Credibility gap challenges U.S.


Allies: The rifts between Arab rulers whom America supports and their countrymen could affect efforts to keep those leaders in the coalition against terrorism.

September 29, 2001|By Larry Kaplow | Larry Kaplow,COX NEWS SERVICE

AMMAN, Jordan - A local satire troupe draws laughter from elite dinner-theater crowds with daring parodies of Jordan's corrupt politicians. They say "no" to their own people, the comedians say of Jordan's government functionaries, but only know how to say "OK" to America.

Away from the capital's nightlife, people such as Abdullah Rialat share the sentiment. In the city of Salt, a half-hour drive from Amman, Rialat's son was held without charges by Jordanian security forces for almost three months last year on suspicion that he was a terrorist.

Like the comedians, Rialat attributes the undemocratic actions of his leaders to American financing and pressure.

"They help the regimes, not the people," Rialat, a 60-year-old retired lawyer, says of the United States.

America's support for Arab regimes has engendered widespread distrust from common Arab people frustrated from years of living under authoritarian rule.

Arabs usually point to American support for Israel amid the violence of the fighting with Palestinians as their chief gripe with the United States. And some of the anger toward America stems from general frustration directed at the world's only superpower for failing to do more to lift the Third World from poverty.

But the gap between U.S.-backed Arab rulers and the people they rule also poses a problem as the United States tries to woo and keep Arab leaders in the coalition against terrorism.

Arab officials are pressing the Bush administration to make a public case for the military action the United States has vowed to take. It will, they say, make it easier for them to back the American-led coalition. But credibility is low for America and many Arab leaders amid the undemocratic conditions in the American-backed Arab countries.

"There are few options for those [Arabs] upset at their countries' policies because of little public participation in the political process," said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. "Against this background, violent Islamist opposition appeals to some."

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak runs unopposed every six years.

His government is boosted by about $2 billion a year in American aid that began after Egypt made peace with Israel. Most of the assistance goes to the military; yet most of Egpyt's 67 million people are poor, and about half are illiterate.

Saudi Arabia's royal family numbers in the thousands and passes the kingdom's leadership down a long line of elderly brothers. About 5,000 American troops are based on Saudi sand, a presence tolerated by most but despised by fundamentalists who consider the U.S. presence near the holy cities of Mecca and Medina blasphemous.

In Bahrain, a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf, the majority of Shiite Muslims - even as they speak English and eat at American fast-food franchises - feel discriminated against by a Sunni Muslim monarchy that they say they believe is kept in power because it allows the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet a base there.

Jordan is perhaps the Arab country most eager to assist President Bush in the campaign against terror. Jordanian officials note that they have long been battling cells they believe are connected to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and have regularly turned over information to U.S. intelligence agents.

But regular Jordanians scoff at the idea that bin Laden's network is operating in their country and dismiss American allegations connecting him to the attacks. A small portion say they admire bin Laden's daring, if he did do it.

The 4.5 million Jordanians enjoy the widest personal freedoms found in the Arab world, but the system is far from Western standards of democracy.

Jordan is ruled by King Abdullah II, who inherited the job from his father, the late King Hussein. Parliament has limited powers. Muslim imams, or holy men, run their sermons past government officials for approval. Newspapers are controlled by complicated licensing requirements and vague laws against harming national security.

Jordanian officials note that their country is small, threatened by volatile neighbors and young - established only in 1948.

"We are not yet a democracy, but I assure you that Jordanians will not go back in our commitment to convert to a democracy," Information Minister Saleh Qallab says.

About two-thirds of Jordanians are of Palestinian extraction, and most are angry about the Israeli use of force in fighting with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But the Jordanian government has not allowed public demonstrations in about six months - in part because some resulted in vandalism.

"Now we are fighting terrorism. We don't want a small group to divert our attentions from fighting terrorism to the Palestinian issue," Qallab says. He adds that undercover Jordanian agents lurking on Amman's streets are there for the protection of foreigners.

Detentions without charges are common, and the government has rounded up suspects - estimates range from 10 to 20 - since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the United States gives Jordan $225 million a year, which includes $75 million for the military. Amman is a major intelligence hub for American agents, used in part for monitoring Iraq next door.

The American aid is largely a reward for Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and it reinforces the view among many that Arab leaders are being manipulated by the United States.

"It seems the West does not care a great deal for the internal side of these regimes," says Jordanian political activist Radwan Abdullah.

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