Arabs stymied by Iraq post-Hussein

Nations remain divided over humanitarian aid plan, role in rebuilding

Postwar Iraq

April 27, 2003|By David Lamb | David Lamb,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAIRO, Egypt - About two weeks after Baghdad's fall, shock has given way to perplexity in the Arab world. Aside from wanting the Americans out, Arabs seem at a loss to respond to the reality of a U.S.-run Iraq or to formulate a strategy that may help shape the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Despite hand-wringing over the suffering of Iraqis, the Arab League has not discussed a humanitarian aid plan. There is little talk about what role Arabs may play in reconstruction. No member country dares mention the word democracy when it contemplates a new Iraqi government. Even columnists are uncomfortable asking whether the war may bring beneficial change to the Middle East.

"Writers would be reluctant to express that idea, even if they believed it, which most don't," said Ibrahim Nafei, editor in chief of Al Ahram, Egypt's most influential daily newspaper. "They would be dismissed for taking a pro-U.S. position, something that is not popular in the current atmosphere."

Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said she was struck by Arabs' unwillingness to debate "What next?" and their failure to offer creative responses to the opportunities and dangers presented by Hussein's overthrow.

"Given the absence of democracy in the region," she said, "people since colonial times have accepted politics as a struggle against foreign powers and intervention. They are not taught anything except struggling against foreigners. So they're confused."

When the foreign ministers of eight Middle East nations met last week in Saudi Arabia, all they could agree on was that they wanted the United States out of Iraq as soon as possible. Nobody raised the idea, for instance, that a new Iraqi government, if perceived as a U.S. puppet, should be isolated and expelled from the Arab League - as Egypt was for a decade after making peace with Israel in 1979.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, shuttling between Arab capitals last week, held discussions on Arab solidarity. But absent from the public discourse was any frank talk about the Arab disunity that has left the region in political disarray.

"I'm not certain that Egypt currently has a clear vision of the kind of role it should be aspiring to" in this crisis, Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political scientist, wrote in the newspaper Al Hayat. "But I do know that Egypt's behavior on the ground appears to many to be confused and questionable, worryingly and disturbingly so."

"My impression is that nobody, including the Americans, had a practical working plan for Iraq post-Saddam," said Emad Shahin, an Arab specialist at the American University in Cairo.

Shahin said the current crisis offers the 22-member Arab League an opportunity to regain relevance by formulating a common strategy on Iraq. But even before the U.S.-led invasion, the group had difficulty forging unity, and it remains so divided over the war that its secretary-general, Amr Moussa, threatened last week to resign. Stitching together the unanimous vote that the league requires for all resolutions would be a Herculean feat.

In Cairo and other Arab capitals, senior U.S. diplomats continue to meet with leaders of government and private industry to explain U.S. reconstruction and relief plans. It is a soft-sell approach, stressing that the war's outcome offers political and economic opportunities. Arab participation in Iraq aid and reconstruction, the reasoning goes, could help bridge the Arab-U.S. divide that seemed to grow deeper day by day as the war played itself out in the world media.

Egyptian economist Abu Bakr Mustafa was in London during the first days of the war, watching the battle unfold on Al-Jazeera, an Arabic-language satellite TV channel. In Cairo, the newspapers he usually reads were carrying headlines such as "Baghdad: Fortress of Lions," "Signs of Victory and Divine Anger" and "Bush in Shock, and Rumsfeld Looks for Excuses."

"Al-Jazeera was promoting false hope, giving the idea Iraq could win," Mustafa said. "But you could tell from Day 1 looking at the maps Iraq had no chance."

When he spoke with his friends in Egypt, however, they believed U.S. forces had run into serious difficulties. "Symbolism is very important in the Arab world," he said. "People don't think in a pragmatic way. They are full of wishful thinking.

"That comes after suffering one defeat after another for so many years, and that string of defeats hasn't yet come to an end, I'm afraid."

And anger echoes over Hussein's discarded promise to make a valiant defense of his capital.

A first-term member of Egypt's parliament, Mahmoud Shazli, was inclined to turn down a U.S. journalist's request for an interview the other day. Then he reconsidered.

"I decided to see you," he said, "because I hope to send a message to the American government and people. The message is: We really hate you. To the people I say, if you support what America is doing in the humiliation of Arab citizens, if you don't stand up to your rulers, we will boycott you and not deal with you, and go to hell with your own fake civilization."

David Lamb writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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