NEWS ANALYSIS : Hussein's Pitch: It's 'Us vs. Them,' With Theme of Arab World Unity


Americans often speak of the Mideast crisis in words that evoke memories of World War II. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, is compared with Adolf Hitler. His invasion of Kuwait is a blitzkrieg. Letting him get away with it is said to be tantamount to appeasing an aggressive and dangerous foe.

The terms reflect the Western view of 20th-Century history as a battle of democracy against tyranny.

For many Arabs, such historical allusions are secondary. They look deeper into the past. Conversations here sometimes sound as though the 12th Century has returned and the protagonists in the gulf drama should be described as Saracens and infidels.

In this century at least, the Arabs' main historical reference is World War I, after which Arabs believe they were robbed of greatness by Western deception. For Arabs, the overwhelming theme of 20th-Century history is not glory, but victimization at the hands of the West.

These differing interpretations are more than just academic. Saddam Hussein plays on these attitudes, betting that the Arab world will respond to a deep sense of hurt and reject American-led efforts to roll back his invasion of Kuwait.

Hussein evidently believes that feelings of "us versus them" will prevail. He has called on Arabs everywhere not only to do battle with the United States, but also to overthrow Arab leaders who side with Washington.

"Make it clear to your rulers, the emirs of oil as they serve the foreigners (and) tell the traitors there is no place for them on Arab soil," he said in a radio broadcast Saturday.

To spice his call, Hussein invokes the inflammatory issue of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Mohammed and a place of primary pilgrimage for Muslims.

Anti-American demonstrations have taken place in Tunisia and Algeria, and in Jordan they are becoming commonplace. On Sunday, 7,000 Jordanians gathered in the provincial town of Mafraq to protest the sending of American troops to Saudi Arabia.

Hussein criticized Arab governments in an attempt to discourage countries like Egypt and Syria, both important centers of Arab culture, from supporting the United States or sending troops to face Iraq along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border.

Much of the Arab world decided against Iraq at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, and Egypt has already sent troops to Saudi Arabia.

In the Arab mind, this was viewed as a major historical shift. Suddenly, the cause of Arab unity at the service of a common, if ill-defined, cause was cast aside in favor of backing a foreign power against an Arab state.

"It was shocking," said Kamel abu Jaber, a political scientist in Amman. "One hundred years from now, this will be remembered--and I think not forgiven."

A former high-ranking Jordanian official added: "There is an attempt to change the notion of our history. Instead of joining together to be free of foreigners, we are fighting to be free from each other--with foreign help."

Behind comments like this is the widespread feeling that the West, including the United States, wants to keep the Arab world weak and in disarray.

Conversations with Arabs on the street and in their homes almost always turn to the division of the Arab world into virtual colonies in the wake of World War I. Arab leaders had been promised independence for battling the crumbling Ottoman Empire of the Turks, which had sided with Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm.

But Britain and France secretly agreed to carve up the region between themselves after the war. Americans may be familiar with this history mostly through depictions of the life of T. E. Lawrence of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame, a British military officer who organized Arab fighters to do battle with the Turks and who considered the treatment of the Arabs after the war to be a betrayal.

"From that moment of humiliation, Arabs have felt that the main goal of the West was to divide and conquer," said Taher Masri, a Jordanian member of Parliament.

A former Jordanian official added, "The Europeans created lines on the map and now we are being asked to defend the lines."

The theme of betrayal recurs in Arab history since World War I. It accounts for much of the hostility toward Israel, which Arabs consider a Western implant made at the expense of Palestinians. The indifference of many Jordanians to the plight of Kuwaitis who lost their country to Iraq stems partly from the belief that Kuwaitis invested their oil wealth in the West rather than in the poor Arab world.

Young Jordanians at a recent anti-American rally in Amman shouted that the Kuwaitis and Saudis are "not really Arab" because of their closeness to the West and particularly because they supposedly kept oil prices low on behalf of the United States.

Arabs speak longingly of a unified nation--200 million inhabitants strong, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. They think of it as an ideal state that would restore greatness to Arabs and provide a strong bulwark against Western penetration.

Achievement of Arab unity is described in almost poetic terms: There would be wealth for all. Egypt would apply its manpower to projects financed by oil money from the underpopulated gulf oil states. Parched desert land would be nourished by water from the Nile and Euphrates rivers without regard to outmoded national borders. Trade would flow freely and, perhaps most desirable of all, the Arab world would stand before the West as a superpower in its own right.

"Arabs drink the idea of Arab unity with their mother's milk," said Jordanian lawyer Omar Nabulsi.

At the same time, Arabs readily admit that the reality of Arab unity falls far short of the dream. Several attempts at initiating pan-Arab political arrangements have foundered in the past 40 years.

Perhaps ironically, events on the horizon in Europe have revived the pan-Arab dream for many.

"If Europe, with its different languages and culture, can unite," said Nabulsi, referring to the broad unity scheduled for Europe in 1992, "why not the Arabs?"

To that question, the Arabs' answer is inevitably that the West will not permit it. At the anti-government rally in Amman, youths told reporters that any strong Arab leader would be attacked by the West as a demon.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader who seized the Suez Canal, is a favorite example. Indeed, the British prime minister at the time of the canal takeover, Anthony Eden, raised the specter of a Hitler bestriding the Middle East as Nasser became popular.

"The West wants to keep Arab leaders down, that is why they oppose Saddam Hussein," an excited youth told a reporter at the rally. "We are all for Saddam Hussein."

Arabs are less eager to discuss inter-Arab rivalries that have undermined the ideal of unity, even though several Arab leaders obviously despise Hussein.

Some rivalries are deep-rooted. Standing as a backdrop to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a millennial contest between the civilizations of the Nile and the Euphrates.

As long ago as 1981, the six oil states of the gulf excluded Iraq from membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, to which Iraq logically belonged because of its geographical position and oil wealth.

Baghdad and Damascus were regional rivals long before the modern states of Syria and Iraq were created; the fact that Hussein and Syria's leader, Hafez Assad, lead branches of the same party, the Baath, a party dedicated to Arab unity, has done little to reduce a burning personal rivalry.

Syria's anti-Iraq position is viewed with special interest here because Syria, with its long coastline--and control of the coast of Lebanon as well--could have helped Iraq break the U.N.-sanctioned trade embargo. Instead, pro-Iraq observers say, Syria is siding with a Western power against an Arab rival.

"This is a clear example of the old Arab saying, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,' " said Abu Jaber, the political scientist in Amman.

Hussein's appeal to the Arab populace makes the military situation ever more dangerous, observers in Jordan say. They fear that Hussein, to stir up protests, might move to provoke open warfare in hopes that the news of Americans shedding Arab blood would incite Arabs to demand a common front against the United States.

Or, some think, Hussein could launch a strike against Israel in order to unite the Arab world around the goal of extinguishing the Jewish state.

"In this way," mused Abu Jaber, "the Arab governments supporting Washington would be adrift in a sea of popular opposition. They would have to change their tune or fall."

And, in the view of Abu Jaber and others, this sudden display of Arab unity would finally redeem Arab history.

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