Saddam stands alone

The Arab street that once rallied for Iraq is strangely quiet, although anger and frustration sometimes boil up.

Published February 8, 2003 12:00AM (EST)

If Colin Powell's evidence against Iraq didn't persuade the United Nations Security Council to back the Bush administration's war plans immediately, it certainly cannot be expected to ease the skepticism that prevails in the Arab world. Not surprisingly, there is little enthusiasm in the region for a war. Distrust of America's motives and of its evidence against Saddam Hussein runs deep, and the perceived imbalance between the tough U.S. approach toward Iraq and its hands-off attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes further misgivings in the famed Arab street. But with war apparently imminent, and with tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets in Europe and the United States, the mood here is strikingly subdued. Apathy seems to have won out over anger and frustration for now, and Saddam Hussein has gone from "liberator" to "just another dictator."

In this cold and wind-swept Jordanian capital, most people choose to ignore their own government's cautious prewar cooperation with the Bush administration. During the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, Jordan and the Palestinians who make up more than half the kingdom's population were open in their sympathy for Iraq. In the run-up to the war, mass demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein took over the streets, and posters and toys using his likeness appeared everywhere.

But Jordanians and Palestinians paid a heavy price for backing the losing side. The Gulf countries expelled Palestinian workers and their families to Jordan; some of the workers had spent decades, or had even been born, in those countries. The oil sheiks cut off the money supply to Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they withheld diplomatic and other support. Only recently have some of the Gulf countries restored their ties to pre-Gulf War levels, while the Iraq trade has somewhat recovered because of the U.N.'s 1998 oil-for-food protocol. U.S. aid to Jordan has also risen to unprecedented levels -- $235 million in civilian aid last year and some $200 million in military support.

This time around the new king, Abdallah II, is carefully steering his country into the American orbit. The Washington Post reported last week that Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq in the middle of the desolate Syrian desert, will allow a limited U.S. military presence. It was said mainly to involve the stationing of air defense personnel and search-and-rescue teams. Jordan would also allow American planes to cross its airspace on their way to Iraq.

A Jordanian spokesman immediately denied the report, but the turnaround in the kingdom's position seems clear. Former Foreign Minister Awad Janani acknowledges that his country has become "much more moderate" in its position on Iraq. "We learned our lesson from last time," he told Salon.

As in other Arab countries, the government has seriously tightened regulations in order to suppress street protests. Particularly in Jordan and Egypt, this was at first a way to dampen public expressions of anger over the Palestinian intifada. Such outpourings often have a way of turning against the regime itself. Now, the same restrictive rules also apply to pro-Iraq demonstrations, and few seem willing to risk arrest for Saddam.

In Amman, at the first authorized demonstration against a war on Iraq, just a few thousand people turned up for an orderly march through the capital's upmarket Shmeisani neighborhood to the local U.N. headquarters. The demonstrators were carrying red-and-green banners of the Islamic movement and white placards condemning "the official Arab silence on Iraq," and all along the way they were hemmed in by a cordon of baton-carrying police in helmets and camouflage dress. Passersby in this modern residential and commercial neighborhood didn't rush to join in -- instead, they hurried away. The turnout must have been disappointing for the organizers, taking into consideration that all the powerful professional associations in the country took part, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, the most potent political force in the land.

While the conventional wisdom holds that Saddam's secular Baath regime and Islamic extremists regard each other with suspicion, the presence of the fundamentalists in the protests suggests that two sides are willing to put aside their differences and to join in battle against the United States. "We all hate the U.S. for what it is doing in the region," says Dr. Mohammed el-Oran, chairman of the Jordanian Medical Association and head of the Al-Ard political party, which he says is "very close" to Iraq's Baath party. As protesters chanted for "war, war, war against the Jews," and their banners proclaim the U.S. "the head of the snake," El-Oran blithely refuted the reports that his country will cooperate with the U.S. "We will not allow any American soldiers to cross Jordan to attack Iraq," he blusters. "If they even try they will be dead before they reach Iraq. They will be killed."

Such views neatly dovetail with those of fundamentalist Jordanians. Last year a meeting of Islamic scholars in Amman issued a religious edict, or fatwa, warning that support for the U.S. plans was un-Islamic. "It is considered a crime against Islamic sharia law what ruling governments have adopted in outlawing Jihad and preventing Muslims from fighting the aggressor U.S. invaders," according to the fatwa. "It is not permissible for any Muslim to help Americans in any way possible, whether by guiding him or her to roads that harm Muslims or filling their planes or cars with fuel or selling the aggressor a piece of bread or even giving them water."

Jordan experienced a clampdown on Islamists after the killing in October of Laurence Foley, a diplomat with the U.S. Agency for International Development, in Amman. The southern city of Ma'an, a hotbed of opposition to the crown since the first King Abdallah in the beginning of the last century, has been swept for Islamist and al-Qaida elements, causing low-level resentment. Still, the authorities now claim to have caught the perpetrators, and Powell used one of the confessions in his presentation to the Security Council in an effort to prove the link between Iraq and al-Qaida. Powell also said he was not persuaded by the argument that the secular Baath and the fundamentalist al-Qaida would not cooperate.

El-Oran insists on the unity of the Arab and Muslim nation. "We are all one country," he says. "The borders are artificial." If that were true, however, El-Oran and the other opposition figures would never have been allowed to demonstrate. However much the Jordanian government clamps down on political freedoms, it offers far more liberty that Saddam's Iraq. But when pressed on the undemocratic nature of Iraq's regime, El-Oran smiles at such naiveté. "All regimes here are the same. Why single out Iraq?" he asks. And by way of proving that Saddam is a hero to his own people, El-Oran reminds that "he received every single vote in the referendum to reelect him last year."

There are others, however, who despise Saddam as much as El-Oran seems to admire him.

A group of Iraqi exiles while away a late afternoon in the Cafe Central, a first-floor gathering spot along one of downtown Amman's grubby, exhaust-blackened arteries. Through an entrance acrid with the smell of urine, they drink sweet mint-flavored tea, play sheshbesh, and smoke the arguilah, the local term for a hookah. This is where the intellectuals and the artists who oppose Saddam Hussein hang out. Most have lost everything -- all their possessions and money, and sometimes their families. They oscillate between wanting to go to a Western country to rebuild their lives and wanting to stick around to welcome the Americans who would, as they see it, liberate Iraq.

Antiwar demonstrations and opinions, whether Arab or European, are quickly dismissed at the Central's sticky metal tables. "Those people don't know what they are talking about," says one playwright. "It is easy to demonstrate if you haven't been in the torture chamber." Some denizens of the cafe have in fact been tortured and bear the scars to prove it.

Over the past decade, their hostility to Saddam has filtered down to the grassroots through much of the Arab world. In Baka'a, one of the Palestinian refugee camps near Amman, it is hard to find traces of the earlier enthusiasm for the Iraqi leader. The Palestinians were among the most ardent supporters of Saddam Hussein, partly because of his strident rhetoric toward Israel. But now, even with the intifada still blazing across the border, Baka'a stays quiet and offers few visible signs of support for Iraq.

A watchmaker on the main street of the camp, near the vegetable market, smiles when he recalls the time even a few years ago when watches with the image of Saddam Hussein on the dial were popular. "Now nobody asks for them anymore," he says. "Even the few Iraqis who still come here don't like Saddam." The problem, explains the older man, is that the regime in Iraq is now seen as "as illegitimate as the others." Especially for many Palestinians, he says, "Saddam Hussein used to be regarded as a liberator. But he didn't do anything for us. He turned out just to be another dictator."

Certainly across the Jordan River in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Palestinians seem too busy with their own problems to spend much time demonstrating in support of Iraq. Not that a demonstration would be easy in the West Bank -- most of the cities are still occupied by the Israeli army. In Hebron this week, army jeeps patrolled the street in front of the governor's office, enforcing a curfew for the third day in a row.

"The people of Iraq are our people," said Governor Areef Al-Jabari, "but we are not going to give the Israelis a pretext to carry out more aggression against us." Many Palestinians and other Arabs fear that when world attention is focused on Iraq, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will crack down hard in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, maybe even expelling the population. Others recognize, however, that Israel will also be pressured by the United States to keep things quiet during an operation in Iraq.

That's what happened during the Gulf War, some say. "Look at what happened during the first intifada," says Ziad Abu Amr, the chairman of the political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "Everything stayed quiet." The first intifada started in 1987 and petered out after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait when the world's attention was focused on Iraq.

Today, neither Iraq nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of the region's problems, but each represents a flashpoint around which the discontented are likely to rally. Among many Palestinians, and throughout the Arab world, there is still instinctive sympathy with Iraq because of its anti-Israeli stance. Clearly, the U.S. is aware of this too, and every option seems to have enormous risks. But Bush administration officials apparently have decided that by overthrowing Saddam, short-term outrage here is likely to die down and go away. And if they're right, that would remove one of the main irritants in Arab-Western relations.

If the U.S. and U.N. work only to contain Saddam, they will need to keep troops and inspectors massed in the region. That might be effective in checking his development of weapons of mass destruction, and it might deter him from once again invading a neighboring country. And clearly, Iraq's neighbors -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even Iran -- would be disappointed if the U.S. left the region to fend for itself. They have very little doubt that Saddam Hussein poses a real threat, maybe not now but certainly in the future if he's given a chance to rearm. And even among relief agencies operating in Iraq, there is no question that the regime spends huge sums on weapons and the army while neglecting the human needs of its own population. Then it magnifies those ills and blames them on the West.

But thousands of U.S. troops in the region fan the sort of resentment that fuels the fury of Osama bin Laden and his disciples. And dealing with Iraq without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian problem seems useless and may even reinforce that resentment. In answer to Powell's presentation this week to the Security Council, the Syrian representative answered that the U.S. line on Iraq sounded unconvincing "while Israel still occupies Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian lands and threatens its neighbors." Iraq's representative to the U.N. cited the Palestinians as well as Israel's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq also tried to link its case in 1990-91 to an alleged Israeli violation of Security Council resolutions, and it followed through by firing 38 Scud missiles at the Tel-Aviv area. It didn't achieve much then beyond a brief burst of sympathy from Arab populations and it is not likely to achieve much this time.

Hisham Qassem, the editor of the independent Cairo Times English-language newspaper in Egypt, does think that resentment at the U.S. stance on Israel plays a role in the population's opposition to a war on Iraq. "People see the U.S. not doing anything to stop Ariel Sharon and that makes them angry," he says. "If another country were to lead the attack, not so many people would oppose it." Even though there is some anger over the approaching war, Qassem dismisses any chance of serious unrest when it happens. "The Arab street is apathetic on the issue of Iraq, and in any case the street has never toppled governments," he says. The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is not worried about demonstrations because "they are confident they have suppressed dissent."

In Egypt as in other Arab countries, says Qassem, the regimes are actually more concerned about U.S. policy than about their own populations. Noting that the none of the 22 members of the Arab League is a democracy, he says: "The governments here and elsewhere in the region are against action on Iraq because they get very nervous about the phrase 'regime change.' They are afraid that if it's successful in Iraq it may be applied in other countries too."

The result of the strange mix of emotions and interests over Iraq this time has led to a careful balancing act by the Arab countries. Governments overtly oppose the war and take initiatives to try to avert it, such as the slightly ludicrous effort to persuade Saddam to accept exile. On the other hand, they are wary of offending the U.S., in part out of fear that what happens to Iraq will then happen to them.

Syria has always been in danger of being next in line, both because it is still on the U.S. State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism and lately because it is seen to be cooperating with Iraq. The Lebanese Hezbollah movement has kept up sporadic attacks along Israel's northern border even after the Israelis withdrew in 2000, and that helps establish them as one of the most likely targets in a continuing U.S. war on terrorism.

"Syria knows that it and Hezbollah will be next on the list after Iraq, and it's trying everything to avoid that," says Farid El-Khazen, a political science lecturer at the American University in Beirut. That is why the young and inexperienced president Bashar Assad has been cooperating with the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida, but El-Khazen doubts that that's enough. "There are all the outstanding issues and then lately the U.S. has been upset over Syria's purchase of illegal Iraqi oil and over reports that some weapons of mass destruction have been moved from Iraq to Syria."

And so, while anger and frustration over the looming war run high in the Arab countries, it may not be as strong or effective as many Western analysts suggest. Many here warn that the reaction will depend on the way the war develops. The longer it takes and the more Iraqi casualties it claims, the higher the risk of significant unrest in the Arab world. One analyst asks, however, "Even if it is quick and clean, will Al-Jazeera also say so?"

Attacks against American targets may increase as the war approaches or when it actually happens, analysts say. But the consensus here is that if the operation is relatively efficient, and if casualties are limited, an invasion will not bring a cataclysmic explosion on the Arab street.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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Egyptian Protests Iraq Middle East Syria Terrorism