Other Stubborn Arab Dictators Are Watching to See How We Handle Libya and Qaddafi

Self-preservation is the first priority. That’s the mantra of the megalomaniac who has ruled Libya for 42 years. No matter what may be the human toll, financial costs and political consequences, in the end Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi cares about one thing only -- himself. In this myopic global view, loyalty goes one way. That is, Libyans must be devoted to the ruler, but there never was an ironclad guarantee that he would return the favor.

How else can one explain the carnage Qaddafi has unleashed over the past few weeks on his own citizens who challenged his tyrannical rule? Calling his Libyan opponents in recent days “cockroaches” and “rats,” Qaddafi has relied on those Libyans, as well as foreign mercenaries, who remain dutiful, albeit misguided, followers, willing to kill in support of a tyrant who just refuses to recognize that it is time to go.

Having ignored totally the appeals of some of his own citizens to talk about a new future for Libya, and instead responded with violence, and having ignored the warnings of world powers, Qaddafi now is facing the military might of several Western powers.

Qaddafi is impervious to these developments. The Qaddafi compound in Tripoli is his Alamo. But he is determined to emerge victorious against what he calls “the crusaders,” a charge that may well find welcome audiences in the region, given the Arab League’s amorphous stance on the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone. Though the league had initially endorsed the no-fly zone action, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa condemned the American, British and French use of force in implementing the UN Security Council resolution.

Given the variety of despotic regimes and universal absence of democracy in the Arab world, there is no assurance that major players, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will support the U.S. and European approach to not tolerate a dictator killing his own people. After all, this is the same Arab League that, along with the African Union, maintained welcoming relations with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after the International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes and genocide in Darfur.

Whether Qaddafi is apprehended and brought to justice will test the international will to confront the worst human rights abusers. Will Qaddafi end up hiding in a hole like Saddam Hussein, or will he look for a place to pitch his tent, perhaps finding refuge in an obscure portion of the Saudi desert? Remember, Saudi Arabia welcomed Idi Amin, one of Africa’s most brutal and destructive tyrants, after he fled Uganda in 1979.

How the Libyan saga evolves is being watched very closely by Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad and other rigidly autocratic rulers in the Arab world. Whether the public uprisings in Tunisia that forced President Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia and in Egypt where President Hosni Mubarak stepped down to retire in seclusion in Sharm el Sheikh, were aberrations or revolutions that will produce real political change is too early tell. The Egypt and Tunisia stories are still being written.

One lesson learned by protesters inspired by Egyptians and Tunisians is the inherent imbalance between the Facebook and Twitter users and the desperate well-armed regimes that can easily turn off cell phones and internet access, while displaying no compunction for massacring their own citizens.

The bodies of victims are piling up not just in the streets of Libya but also in Yemen, where in one showdown last week at least 45 protestors were gunned down in the capital city of Sanaa. Like Qaddafi, President Saleh is aggressively defiant. Although he announced that he would not run in the next undemocratic election slated for 2013, Saleh also made clear that he has no intention of stepping down earlier.

In Syria, protests have emerged in several cities, tentatively, as the al-Assad regime has shown zero tolerance. Clashes that left several demonstrators in Daraa dead by police gunfire is a strong indication that Syria will follow the Libyan and Yemeni models, and not the examples of Egypt and Tunisia.

The future of the Middle East, a region vital to U.S. security, will depend not only on the outcome of each uprising but also, if not more important, on aligning Western and Arab approaches to handling these political earthquakes. Agreeing that ruthless dictators are not welcome at all would be a good start.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of communications.