Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 1 Table of Contents
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January 2003 

Has Saddam Lost the Arab Street ?
Gary C. Gambill

Taha Yassin Ramadan
On January 7, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan confidently predicted that "the Arab masses and their vanguard forces" will rise up to confront an American-led invasion of Iraq "by any available means."1 While Iraqi officials have been known to miscalculate in the past, similar predictions have been made by senior government officials throughout the Arab world. During a televised speech last year, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went so far as to warn the United States, "If you strike at the Iraqi people because of one or two individuals and leave the Palestinian issue [unresolved], not a single ruler will be able to curb the popular sentiments . . . a state of disorder and chaos may prevail in the region."2

While the predictions of Arab officialdom are not always reliable, this one appears to be shared by many experts on Middle East politics. Arab regimes "face publics who are fundamentally opposed" to an American invasion of Iraq, said Chas W. Freeman, the president of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, during an October 2002 panel discussion. Freeman maintained that this opposition is "nearly 100%" in the Arab Gulf States and warned of the "implications for a regime that ignores its own public opinion in favor of the opinion of a foreign ally."3 Gil Feiler, the executive director of Info-Prod Research - MiddleEast, warned in November that "the US will face an inevitable backlash in all levels of [Arab] society to its forthcoming intervention in Iraq."4

Expectations that the Arab street will rise up in protest against an American war in Iraq are informed by three considerations. First, anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high in the Arab world (along with much of the non-Arab world). Second, most observers make explicit or implicit comparisons to the first Gulf War, when mass demonstrations erupted in many Arab countries. Even in Mauritania, on the political and cultural fringe of the Arab world, some 20,000 demonstrators marched on the American and French Embassies in January 1991. Hospitals throughout the Arab world delivered children with names like "Scud Hussein," while street vendors sold out of mass-produced desk ornaments, lapel pins, and wristwatches bearing the Iraqi leader's likeness. Third, pundits point to (relatively) large-scale anti-Israeli demonstrations that have erupted around the Arab world during the current Palestinian uprising against Israel as evidence that a raucous "Arab street" will not passively accept an American war in the Middle East.

An uninitiated observer of Arab politics might be tempted to conclude from Mubarak's bold warning that the Egyptian people are seething with outrage about the prospect of a US march into Baghdad. On the contrary, while demonstrations in support of the Palestinian uprising against Israel have drawn tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets, efforts to organize mass anti-war demonstrations have been a dismal failure. "The Arab Street is apathetic on the issue of Iraq," says Hisham Qassem, editor-in-chief of the English language daily Cairo Times.5 "Egyptians main sympathy is with the Palestinians," explains Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, "Iraq is a marginal issue for them."6

The same is true, to varying degrees, throughout the Arab world. "In stark contrast to the widespread demonstrations that came out in many Western cities to protest US plans for war on Iraq, the Arab street has on the whole been mute and indifferent," observed Jordanian journalist Muna Shuqair, with a hint of disgust.7 Columbia University Professor Edward Said, one of the leading Arab intellectuals in the United States, expressed astonishment at this phenomenon. "It is impossible to believe," he wrote in a recent article. "How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance? Has the Arab will completely dissolved?"8

Rhetoric aside, Said is well aware that the muted reaction of the "Arab street" to the impending war with Iraq does not stem from either a lack of willpower or a lack of collective Arab identity. There is every reason to believe that the Arab masses identify strongly with their Iraqi brethren. But the Iraqi people want American troops to liberate their country. According to a recent survey of public opinion in Iraq by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), most Iraqis support an American invasion. "I found very few people who were against American intervention," said the ICG researcher who interviewed dozens of Iraqis in Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf for the study. The small minority of Iraqis who expressed opposition to American military action either had a direct stake in the regime or did not trust the United States to follow through on its pledge to oust the Iraqi dictator.9 Considering that the interviews were conducted in public places (e.g. a beauty parlor), where Iraqis are often reluctant to express opposition to Saddam, the ICG report probably understates popular support for the entry of US troops into the country. Another indication that an American invasion is viewed positively by Iraqis was the massive appreciation of the Baghdad stock market when the UN Security Council passed a resolution in November warning the Iraqi regime of "serious consequences" for failing to cooperate with arms inspectors.

One of the first Arab intellectuals to predict that an outpouring of pro-Saddam sympathies would not materialize in the Arab world was US-based Egyptian political scientist Mamoun Fandy. "No single Arab that I can think of will shed a tear" if Saddam Hussein is ousted, he explained in a September 2002 interview with CNN. "The Arabs will not walk into the attack with the United States, but they will walk in[to] the funeral, and they will be very happy."10

"People look for real heroes who can deliver and Saddam is only a drowning, defeated ruler who is clinging to the wreckage," says Jordanian political analyst Raja Talab, adding that many Arabs blame Saddam for "leading the area to the edge of another catastrophe."11 Open expressions of such hostility to the Iraqi leader remain taboo in many Arab countries, in part because, like Mubarak, Arab heads of state have sought to convince the West that invading Iraq will produce popular unrest and thereby destabilize the region. In reality, Arab leaders are more concerned that the ouster of Saddam will produce popular jubilation - followed by demands for political reforms at home. The claim that the Arab street is bursting at the seams with pro-Saddam sympathies is a convenient justification for increased restrictions on civil liberties.

Most Arab regimes also have more direct interests in the preservation of Saddam's regime. The Kuwaiti government worries about his departure because Iraq's pariah status is an impediment to the country's rearmament. The Saudis fear that the establishment of a pro-US government in Baghdad will diminish their status as a strategic American ally and guarantor of moderate oil prices. Syria's cash-strapped regime has benefited from illicit oil imports from Saddam, which bring in up to $1 billion in annual revenue. Egypt has always competed with Iraq for leadership of the Arab world and does not relish the thought of its rehabilitation.

That most Arabs do not share their governments' reservations about regime change in Baghdad is mainly evident from their tepid response to appeals for action by antiwar campaigners. However, overt expressions of support for Saddam's ouster are becoming more common as war approaches. In early January, Arab intellectuals circulated a petition calling for "the immediate resignation of Saddam Hussein, whose rule for over three decades has been a nightmare for Iraq and the Arab world," and for the "rule of democracy" in Iraq. "There has been a tragic silence on the fate of the Arab world by the Arab world," said Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese professor of international law who signed the petition. "Our lives are at stake with all these chemical weapons."12 Other signatories include Kuwaiti MP Hassan Jawhar, Egyptian film director Yousri Nasrallah, and Kamel Labidi, a prominent Tunisian journalist and human rights activist.

While the petition framed the call for Iraq regime change as an endeavor to avoid an American-led invasion of Iraq, some intellectuals in the Arab world have begun to express guarded optimism about impending US military action. "I feel a positive outcome might ensue from the coming war," wrote Saudi political analyst Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. "[It] promises a new free, democratic and stable Iraq instead of today's fragmented dictatorship; a constitutional and tolerant Iraq run by the rule of law; an Iraq at peace with its neighbors; an Iraq that would pursue development in the interests of the prosperity and happiness of its people."13

As American forces mobilize for an invasion of Iraq that some expect as early as the end of February, it is doubtful that even Saddam Hussein continues to entertain any fantasies about the Arab world rising to his defense. His best bet is not that the Arab street will defy the American-led campaign to bring him down, but that, as he mused in a rare interview in November, "the US-British alliance might disintegrate due to . . . the pressure of public opinion on American and British streets."14

For once, Saddam's calculations may not be entirely off the mark. On January 18, tens of thousands of anti-war protestors took to the streets in Washington DC, along with record numbers in Europe, to observe a day of international "solidarity" with the Iraqi people. They were joined by a mere 300 demonstrators in Cairo and 400 in Amman.15


  1 Republic of Iraq Radio (Baghdad), 7 January 2003.
  2 The Los Angeles Times, 28 August 2002.
  3 "War with Iraq: A Cost-Benefit Analysis," Middle East Policy Council Forum, Washington, DC, 9 October 2002.
  4 "America's War Against Iraq to Cause Popular Backlash and Socio-economic Crisis in Arab Countries," Info-Prod Research - Middle East, 3 November 2002.
  5 Inter Press Service, 22 January 2003.
  6 "Egyptian street quiet despite anger at U.S. policy," The Associated Press, 10 December 2002.
  7 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 December 2002.
  8 The Guardian (London), 25 January 2003.
  9 Newsweek, 23 December 2002.
  10 "Showdown: Iraq," CNN, 29 September 2002.
  11 The Associated Press, 27 December 2002.
  12 The Christian Science Monitor, 8 January 2003.
  13 The Daily Star (Beirut), 6 January 2003.
  14 Al-Osboa (Cairo), 3 November 2002.
  15 "Arabs take to streets for Iraq in worldwide anti-war protests," Agence France Presse, 18 January 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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