Arabs and the endgame

March 28, 2003

THE EXPLOSIONS rocking Baghdad this week are reverberating throughout the Arab world. While Iraqis take cover from the United States' bombardment of their capital, Arabs from Cairo to San`a have filled the streets in big protests to oppose the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein.

The extent and fervor of the opposition to the war are not surprising. Neither are the actions of the governments that are seeking to control the demonstrations. Both reactions underscore the political fallout of the Bush administration's drive to oust the Iraqi leader.

The president would like Americans to believe that the expulsion of a despotic ruler like Saddam Hussein will spur democratic change in the Mideast - and though that might be the case in some parts of the world, it's not likely in this region. At least not anytime soon.

Consider the reaction of the Egyptian and Jordanian governments to the street protests: Police and security services used batons, water cannons and the like to quell demonstrations and control unruly crowds. And those countries are close, important allies of the United States. But the reality is that autocrats rule Egypt and Jordan, where large public displays of political expression are viewed as potentially destabilizing forces.

Both ruling leaders found it necessary to address their citizens. King Abdullah II, whose late father, King Hussein, refused to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq during the first gulf war, delivered a televised address to Jordanians in which he identified with their "pain and anger" over the suffering of the Iraqi people. But those sentiments, the king went on, must be expressed in a "civilized way." In Egypt, the interior ministry issued a statement noting the "regrettable developments" in Iraq, but warning that unauthorized protests would not be tolerated.

Reflecting public opposition to the war, the 22-member Arab League this week called for the withdrawal of American and British forces from Iraq. Supporters of President Bush and his pre-emptive strike may disregard the league's resolution as playing to the crowds at home. But a survey of six Arab countries conducted last month by Zogby International confirms the depth of opposition to America's actions in Iraq. When given a scenario in which the United Nations would lead a war effort against the Hussein regime following the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a majority of Arabs surveyed still remained opposed to the war.

Yet the Bush administration will need Arab help in rebuilding Iraq once the regime has fallen. And the Arab public must feel a part of this effort if it is to succeed. Arab governments would do well to ease up on demonstrators lest they turn their anger inward, presenting an opportunity to militants, Shibley Telhami, the University of Maryland professor who designed the Arab survey, points out. Needless to say, increasing the influence of militants in the Mideast could play havoc with the White House's plans for postwar Iraq.

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