BEIRUT (Reuters) - Many Arabs welcomed Western military action in Libya on Saturday as a sign the world would not tolerate oppression, but their support was tinged with concern at another foreign intervention in the Arab world.
The French air force destroyed tanks and armored vehicles in the first shots fired under a military intervention aimed at protecting civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. The United States later said it fired cruise missiles at Libyan targets.
Gaddafi, fighting the most serious challenge to his 42-year rule, unleashed a ruthless counter-attack after losing control of swathes of the North African country, determined to avoid the fate of toppled presidents in neighboring Egypt and Tunis.
Arab leaders in Bahrain and Yemen are also facing determined challenges. Protests have spread to other Gulf countries and even tightly-controlled Syria, where four protesters were killed by security forces on Friday.
“The operation is a strong message to rulers that the dictator era is over,” said Ali Abdul Rahman in Sanaa, where protesters have called for the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule of their impoverished country.
“The beginning of the no-fly zone is a positive step...It came late and we would have preferred if the Arab countries were the ones that carried out this step,” Mohammed al-Sharki, an activist in Yemen’s youth movement said.
“But this step will still have a positive impact on the situation in Yemen because the regime understands that the international community will not be silent over oppression.”
Up to 42 people were killed by rooftop snipers on Friday during a protest in the Yemeni capital.
In Syria’s southern city of Deraa, scene of the boldest challenge yet to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, IT teacher Tamer Jawabrah said Western intervention in Libya brought back painful memories of the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq.
“We would have wanted an Arab intervention in Libya,” he said. “This reminds us of the intervention in Iraq. I am with a limited no-fly zone but not bombardment.”
At least 10,000 people demonstrated in Deraa on Saturday at the funeral of two protesters killed the day before. But Deraa merchant Amin Hamaydah said they did not want outside help.
“Our demands are to end corruption and (grant) freedoms. We are able to do this with our own hands, not by a foreign hand.”
Few people in the Arab world have sympathy for Gaddafi, who made enemies across the region. Saudi Arabia accused him of plotting to kill King Abdullah in 2003, Lebanese Shi‘ites hold him responsible for the disappearance of charismatic cleric Musa al-Sadr, and in the 1990s he expelled thousands of Palestinians.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Gaddafi of oppressing Libyans with “the same type of war which Israel conducted against Lebanon and Gaza.”
But he chastised Arab leaders for failing to act themselves, and for giving Western forces the chance to bring back “the era of occupations and direct colonialism” in the Arab world.
“Today, unfortunately, as a result of most Arab and Muslim leaders abandoning their responsibilities, the door has been opened to foreign intervention in Libya and we do not know where matters are heading,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi said the confrontation with Gaddafi was a “noble cause because Libyans are fighting for their freedom and getting rid of a bloody dictator.”
Saudi Arabia, which strongly supports international efforts to protect the Libyan rebels, found itself on the other side of the argument in neighboring Bahrain. It sent troops to help Sunni Muslim ruling al-Khalifa family subdue protests by the island’s majority Shi‘ites, who have called for greater rights.
“The Bahraini opposition fell into sectarian demands. They called for the downfall of the Khalifa and that worries anybody,” said Khashoggi, comparing what he called Iran’s growing influence in Bahrain to “bringing the Soviets to Cuba in 1960.”
In Egypt, where people flocked to vote on Saturday in a referendum on political reforms after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, there were few tears for Gaddafi or other Arab leaders facing popular uprisings.
“I am sure each and every one of those (Arab) presidents know very well what they have committed and how much they have stolen from their peoples so I have no remorse for what’s happening,” said university student Shahinda Abdulla.
“On the contrary, I think this is the bare minimum, more should happen.”
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Jason Benham and Asma al-Sharif in Saudi Arabia, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Sophie Hares