Arab world takes stock after Saddam

A Palestinian man looks at Arabic newspapers showing Iraqi war scenes, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 28. (Brian Hendler)

A Palestinian man looks at Arabic newspapers showing Iraqi war scenes, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 28. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, April 21 (JTA) — Arab analysts are looking to assign blame for the quick defeat of a regime whose defiance of the United States had become a point of pride throughout the Arab world. Beside the perennial candidates for blame — America, the “Zionists” and their Western allies — analysts are directing their barbs at Arab regimes that they feel stood idly by while the U.S.-led coalition brought a fabled Arab capital to its knees in a matter of weeks. In a recent editorial, Zuheir Andreus, editor of Kul Al-Arab, an Arabic-language daily published in Nazareth, asked Arab leaders “who rule their countries by power of intelligence services and suppression, What did they feel when they saw the statues of Saddam Hussein smash? Have they learned the lesson?” Likewise, Lutfi Mashur, editor of another Israeli Arab daily, A-Sinara, recommended in a recent editorial that Arab leaders adopt democracy to “spare themselves the fate of Saddam.” More than a victory for President Bush, the fall of Baghdad was the “defeat of the Arab world,” Mashur wrote. Saddam’s ouster is sending shock waves through the Arab world, but it’s not yet clear where the reverberations will stop. U.S. officials believe Saddam’s overthrow will encourage pro-democracy, pro-Western forces throughout the region. They also believe it will create new opportunities to reform the Palestinian Authority and push for Israeli-Palestinian peace and will scare other states that support terrorism — such as Syria — into mending their ways. But a contrary opinion holds that the war will open a Pandora’s box whose ill effects will be difficult to contain. Restive Shi’ites — the majority in Iraq — could work toward a fundamentalist state on the model of Iran. Others could exploit anti-American feeling to discredit any American-led rebuilding initiative and prevent the spread of democracy, further insulating the Muslim states from the modern world and playing into the hands of nihilistic terror groups such as Al-Qaida. In addition, greater freedom of expression might not result in pro-Western policies, as demagogues could play on anti-American sentiment. The gulf in perceptions is illustrated by reaction to television images of jubilant Iraqis dragging Saddam statues through Baghdad streets. While Washington cried “liberation,” many in the Arab world were shaking their heads in shame and disapproval, cringing at the sight of U.S. soldiers conquering an Arab capital. “Is it only Baghdad that fell?” Saudi writer Khaled Dakhil wrote in an April 13 column in the Lebanese daily Al-Hayat. “Baghdad’s fall is the final indication that with it the Arab regional political order also has fallen.” According to a recent public-opinion survey conducted by the Arab Center for Applied Social Studies, 82 percent of Israeli Arabs said Saddam’s regime was “legitimate,” and 83 percent said Arab regimes did not do enough to stop the U.S.-led war. Such reactions are reminiscent of similar events in modern Middle Eastern history: When things have gone wrong — such as after the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1982 Lebanon war and the two Palestinian intifadas — Arab analysts have not looked for deeper causes but have blamed the debacles on a lack of Arab solidarity and steadfastness. More constructive lessons — which might help the Arab states to build representative governments, open societies and stronger economic and political foundations — are ignored. Frustrations over the absence of change in the Arab world may not have an immediate effect on the regimes, but the leaders are wary. That’s one of the reasons that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rushed to Syria this week to make sure that Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader, does not go too far in provoking the United States. What the Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians and the rest of the conservatives in the Arab world want more than anything else is stability. They won’t tolerate a Syrian adventure, and they are anxiously watching the power struggle between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas. A crisis in the Palestinian Authority will mean further delays in the presentation of the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, prolonging instability in the region. Some predict that nascent democratization in the Middle East — which has made considerable gains in recent years thanks to the ability of media such as Al-Jazeera to overcome Arab rulers’ stranglehold on information — may gain a boost from the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, against the conservatives’ interests. For example, a few days after a March 19 Mubarak speech blaming Saddam Hussein for the Iraqi crisis, 29 prominent Egyptian intellectuals of diverse political backgrounds issued a statement disagreeing with Mubarak’s position. The existence of such unaccustomed civic debate might gladden the hearts of U.S. policymakers, but the message would not: U.S. “aggression” against Iraq was an “imperialist one” designed to “use and enslave” Iraq and the Arab world, the intellectuals said. Egyptian analysts compared the fall of Baghdad to the supposedly negative results of the peace treaty with Israel. “The fall of Baghdad began with the fall of Cairo, when President Anwar Sadat broke the constants of history and geography and visited Israel,” said Amin Youssry, a former diplomat who served in several Arab capitals, including Baghdad. Democracy-oriented elements in the Arab world will face stiff opposition not only from the conservatives in power, but also from within Iraq — where fundamentalists are beginning to rally support among the Iraqi people for the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic republic. Preliminary signs are there. For example, radical Shi’ites, with their leader Sheik Sayyed Abbas, took over the municipality of Kut, south of Baghdad, and they are gaining strength. During last Friday’s prayers, Sheik Ahmad Kubaissi, preacher at the great Sunni mosque in Baghdad, warned the Americans, “Get out before we will force you to get out.” Iraqis and Palestinians now draw a link between the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and the “war of liberation” that Iraqis may yet wage against the Americans. The Hamas Internet monthly Al-Fatah wrote last week to the children of Iraq, urging them to launch a holy war against the Americans and pray for the annihilation of the Jews. The publication rejoices over the “near victory” against “the Jews and the Zionists within the Americans, the Spaniards and the Australians, and within the Arabs who have turned themselves into Zionists and who march in the parade of treason.” Differing perceptions are evident even in matters that seemingly would be straightforward, such as the legacy of Saddam’s information minister, Mohammad Sa’id Sahhaf. Sahhaf’s daily briefings for reporters became a thing of ridicule in Western eyes, a poignant symbol of Arab self-deception: Until the day Baghdad fell, he insisted that reporters who saw American troops and tanks in the heart of Baghdad must be hallucinating. To much of the Arab world, however, Sahhaf’s defiance — if only rhetorical — reportedly has made him a hero.

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