial political system and replace it with a collective Arab region with uniform political, social, and cultural policies.

In defending the Arab League, Nasif Hitti, in his Nov. 13 column in London’s Pan-Arab Al-Hayat, blamed its historic weaknesses on the persistence of a regional political landscape that predated the league’s birth in 1945. Whereas Hitti saw civil-society institutions contributing to international policy in other regions of the world and thereby diffusing the influence of governments, in the Middle East, the state has remained the “only party in international politics.” And so, Hitti wrote, national and local interests have always superseded the collective regional interest. In his view, the Arab League could be effective if it followed the European Union’s lead and demoted national interests in favor of pursuing regional goals collectively.

Since the European powers carved up the Middle East after World War I, this conflict between Pan-Arab and nationalist ideologies has been a decisive factor in inter-Arab relations. It is a conflict that has certainly been played out in the chambers of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. As Wahid Abdulmejid wrote in the Nov. 13 edition of Al-Hayat, revolutions may have toppled older colonial regimes, but the primacy of the state has been maintained, even as governments paid lip-service to Pan-Arab ideals to curry favor with the public. The Arab League, Abdulmejid wrote, was the symbolic answer to Pan-Arab aspirations, but the member states never intended to treat it as more than a forum. In Abdulmejid’s view, the Arab League, like the United Nations, has consistently fallen short of its goals.

In a Nov. 19 op-ed in Libya's government-owned Al-Jamahiria, Abd al-Razzaq al-Dahish explicitly cheered Qaddafi’s decision to withdraw from the league and agreed that Libya had no choice other than to abandon the paralytic organization. “The Arab League is in need of an electric shock—in other words, policies that will deliver it from a bedridden death...and Libya is the only country qualified to cause this kind of shock to the system...”

But Al-Dahish’s reasons for supporting Qaddafi’s decision implied that the Arab League still holds some intrinsic value. What’s more, Al-Dahish argued, “It is not possible to conceive of the Arab League without Libya and its opinions, proposals, and its ability to cut through the monotony of the Arab political scene.” Al-Dahish went further: The Arab League could be forgiven for failing to implement projects like a unified Arab economic market, he wrote, because “even the smallest Arab nation is greater than the league.” If this is applause for Qaddafi’s withdrawal, it is strange applause indeed. It is possible that a Libyan accustomed to the devices journalists use to get their articles past the censors would recognize a double meaning in Al-Dahish’s argument.

The introduction to Basim Sakajha’s Oct. 28 op-ed in Jordan’s pro-government Addustour leveled what was perhaps the harshest criticism of the league in the Arab press: “Everything that Libya says—this time—is absolutely correct. The Arab League is not only powerless, but it has also become a burden on the Arab future.” Writing in the next day’s edition of the same paper, Husayn al-Ruwashidah added a another accusation: “With all due respect to the decision of our Libyan brothers to withdraw…Arab citizens, frustrated with all that they see and hear around them, did not shed one tear for the league, which is nothing more than a club for its collaborating governments.”

Also critical of the league, Ahmad al-Ruba’i concluded that “Libya has no other excuse for withdrawing from the League except the one it has given: The Arab League is impotent.... This is not a new issue; the Arab League has not been an effective [body]. It has been unable to stop inter-Arab wars, or to take a collective position and fully implement it. Not one of its members has consulted it when making the decision to go to war, make peace, or engage in any other venture…. We don’t even see the need for Amr Mousa to try to bring Libya back into the fold …. Yet if he does try, we hope he doesn’t fail in Tripoli the way he failed in Baghdad [Mousa had gone to Baghdad to urge Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. weapons inspections].”

Even those writers who disagreed with Qaddafi and affirmed the organization’s raison d’être used harsh language when discussing it. Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid began his Oct. 28 article in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat with a litany of its failures: “It is correct to say that…it hasn’t been able to face off against a war on Iraq nor force Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, break up the strife in Somalia, prevent secession in Sudan, or settle the conflict between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. It has not shown itself to possess any power to aid Lebanon as it faces Israeli threats regarding the administration of the waters of Lebanon’s Wazzani river.” This would seem to be an affirmation of Qaddafi’s complaints. But Al-Rashid also allowed that, despite all its faults, the Arab League, “like any kind of League, represents the lowest common denominator in international relations. It is the last link that binds together all the nations that speak Arabic.”

Despite Qaddafi’s frequent role as a dissenting voice in the body, or perhaps because of it, many writers saw Libya as a necessary component of Arab political efforts. Al-Rashid highlighted the beneficial aspects of Libya’s membership: “It could be considered the country that utilized the least amount of flattery and the greatest boldness in acting upon an issue that a lot of other nations were too paralyzed to deal with.”

In the Oct. 31 edition of Addustour Yasser al-Za’atirah saw Libya’s withdrawal not as “a message of protest, but rather a grievous blow” because it would play into what he saw as Washington and Tel Aviv’s desire to foster inter-Arab rivalries. Calling the decision illogical, he concluded by insinuating that perhaps Qaddafi has been too busy worrying about extricating Libya from the list of possible American targets or inclusion in the “Axis of Evil” to think rationally about the good of the region. Three days earlier, in an editorial by Hilmi al-Asmar, Addustour went so far as wonder, “Does Libya’s withdrawal have any connection to what is happening in the United Nations and the preparations to attack Iraq, and the possible redrawing of the map of the Middle East, after the fashion of the Sykes-Picot agreement?” [A secret pact made by Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges Picot during World War I to divide up the lands of the Ottoman Empire into colonial possessions after the war; the modern map of the Middle East is essentially based on this document—WPR]

Others pointed out that despite Qaddafi’s Pan-Arab rhetoric, in actuality Libya was often not an active member of the body. Despite Sakajha’s scathing remarks in Addustour, he was quick to point out that the records of the League show that Libya did not bother to implement many of the organization’s resolutions, including one to financially support a campaign to oppose the 1978 Camp David accords that established a U.S.-brokered peace between Egypt and Israel. Qaddafi had also acquired a reputation for excusing himself from conferences that required his attendance.

Some critics interpreted Libya’s pullout as part of its plan to promote itself as a Pan-African, rather than Pan-Arab, nation. Al-Ruba’i sarcastically commented, “Perhaps Libya will succeed in uniting the black continent after it failed in its efforts to unite the Arab world.” Sati Nur al-Din qualified this in an Oct. 29 article for Lebanon’s Assafir, predicting that Qaddafi will make even less headway in “conquering the African frontier” because those states are even more disunited than Arab states.

Ultimately, most of the speculation about Libya’s official decision returned to the motivation and psychological mindset of Qaddafi. In an Oct. 30 column for Addustour replete with examples of Qaddafi’s often erratic and obfuscating behavior, Arib al-Rintawi wrote, “Unfortunately…in a country rich in oil and resources…Libyan money is squandered in the wrong places, sometimes to finance the promotion of the Green Book [Qaddafi’s manifesto], and at other times to support obscure movements that today are called terrorists…”

While some writers expressed the opinion—or perhaps hope—that this would prove to be just another of Qaddafi’s fits and that Libya would eventually return to the fold, almost all saw the immediate effect on the Arab League as a secondary issue in relation to the looming war on Iraq, which all member states officially oppose. Nur al-Din enunciated this view best: “It is an obvious presupposition that…Qaddafi doesn’t really want to withdraw from the league, because there isn’t any alternate or comparable outlet for Libyans. The lofty goals toward which Qaddafi aspires—always in his own special way—is to shock the Arab League in the hope that he will stir it to action and the implementation of progressive policies. If he succeeds, he will have achieved a great political accomplishment. If he fails, then Arabs don’t lose a thing....”

Perhaps, then, as Al-Rintawi concluded, “If indeed the Arab League is fundamentally paralyzed, then it had nothing to gain from Libya’s membership and likely will not have anything to lose from Libya’s absence. Before or after Qaddafi’s decision, only the unfortunate Libyan people are worth our vexation or expressions of sympathy.”