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Shaken Out of Profound Hypnosis : Middle East: Arab nationalists rally around Hussein not because of his invasion, but because of what he’s done to the status quo.

<i> Mohammad Tarbush, a Geneva-based investment banker and writer on current affairs, is the author of "The Role of the Military in Iraq" (Kegan Paul International, 1982). </i>

In classical antiquity, the Stoic doctrine advocated that if a completely new beginning is to be made, nothing of the old must remain.

Fortunately, one does not have to be a Stoicist, nor even a political philosopher, to see today that the status quo now prevailing in the Middle East cannot be sustained.

There are now about 200 million Arabs dispersed in 22 heterogenous states. A high percentage of them still live below subsistence level, while a few thousand have wealth that neither they nor their descendants could ever live long enough to spend.

The majority of the 52 million Egyptians, 25 million Moroccans, and 21 million Sudanese, for instance, are basket cases. Meanwhile, only 1% of the Arab people are nationals of the oil-producing Persian Gulf countries whose aggregate gross national product amounts to 25% of that owned by the rest of the Arab world. When Saudi Arabia is added to the gulf countries, the figures become 5% and 55% respectively.

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Such a lopsided situation inevitably leads to instability--Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is but a dramatic example.

Organizations such as the European Economic Community help to eliminate such discrepancies in the West. But for the Arab people, such cooperative measures, when attempted, have been whimsical, rarely systematic and invariably modest. A striking example is the $300 million annually pledged by Arab leaders at their 1988 Algiers summit to support the Palestinians (with a $700 per capita yearly income) living in the Israeli occupired territories. This represents a mere one-fifth of 1% of Kuwait’s estimated assets.

Economic and financial imbalances have added strains to a political environment already saturated with other ingredients for instability and frustrations.

A million and a half Palestinians still live under military occupation with the daily risk of having their arms broken if raised against their occupiers. Another 3 million are dispersed all over the globe. Half of Lebanon’s population has joined the Palestinians in their rovings, while the other half strives to survive under the most precarious of conditions. Syrians, once the pioneers of Arab culture and political thought, live under the permanent fear of meeting the fate of their brethren at Homs and Hama. This inglorious list could go on and on. But this sickening litany is enough to make the obvious point that the present state of affairs in the Arab world is hardly worth spilling any human blood to protect.

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All of this is not to say that it was right for Saddam Hussein to invade a peaceful neighbor. Indeed he must unconditionally allow all those Kuwaitis who fled their country in panic to return to their homes.

It is tragic that Kuwait has fallen victim of a regional and generalized malaise, which if left untreated will spread to other parts of the Arab world and beyond.

Whatever many Arabs might feel about Kuwait, most will admit that Hussein has shaken the area out of its profound state of hypnosis. That act alone is likely to lead to a rallying of Arab nationalists behind Hussein, not because they approve the invasion of one country by another, nor because they approve of his repressive policies at home, but because they disapprove the status quo that his move against Kuwait has endangered.

It was these frustrations I had in mind when, in 1982, I wrote in Le Monde on the Arab leaders’ apathy and inaction toward Israel’s invasion of Lebanon:

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“Among the Arab masses, the classical situation of a role looking for a hero does now exist. This hero will be born out of the stifling frustrations being felt by those masses. He will be urged to throw over the wall all the conventions which his people are being asked to respect, and which the Israelis are being tolerated for violating. He will be expected to sentence the oil wells to fire, and in the smoke of the aftermath to work on inciting popular uprisings against those regimes desperately lacking in legitimacy.”

Since then, the feeling of disconcertion, already intense, was exacerbated by Arab incapacity to resolve the Lebanese crisis or to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Arab land or its brutal treatment of Palestinians under occupation. With no real means to oppose their oligarchic regimes, Arab nationalists stood helpless in societies infested with corruption, squandering of national wealth, mismanagement and ruthless “thought police” forces, too efficient in suppressing all manifestations of patriotism or any calls for basic liberties.

Against this background, American support in maintaining the status quo in the Arab world will be seen as siding with the past against the future, as supporting anachronism and standing against the course of history. The present crisis might teach the Americans, like Suez should have taught Britain and France, that the world order is changing and bygone ideas are the property of bygone generations.

President Bush’s success in mobilizing so much international support against Iraq clearly shows that the United States has the means and the clout to solve any crisis through diplomacy. How wonderful it would be for the Arab people in particular, and humanity in general, if the United States, the world’s leading democracy, would inject the sick body of Arab politics with some of its homemade, tested and cherished medicines: democracy and heavy, very heavy, doses of egalitarianism.

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