Arab states paralysed by fear of their people and the US
Saturday March 1, 2003
All Arabs, regimes and peoples, agree on one thing: war on Iraq may affect the entire world, but they and their region will pay far the highest price. The Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, warns that war will "open the gates of hell", and President Mubarak of Egypt says that it will light a "gigantic fire" of violence and terror.
An Arab world deeply conscious of its history of humiliation by foreigners' affairs is about to see one of its member states conquered and occupied; and the Bush administration does not hide its ambition to make this the first step in a "reshaping" of the region at least as much in the interest of the Arabs' historic adversary, Israel, as its own.
Commentators have forecast all manner of possible consequences, ranging from the breakdown of Iraq into civil war and its dismemberment by neighbouring powers to an attempt by Israel to subjugate the Palestinians once and for all, perhaps with another mass expulsion 1948-style.
Leaders from the 22 members of the Arab League, including a delegation from Baghdad, will gather for a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, today, to confront some of these fears.
Their maximum objective appears to be launching an eleventh-hour "Arab solution", which, in practice, could only be a concerted attempt to persuade Saddam to step down; their minimum aim would be to throw their weight behind the war-averting endeavours of others. But the summit is widely expected to be a fiasco.
The pre-meeting of Arab foreign ministers yesterday did not bode well; they were unable to find a common position on the looming war, indicating their deep divisions.
The summit comes at a time when Arab leaders are hopelessly trapped between fear of their people and fear of the US, on whose good will they will feel themselves, post-Saddam, more than ever dependent. They know too that they are doing less than anyone else on earth to forestall the calamity about to engulf them. It is disgraceful, Arab commentators say, that others' governments, even close allies of America, are far more energetic to this end than Arab governments .
"European countries," says Beirut's al-Safir newspaper, "have more Arab national feeling than we Arabs ourselves." It was the Turkish government, they point out, which recently, if unsuccessfully, lobbied Arab states to sign on to a regional initiative to avert a war; it was at European instigation that President Mubarak belatedly sought to reassert Egypt's traditional role as the promoter of collective Arab action.
Palestine has always been the pan-Arab cause par excellence, and the Arabs thought that their rulers had reached a nadir of impotence and defeatism with their failure, these past two years, to furnish meaningful help to the intifada, or at least to get the US to rein in its Israeli protege. But now, with Iraq, they have sunk yet further.
Commentators call it the virtual demise of the "pan- Arab principle" which has dominated regional politics since Arab independence, the whole idea that Arab states, as constituent parts of a greater Arab "nation", should always combine in defence of the higher Arab interest.
"The first shot in the Anglo-Saxon war on Iraq," says Syria's al-Baath newspaper, "will be the coup de grce to the corpse of the Arab system - that least influential player in what is happening to the Arab world today."
Officially, all the Arab states oppose war.
Some, like Syria, tend towards the ingratiation of their people, staking out a strong, "patriotic" position against war; this time, unlike in the last Gulf war, Syria deems it the less dangerous, painful option.
But for others ingratiation of America is the sounder, indeed, the only possible course, with the result that, in a mockery of last year's summit, half a dozen of them have offered their territories as launching pads for the onslaught.
And those, such as Egypt, which have not, are almost universally deemed to be colluding with the Anglo-Ameri can "war camp"; or, at the very least, to be more aligned with it than they are with anti-war Europeans. "The Arab system," said a Palestinian commentator, Hafiz Barghouti, "hasn't just declared its impotence to stop the war, it has volunteered to join in, as if in resistance to the desire of many friendly governments and peoples to stop the potential massacre of the Iraqi people."
"But history will also record," he goes on, "that not only the Arab system failed, retreated and colluded with the aggressors; the Arab people, too, were spineless and terrified."
His comment is typical of much woeful Arab speculation as to why the Arab "street" has been so relatively quiescent, especially since popular disgust with governments - failed, corrupt, tyrannical - runs incomparably deeper in this region than almost anywhere else.
One answer commentators come up with is the ruthless repression with which such governments would counter any serious manifestations of the popular will.
Another is the apathy induced by the knowledge that, with such regimes, demonstrations never change anything. Unless, that is, they assume so massive and explosive a form that they change the regimes themselves.
That they very well could is the fear haunting pro-American regimes such as Jordan's and Egypt's; both know that the outward calm is no measure of the pent-up anger that lies beneath the surface, and that what Palestine on its own failed to ignite, Iraq and Palestine together could. "One missile on Baghdad," says the Egyptian journalist Amira Howeidi, "and things are going to go crazy, especially in the universities."
Indeed, some argue, disgust with the existing order runs so deep that many Arabs will welcome the Anglo-American "aggression" they simultaneously abhor.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991 some deplored this for what it was, the most spectacular violation of Arab brotherhood; yet they simultaneously applauded it in the belief that, though Saddam himself was the most rotten ruler of a rotten Arab order, he was supplying the dynamite that would blow the order away.
It didn't happen; with US help, the order, including Saddam himself, was entirely restored.
But this time, as the leading columnist Raghida Dergham points out, the US itself is supplying the dynamite.
"The oppression of those who live under the Iraq regime, and the discontent of those other Arabs who deem their own regimes beyond reform, has reached the point of despair.
"And despair has bred acquiescence to anything that might shake the foundations of the Arab world, even a war that was conceived by men - Bush's policymakers - famed for their loathing and contempt for the Arab peoples and their total loyalty to Israel."