Why Arabs Hailed the Soviet Coup THE SOVIET CRISIS


September 11, 1991|By RANDOLPH RYAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Arabs are not the only ones to experience whiplash because of events in the Soviet Union. But the Arab reaction, not only among most Palestinians but also among intellectuals in much of the Arab world, received special notice. In the early hours after the coup, there were many displays of jubilation about an event that much of the world received with alarm.

Was that reaction mere perversity? Interviews in Cairo, Amman and Jerusalem, both with Egyptian intellectuals and Palestinian leaders -- including several involved in negotiations toward a peace conference -- suggest it was a bit more complicated.

Looking through the Egyptian prism, diplomats, professors and journalists often perceived in the coup attempt an echo of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, who conducted a telephone survey the afternoon of the coup, reported that many drew this parallel.

The peace with Israel that Sadat had negotiated at Camp David won back for Egypt the Sinai peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, but it did not address the crucial issue of the Middle East and the fate of the Palestinians. To many in the Arab world, among them Sadat's assassins, Camp David is still regarded as a sellout.

Like Sadat, Mr. Ibrahim said, Mr. Gorbachev was ''ahead of his time, a visionary man who had thrown in his lot with the West. He had initiated a peace process, moving from confrontation to cooperation. But the West had milked him.'' Mr. Ibrahim said that about a third of those whom he contacted welcomed the coup attempt.

''They said that Gorbachev had given too much for too little. He had upset the system and had left the Western world in dominance.''

In Jersusalem, Faisal Husseini, one of three West Bank Palestinian moderates who have been meeting with Secretary of State James Baker, (but whom the Israeli government contends are unfit to meet across a negotiating table), said:

''As far as an average Palestinian can see, what can Gorbachev symbolize? Four hundred thousand new immigrants from the Soviet Union, that's what. Which means the expanding Israeli settlements, the confiscation of land -- all these things.''

Mr. Husseini's associate, Sa'eb Erakat, a professor of political science, added: ''Here on the West Bank and Gaza, many people on the streets would be jubilant if changes take place in Alaska. We hurt badly. We really hurt badly as Palestinians. We have a 63 percent unemployment rate. Our land is being confiscated now on a monthly basis, the equivalent of annual confiscations before Baker started his shuttle diplomacy.

''Last year we produced 600 million cubic meters of water, of which the Israelis took 500 cubic meters -- 80 percent. Our homes are being demolished. Our children are unable to go to school. Farmers can't farm because the Israelis impose curfews at the harvest. Workers can't go to work. The situation is desperate. And desperation not only leads to desperate acts, it leads to desperate thinking.''

As for the Palestinian leadership, Mr. Husseini said, ''We had a mixed feeling about what was going on. We were angry about the way Gorbachev was treated and so our feeling was: This is the result.

''So our first reaction was: OK, this is what the Americans want. Let them face the new reality. This is what the West worked for all the time to get Gorbachev on his knees. Now, are they happy?

''But the second reaction was: OK, now what will happen? Will what is going on change things for the better in the Soviet Union or help the peace process? If we were worried 60 percent before, now we are worried 80 percent.''

''We would like to see a strong U.S.S.R., stability in the U.S.S.R.,'' Mr. Husseini said. ''It would help us in a lot of ways. It would help the peace process go forward. Second, stability might reduce the flow of emigration from the U.S.S.R..''

Randolph Ryan is a Boston Globe writer.

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