Saddam Hussein as Arab Hero: Following the Nasser Model WAR IN THE GULF

February 10, 1991|By ROBERT RUBY

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. An Arab leader grabs territory and proclaims it his nation's by right. When he refuses to retreat, a Western coalition mobilizes overwhelming military force and launches a bombing campaign followed by a ground assault.

Militarily, the allied operation is a success. Politically, it is a total, unmistakable failure, as public opinion shifts overwhelming onto the Arab leader's side. He not only survives but emerges a hero.

No, that is not getting ahead of events.

Arabs who reached adulthood in the 1950s or '60s recognize the account as the story of Egypt's war against Britain, France and Israel over the Suez Canal, in 1956. Thanks to that confrontation with the West, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president, became the most charismatic figure in the Arab world and its spokesman, no matter that he raised grandiose hopes that went largely unfulfilled.

Arab intellectuals foresee the story repeating itself. This time Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, would fill the starring role. In Arab eyes, he is the first person since Nasser to show a willingness to confront the outsider and uphold Arab honor at any price.

"I'm seeing some striking resemblances between the two situations," said Wahlid Kazziha, a political scientist teaching in Cairo, Egypt. "I lived the Nasser period as a young man, and it is so vivid to me, the conversations we had as students. Because Nasser had stood there, took all the bashing around, we thought we should support him.

"We are witnessing exactly the same thing -- Saddam's act of defiance against all the West, and his stand against Israel. Saddam may gain that same sympathy because the Arab world is looking for its hero again."

If history does not truly repeat itself, it often plagiarizes themes. People who remember Nasser are entitled to wonder at what point the present will veer away from the past or if they will collide.

Nasser and Saddam Hussein are not twins, for Nasser never showed the brutality toward his own people routinely demonstrated by Mr. Hussein. But they share centrality -- each man was able to overcome international condemnation and set the region's agenda. And they share what Arabs insist are similar times, periods in which Arab interests are manipulated by outsiders.

The Arab view often differs from the West's, as if the Middle East imposed a special lens, especially in judging leaders. At times the view is so different that Westerners might fail to recognize the scenes. Mr. Hussein's public standing is one such case.

Mr. Hussein's image has changed since the beginning of the Persian Gulf war. For many Arabs he is brave, not just brutal, and his bravery is such that the brutality is increasingly overlooked. He is an Arab who makes other Arabs feel strong, just as Nasser did.

For Westerners, Mr. Hussein's era is sharply different from 1956, indeed there is an altogether different Middle East.

France abandoned its claims to North Africa, even if it took the hugely destructive war in Algeria to force the French to act. Britain, a victim of budgets cutting aspirations down to size, lost its persuasive say in the affairs of Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Saudi Arabia and a half dozen other states came to enjoy immense wealth from oil, much of it produced, refined and marketed by Arabs.

What remains the same is the image many Arabs have of themselves, as victims of powerful forces beyond their control. Like a person who never sheds the insecurities of childhood, nations can be crippled by holding onto grudges for past wrongs and by refusing to embrace change. Nasser's time is linked with the present by a feeling of helplessness, a sense of inferiority accentuated by the United States taking the leading role in the war against Iraq.

In Arab public opinion the outsider once again is determining events -- as done in the past by Persians, Mongols, Crusaders, Turks, the British and the French. Now it is the Americans. It is taken for granted that they would act only in concert with the Israelis, the most despised outsiders of all.

It is hard to overstate the pervasiveness of the belief that "the other" is always at fault and always scheming. In serious conversations about politics, Western-educated Saudis speculate that Turkey has allied itself with the United States to recover influence lost in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Or that the Turks are actively plotting to take back parts of Iraq. Or that they have designs to retake the Arabian peninsula.

Nothing is held to be the responsibility of Arabs. In the Egyptian paper Al Ahram, an editor wrote that if Mr. Hussein were assassinated, Israel would be responsible for his death. If he survived, Israel again would be responsible, as part of a plot to keep him in office to destabilize other Arab regimes.

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