LONDON (Reuters) - Libyans celebrated, Western leaders exulted, but Arab governments greeted Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in near-silence on Monday, even though most had viewed him as an embarrassing, if not dangerous, maverick during his 42 years in power.
Despite their disdain for the Libyan leader, many Arab rulers are queasy at the spectacle of his violent overthrow at the hands of ragtag rebels backed by Western air power.
After the overthrow of longstanding autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt this year, the demise of a third can hardly cheer other strongmen fighting popular revolts, as in Yemen and Syria.
Nor can they have relished a pointed reminder from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu that Gaddafi’s fate “shows that leaders who do not listen to their people cannot stay in power.”
The only official response came from the Arab League, which backed a no-fly zone to protect civilians when the Libyan revolt turned bloody. That was a big step for Arabs still scarred by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but the League soon voiced alarm when the scale of NATO bombing of Gaddafi’s forces became clear.
“The Arab League offers its full solidarity with the ongoing efforts under the leadership of the Transitional National Council (TNC) to protect the capabilities of the Libyan people,” said Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the 22-member body.
“This is a historic moment that marks a milestone in the history of the Libyan people. We hope the council’s efforts are successful in leading the new phase and protecting the independence, sovereignty and integrity of Libyan lands.”
Only six Arab countries are among more than 30 nations around the world to have recognised the rebel TNC. Egypt’s new rulers did so only on Monday, Tunisia’s on Saturday.
Nearby Algeria, which opposed sanctions and voted against the Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone, may have the most to lose from Gaddafi’s removal, fearing that chaos in Libya might allow weapons to flow to its own Islamist militants, and perhaps reignite unrest at home that first flared in December.
The far-off Gulf state of Qatar, which armed and funded the rebels, may be the best-placed to profit, with its national oil company poised to compete with U.S. and European rivals.
“Qatar is particularly well-positioned to play a significant role in Libya’s reconstruction, providing much-needed funding and political support,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar.
“Qatar, more than any other Arab country, was willing to put its money where its mouth was. Not only did it say it supported the rebels; it actually did. The rebels will remember this.”
The euphoria of Libyans may lend some emotional impetus to Arabs seeking reform or revolution elsewhere, despite the unique nature of the Libyan case, with Western military involvement.
“Arabs needed this, they needed another victory, this changes the whole tone in the region after several months of disappointment,” said Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Centre.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates, said the “most miserable person on earth” after Gaddafi is Syria’s Assad. “Gaddafi’s fall will not only make the Libyan people happy, but will also inspire the Syrian people.”
However, the internal dynamics of each country’s struggle may have more weight than the example of Libya, where rebels took up arms early on, unlike protesters in Syria and Yemen, who have mostly tried to keep their movement non-violent.
“One needs to be very careful assuming that Gaddafi’s disappearance will hearten those elsewhere,” said George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University.
“His disappearance has been obvious for months, so it has been factored into expectations and strategies. Many (Arabs) are now much more worried about what comes afterwards, especially Tunisia which only recognised the TNC on Saturday.”
Amel Boubakeur, a North Africa expert, said Arab states had a chance to recognise the TNC and “place themselves on the reformers’ side” now they could be almost sure Gaddafi was gone.
“But they do not do it for the sake of democracy but because they know the council’s guys are safe ... partners mainly because they were (once) part of Gaddafi’s regime,” she said, referring to former government ministers who defected.
The new leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, which took the brunt of a refugee exodus from their neighbour during the six-month Libyan uprising, have yet to comment on its outcome.
Promised transitions to democracy are far from complete in both countries. After months of armed conflict, Libya may face an even rockier road to stability and representative government.
The relative silence of Middle Eastern governments over Gaddafi’s removal conceals a range of feelings, said Joffe.
“Relief, certainly, except in Algiers which has been propping up the Gaddafi regime, and particularly in those states such as Qatar and the UAE that actively participated (in supporting the rebels),” he said.
“Disquiet because the removal of any leader implies that others can be removed, a particular worry for Iran and Syria, but also for Saudi Arabia; concern about NATO’s success because it could herald another round of Western interventionism ... and definitely anxiety about the aftermath,” Joffe said.
Additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha and Marwa Awad in Cairo; Editing by Jon Boyle