AUTHORS OF THEIR OWN MISFORTUNE
Saddam Hussein isn't the only leader whose regime may topple in the coming war, says DAVID HIRST
By DAVID HIRST
Glove and Mail - Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - Page A21
BEIRUT -- All Arab regimes and Arab peoples, agree on one thing: War on Iraq may affect the entire world, but they and their region will pay the highest price.
An Arab world deeply conscious of its long history of humiliation by foreigners' affairs is about to see one of its member-states conquered and occupied. As well, the Bush administration does not hide its ambition to make this the first step in a "reshaping" of the whole region. Commentators here 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 a 1948-style expulsion.
Yet the Arabs -- the peoples, if not the regimes -- are agreed on something else, 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 other governments, even close allies of the United States, are far more energetic in attempting to avert war than are the Arab governments themselves, that other peoples around the world have taken to the streets in antiwar demonstrations that far outdo those of the Arab peoples.
"European countries," says Beirut's al-Safir newspaper, "have more Arab national feeling than we Arabs ourselves." It took the Turkish government, not an Arab government, to try to mount a regional initiative to avert a war a few weeks ago, and it was only after European instigation that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak belatedly sought to reassert Egypt's traditional role as the promoter of collective Arab action, and call for an Arab summit this coming weekend. Surely a case of too little, too late.
Arabs thought their leaders had reached a new low these past two years when they failed to come to the aid of the Palestinians in their battle with Israel. Now, with Iraq, the leadership has sunk further still in the estimation of the people. Commentators call it the demise of the "pan-Arab principle," the concept that has dominated regional politics since Arab independence.
Officially, all the Arab states oppose war. That is what they proclaimed at their last annual summit conference and what they'll probably say at their summit on Sunday. But Arab leaders will go to this meeting hopelessly trapped between fear of their people and fear of the United States, on whose good will they will find themselves, post-Saddam Hussein, more dependent than ever.
Some, such as Syria, tend toward the ingratiation of their people, staking out a strong, "patriotic" position against war. Unlike the last gulf war, Syria deems this the less dangerous option this time. But for other regimes, ingratiation of Washington is the better, indeed, the only possible, course. As a result, in a mockery of last year's summit, half a dozen of them have offered their territories as launching pads for the coming onslaught. And those that have not, such as Egypt, are almost universally deemed to be colluding with the Anglo-American "war camp" anyway.
"The Arab system," notes Palestinian commentator Hafiz Barghouti, "hasn't just declared its impotence to stop the war, it has volunteered to join in."
"But history will also record," he says, "that not only the Arab system failed, retreated and colluded with the aggressors; the Arab people, too, were spineless and terrified."
If this is so, how can one explain it? Popular disgust with their governments -- failed, corrupt, tyrannical -- runs deeper in this region than almost anywhere else in the world. Why are the people so silent?
One answer may be 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, the demonstrations assume so massive and explosive a form that they change the regimes themselves.
That is the fear that is haunting pro-American regimes such as Jordan's and Egypt's. Both know that the outward calm at the moment is no measure of the pent-up anger that lies beneath the surface, and that what the Palestinian issue on its own failed to ignite, Iraq and Palestine together could. "One missile on Baghdad," says Egyptian journalist Amira Howeidi, "and things are going to go crazy, especially in the universities."
Indeed, the disgust with the existing order runs so deep here that many Arabs may actually welcome the Anglo-American attack. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, some deplored this for what it was -- a spectacular violation of Arab brotherhood. Yet many also applauded it in the belief that, though Saddam Hussein 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 U.S. help, the rotten order, including Saddam Hussein himself, was entirely restored. But this time, as the New York-based al-Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham points out, the United States 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, indeed, to Sharon himself."
David Hirst, author of Sadat and a former correspondent for The Guardian, is based in Beirut.