Arabs live amid debris of hopes Isolation, insecurity heightened in region WAR IN THE GULF


January 16, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- Nasser Latuff is a pharmacist, and he, his country and his region are suffering a painful withdrawal from matters as addictive as powerful drugs.

One of the drugs was Saddam Hussein. People were attracted by the Iraqi president's promise a year ago to humble the United States and to bring greatness to Arabs. Then came Iraq's quick military defeat and the arrival in Jordan of a flood of Palestinians expelled from Kuwait.

"I'm still so depressed," said Mr. Latuff, who had hoped for a different outcome to the war. "It's like taking amphetamines and then you have a crash."

Most of the Arab world has experienced a slow-motion crash of expectations. The war ended Iraq's immediate military threat to its neighbors, but without giving those countries a greater feeling of security. Fears about Iraq have been replaced by a greater estrangement between each country's government and its citizens.

Anyone expecting dramatic reforms has reason to be disappointed. The profoundly conservative regimes of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have resisted pressure for greater democracy and to grant more rights to women. In Syria, political dissent remains forbidden and the economy a shambles.

The small, wealthy states bordering the Persian Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, continue to be run as family enterprises. For Palestinians in the gulf, the war led to mass expulsions from their jobs and homes. Jordan, poor before the conflict, has become significantly poorer.

People of the region have had to abandon the dream of Arab unity. It was the first casualty of the war. Each state was left more isolated, more insecure, more distrustful.

Israel has not been exempt from the effects. For a large segment of the public there, the war has never stopped: Military commanders continue to debate whether the government was correct in deciding not to retaliate against the Scud missiles fired by Iraq.

Officials also have tried to get the public used to the idea that events could repeat themselves. Citizens have kept their gas masks and are to be given improved models later this year -- just in case.

Jordan has suffered more than most of its neighbors. As poverty has worsened, unemployment is said to have risen as high as 30 percent. Because of the influx of Palestinians, housing is in short supply, as is space in classrooms.

Jordan also has become smaller, more confining. Mr. Latuff, for example, had to abandon plans to take a high-paying job in the United Arab Emirates. Ever since Jordanians loudly demonstrated in favor of Iraq during the war, their labor has not been welcomed.

Jordanians had not fully recovered from the humiliation of the war when they fixed their hopes on a second drug, the Arab-Israeli peace process. It had the effects of an hallucinogen, promoting improbable fantasies.

When Arab and Israeli delegations held their first sessions in November, Jordanians hastily concluded that peace was at hand, as did Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Land prices there doubled within a few days. Speculators assumed that a Palestinian state was about to be born and that thousands of Palestinians living abroad were about to return.

They were not. A peace treaty remains months, probably years away -- assuming the parties continue their negotiations. But the high hopes made the end of the initial excitement all the more crushing.

Yet, Jordan has managed to survive with its peculiarities intact:

* Unlike any other Arab state, it has a king who is more than a figurehead but less than omnipotent. His actions during the war, when he strongly criticized the presence of U.S. troops, showed him to be subject to the whims of his public.

* Its Parliament is the only democratically elected body in the Arab world to exercise genuine authority in domestic affairs.

* Islamic fundamentalists play a major role in politics but do not dominate it. Their party is the largest single grouping in Parliament. But after several failed attempts, the fundamentalists have not significantly altered the habits of the largely secular public.

By the standards of the region, Jordan has become shockingly democratic, and much of the liberalization has occurred since the war. Members of Parliament demand an accounting of how the government spends U.S. aid. Newspapers complain about government secrecy, demand inquiries into allegations of corruption and praise or lampoon the fundamentalists.

Many of the demands go unmet, but people are relatively free to make them -- and that is new.

King Hussein, who is 55, is the glue holding together a split society. He has ruled since 1953. He has survived numerous assassination attempts and a civil war to become the region's most experienced practitioner of the art of compromise.

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