For Now, Saddam Is a Hero in the Arab World

Article excerpt

People in the Middle East feel angry and impotent at the west's confrontation with Iraq. George Joffe analyses an ambiguous mood

The news that an 11th-hour agreement between the United Nations and Iraq had been signed in Baghdad was greeted with euphoria in the Arab world. The sighs of relief from Arab governments, who would not now have to make the difficult choice between support for the west (risking domestic anger) or support for Saddam Hussein (invoking threats of western retaliation), were coupled with street-level enthusiasm for an "Iraqi victory". Saddam, the popular refrain ran, had dealt directly with the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, thereby outwitting the Americans and the British. No matter that Iraq had conceded on all the essential points over UN weapons inspections; Saddam had nonetheless faced down western arrogance and threat.

This popular reaction underlined sentiments that had dominated popular reaction in the region as the crisis developed. For Middle Easterners the situation had had little to do with whether or not Iraq had chemical or bacteriological weapons or intended to produce and use them, despite their countries' geographic proximity to Iraq. Rather, it had a lot to do with the horrifying effect of seven years of UN sanctions on the population of Iraq. It had even more to do with their perceptions of the iniquitous manipulation of the UN by the west, led by the US, such that Iraq was to be punished while Israel would, as in the past, escape, scot-free, for precisely the same offence, of defying resolutions of the UN Security Council.

Iraq is ostracised, they argue, for daring to demand an end to sanctions and insisting on respect for its national sovereignty, while Israel is treated as an honoured ally, despite the responsibility of the Netanyahu government for the destruction of the Middle East peace process. For them, western inhumanity is equated with western double standards, western intolerance with western power. That is the virtually unanimous attitude throughout the Middle East.

It is particularly true of the Egyptian press which, in recent months, has been unrestrained in its criticism of western behaviour. Newspapers elsewhere in the region have been similarly strident whenever censorship has not interfered. And, of course, censorship is a powerful weapon for ensuring conformity with a government, whether it is one that wishes to avoid outright support for Saddam, as in the case of the Palestinian Authority, or to attack the west, as in Syria.

An apparently dissident view was voiced in Al-Wafd, an Egyptian newspaper which is close to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. One commentator argued that Iraq deserved its punishment at US hands, not for the iniquities of Saddam's regime but because of its failure to confront the menace of Shiah Islam 1,400 years ago! For him, the American threat was similar to the devastation wreaked by the Mongols in the 12th century: divine retribution for that original sin.

It would not have escaped his readers' attention, however, that the US had been bracketed with the Mongols as a traditional model of barbarity. Others have drawn parallels with the Suez crisis in 1956 (an event that, for Middle Easterners, highlighted western perfidy), with Iraq in the place of Nasser's Egypt and America taking France's place, alongside Britain and Israel.

And popular action has mirrored such criticism. In Jordan - a state that supposedly supports the peace process and western objectives in the region - the middle of February was marked by a forbidden demonstration at the main mosque in Amman, which was brutally broken up by the police. More protests took place the following Friday in Ma'an, traditionally a royalist stronghold.

In the Occupied Territories, in Hebron, Nablus and Gaza, there was further unrest. The American and Israeli flags were burned and the chants of the crowds taunted President Clinton's alleged sexual weaknesses and supported Saddam. …