When Saddam Hussein’s army went to war with the United States, it took the hopes, fantasies, and myths of the Arab world into battle with it. Iraq was to play one of two historically sentimental roles, both richly resonant in Arab politics. And, in so doing, it would serve as the vehicle for people from Saudi Arabia to Morocco who yearned for an Arab champion, or at least for a glorious, redeeming defeat.
The preferred role was triumphant defender of Arab honor against the imperialist threat. Many in the Arab world believed, because they so much wanted to believe, the wild assertions of Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Said Al Sahhaf, who pooh-poohed U.S. advances and promised the toughest battle the United States had ever seen. They watched Arab media lionize the Fedayeen Saddam and decry Iraqi civilian deaths. And they cheered as unexpected resistance slowed advancing American troops.
Soon, the war began going America’s way. But, even then, Arabs simply projected Iraq into a second, similarly honorable role: as the new martyrs, unbowed even against overwhelming odds. Iraq became the new intifada, complete with suicide bombers and wanton death and destruction at the hands of an infinitely more powerful army. For an audience that had grown used to the grinding cycle of tit for tat, the images were easy to comprehend. America, the powerful marauder, was raiding an Arab land, and Iraqis, the victims, would resist the occupation to the death. Much like the Palestinians, who have stood up to the Israeli army for 55 years, the Iraqis would gain dignity in defeat. “I don’t think anybody doubted the outcome,” says Amman-based political commentator Khairy Janbek, “but I think everybody expected the Iraqis to give Americans a bloody nose. ... What they expected was a kind of Arab pride, an Arab bravery, an Arab masculinity.”
NOW THESE EXPECTATIONS have been dashed. It’s not just that Iraq lost with breathtaking speed. Worse, many Iraqis seemed to delight in the defeat—embracing the imperialist Americans as preferable to their Arab oppressor. The scrambling of the script has produced Arab bewilderment and now, as that bewilderment subsides, a strange new emotion: resentment at the Iraqis for letting the Arab world down. Explains Cairo University political science Professor Mohammad Kamal, “People are disappointed that there are Iraqis who didn’t appreciate the efforts and emotional involvement of the Egyptians. `If those are the Iraqis,’ they say, `then maybe they don’t deserve any of the support we gave them.’“ Says Tariq A. Al Maeena, commentator for the English- language Saudi website ArabNews, “There is a great deal of disappointment that the Republican Guard did not put up a credible fight in defense of Baghdad.”
Nowhere has the Iraqi failure been more symbolic, and more infuriating, than in the West Bank and Gaza, long the centers of Saddam’s propaganda machine and the primary recipients of his financial largesse. In the wake of Baghdad’s April 9 fall, many came to Bethlehem to pay their condolences to the relatives of Imad Hubani, a young Palestinian who grew up in Amman and who had volunteered to fight in Iraq and was killed in battle. Yet, as villagers poured through, most expressed their regret that the young man had given his life for nothing.
For many Palestinians, who saw Iraq’s fight as analogous to their own, the images of Iraqis welcoming American soldiers were unbearable. The concept that Saddam had simply fled was even more so. And soon, many began looking at the Iraqis as traitors. “These are not the Iraqis that I knew,” lamented Mohanna Shbatt, an activist with the Arab Liberation Front, the Palestinian branch of the Baath movement. Shbatt had studied in Iraq and looked to Saddam as the only true Arab leader still in power. He carried Saddam’s flag in Gaza for years and, just two weeks earlier, had helped dole out about $35 million of Saddam’s money to families of Palestinian militants and civilians killed in the intifada. After the fall of Saddam, Shbatt went silent for three days, unable to speak to anyone. “What the Iraqis destroyed [in the looting] was greater than what the war destroyed. In the end, they have made their own decisions. ... It will probably take a month or two, and then they will wake up. And I think they will regret all those days lost.” “Everybody felt personally defeated,” explains Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. “People expected steadfastness and willingness to stand up. How could Jenin [the refugee camp] stand up to all that bombardment, how did [Yasir] Arafat stand up to the siege in Ramallah for all these months, but Saddam couldn’t stand up to the invasion of his country?”
BUT MANY IRAQIS, gripped by a wave of newfound nationalism, feel just as betrayed by their fellow Arabs as the Arabs feel by them. When Saddam fell, hundreds of Iraqis living in Jordan gathered in Amman’s Hashemite Square, cautiously congratulating each other and quietly arguing about the implications of what they saw on television. “We have not been living. We have not been able to survive,” said Hadi, a 28-year-old Iraqi who asked that his last name not be used. Notes Janbek, “We got used to the idea that the Iraqis are victims, but now we see Iraqis turning against the Arab world because they haven’t done anything for them but appease Saddam. I don’t know how long it will last. But it will have an effect.”
An effect, perhaps, in changing the Arab world’s view of itself. Even as Arabs shake their heads in disbelief over the Iraqis’ behavior, some are beginning to wonder whether they may have something to learn. Editorials have begun discussing ideas once unheard of in the Arab press, and Arab leaders are being asked questions they never expected. For example, “If there is to be progress in the Arab world, the intelligentsia must stop gazing at the past in the futile hope that it can solve the problems of the present,” wrote Khaled Al Maeena, editor-in-chief of ArabNews on April 18. “If we want to achieve such a society, we cannot go on blaming others for our own inadequacies. We have to rise to the occasion. Instead of constantly pointing our fingers elsewhere, we should take a long, good hard look at ourselves and call what we see by its proper name.”
“At the end of the day, people are saying that we have to speak our mind. There’s not going to be obedience [to rulers] as before,” says the Palestinian Abdul Hadi. “This has been a lesson to every Arab regime that they need to look to their people. If a storm comes from outside, the only way to stand is to have a constituency.” And which Arab leader is truly confident about his?
This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.