Saddam Hussein as Arab Hero: Following the Nasser Model WAR IN THE GULF


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. An Arab leader grabs territory and proclaims it his nation's by right. When he refuses to retreat, a Western coalition mobilizes overwhelming military force and launches a bombing campaign followed by a ground assault.

Militarily, the allied operation is a success. Politically, it is a total, unmistakable failure, as public opinion shifts overwhelming onto the Arab leader's side. He not only survives but emerges a hero.

No, that is not getting ahead of events.

Arabs who reached adulthood in the 1950s or '60s recognize the account as the story of Egypt's war against Britain, France and Israel over the Suez Canal, in 1956. Thanks to that confrontation with the West, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president, became the most charismatic figure in the Arab world and its spokesman, no matter that he raised grandiose hopes that went largely unfulfilled.

Arab intellectuals foresee the story repeating itself. This time Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, would fill the starring role. In Arab eyes, he is the first person since Nasser to show a willingness to confront the outsider and uphold Arab honor at any price.

"I'm seeing some striking resemblances between the two situations," said Wahlid Kazziha, a political scientist teaching in Cairo, Egypt. "I lived the Nasser period as a young man, and it is so vivid to me, the conversations we had as students. Because Nasser had stood there, took all the bashing around, we thought we should support him.

"We are witnessing exactly the same thing -- Saddam's act of defiance against all the West, and his stand against Israel. Saddam may gain that same sympathy because the Arab world is looking for its hero again."

If history does not truly repeat itself, it often plagiarizes themes. People who remember Nasser are entitled to wonder at what point the present will veer away from the past or if they will collide.

Nasser and Saddam Hussein are not twins, for Nasser never showed the brutality toward his own people routinely demonstrated by Mr. Hussein. But they share centrality -- each man was able to overcome international condemnation and set the region's agenda. And they share what Arabs insist are similar times, periods in which Arab interests are manipulated by outsiders.

The Arab view often differs from the West's, as if the Middle East imposed a special lens, especially in judging leaders. At times the view is so different that Westerners might fail to recognize the scenes. Mr. Hussein's public standing is one such case.

Mr. Hussein's image has changed since the beginning of the Persian Gulf war. For many Arabs he is brave, not just brutal, and his bravery is such that the brutality is increasingly overlooked. He is an Arab who makes other Arabs feel strong, just as Nasser did.

For Westerners, Mr. Hussein's era is sharply different from 1956, indeed there is an altogether different Middle East.

France abandoned its claims to North Africa, even if it took the hugely destructive war in Algeria to force the French to act. Britain, a victim of budgets cutting aspirations down to size, lost its persuasive say in the affairs of Persian Gulf sheikdoms. Saudi Arabia and a half dozen other states came to enjoy immense wealth from oil, much of it produced, refined and marketed by Arabs.

What remains the same is the image many Arabs have of themselves, as victims of powerful forces beyond their control. Like a person who never sheds the insecurities of childhood, nations can be crippled by holding onto grudges for past wrongs and by refusing to embrace change. Nasser's time is linked with the present by a feeling of helplessness, a sense of inferiority accentuated by the United States taking the leading role in the war against Iraq.

In Arab public opinion the outsider once again is determining events -- as done in the past by Persians, Mongols, Crusaders, Turks, the British and the French. Now it is the Americans. It is taken for granted that they would act only in concert with the Israelis, the most despised outsiders of all.

It is hard to overstate the pervasiveness of the belief that "the other" is always at fault and always scheming. In serious conversations about politics, Western-educated Saudis speculate that Turkey has allied itself with the United States to recover influence lost in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Or that the Turks are actively plotting to take back parts of Iraq. Or that they have designs to retake the Arabian peninsula.

Nothing is held to be the responsibility of Arabs. In the Egyptian paper Al Ahram, an editor wrote that if Mr. Hussein were assassinated, Israel would be responsible for his death. If he survived, Israel again would be responsible, as part of a plot to keep him in office to destabilize other Arab regimes.

And nothing is forgiven or forgotten, much as with a child feeling wronged. "The powerful always forgive and forget," said Ashraf Ghani, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist and a specialist in Islamic culture. "The people who see themselves as powerless, they never forget."

"We see this war as hostility toward Islam," said a faculty member at King Saud University, in Riyadh. Muslims see their religion under attack by the non-Muslim world, dropping bombs on Baghdad, one of Islam's former capitals, for the benefit of Kuwait, a country with no religious significance. "I don't think you people are aware of the degree of hatred this bombing is generating toward Americans."

King Hussein of Jordan issued the same warning in even blunter terms. "This is a war against all Arabs and Muslims and not only against Iraq," said the king, a traditional ally of the west but above all else a leader with an astute sense of public sentiment. In a speech to his countrymen he made no mention of Kuwait, only of the "crime" of the West.

Nasser's career was partially fueled by that same anger and fear. He asserted Arab nationalism as colonialism was beginning to crumble all over the world and when Arab self-esteem was at a low. The Arabs had suffered a humiliating military defeat in 1948 at the hands of Israel, the disaster that undermined every Arab leader unfortunate enough to have participated, including Egypt's King Farouk, an indolent, bewildered figure who might have been created by Hollywood to play the role of playboy-as-head-of-state.

King Farouk was overthrown in a nearly bloodless revolution in 1952 by the Free Officers, a group of young officers motivated by their disgust with the regime's performance in the 1948 war and its pervasive corruption. Among its members was Nasser, a young colonel who had acquited himself honorably during the war. By 1954 Nasser was in undisputed control. The war in 1956, which gave Egypt mastery over the Suez Canal, changed his aura from the presidential to the heroic.

Arabs adored him for the very things the West found objectionable. He was nationalistic. He challenged the notion that the West knew best. He aided the Algerian revolutionaries who overthrew the French. He promised to unite Arabs under a single flag and, along with his generals, pledged to vanquish Israel.

He also managed to exploit the Cold War for Egypt's benefit. Along with Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Nasser was hailed as an architect of the non-aligned movement, a political category that made sense only when Washington and Moscow were at odds and anxious to cultivate any leader thought to be wavering between the two sides.

As spokesman for the Arabs he could do no wrong, so that even his grossest failure was excused -- the crushing defeat of Egypt and its Arab allies by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. At the time of his death from a heart attack, in 1970, Nasser still held political leadership of the Arab world.

Nasser was also Mr. Hussein's political hero. At age 22, Mr. Hussein was a gunman in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the dictator of Iraq, Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem. When the plot failed, Mr. Hussein eventually made his way to Egypt, at Nasser's invitation. As Iraqi president, Mr. Hussein chose more grandiose role models, favoring comparisons between himself and Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of ancient Babylon -- and the figure who conquored Judea and enslaved the Jews.

Mr. Hussein lacks some of Nasser's natural advantages as a spokesman. Nasser could count on being easily understood, thanks to Egyptian-made movies making the Egyptian dialect the form of Arabic almost every Arab knows. Mr. Hussein suffers by being Iraqi, saddling him with a dialect that comes across like a heavy accent and limits his appeal.

Before the war his audience was also limited by speeches that drew heavily on the doctrines of Baathism, the secular Arab movement that was alternatively the ally and an underground rival of the nationalism promoted by Nasser. For the uninitiated, Baathism's most striking feature was its near-inpenetrability.

With colonialism breaking down, Nasser had worldwide legitimacy on his side, which is what Mr. Hussein has lacked, said Mr. Ghani, the anthropologist. Mr. Hussein has sought to gain it by casting himself in Nasser's role, the fighter against colonial rule.

Shortly before the war began, he told his soldiers that the battle was "against social and economic oppression," against "double standards" and "corruption and hegemony" -- a heavy-handed re-creation of Nasser's message of more than 30 years ago.

Such appeals worked for Nasser and may work again. There is no other figure in the region meeting the traditional standards of leadership.

Syria's Hafez el Assad is regarded as no less ruthless than Mr. Hussein but is disqualified from a truly regional role by being an Alawite, a Muslim sect rejected by the religious mainstream. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd inspires little devotion within his own kingdom and has no following outside. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, is hailed in the West as a moderate but invariably derided by Arabs as a figure lacking weight -- in part because of a ponderous speaking style, and perhaps because of his moderation.

Arab intellectuals express increasing confidence Mr. Hussein will emerge a hero. Whether he survives -- and whether Iraq retains Kuwait -- hardly matters. Through the Arab lens, standing up to the outsider outweighs the dubiousness of the cause.

"I think it's very, very clear that for Mr. Hussein there is no option other than to fight until the bitter end," Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan said in a television interview. At worst, he will die a martyr, a guarantee of victory in Arab eyes.

"If you have gone down in history as a martyr," the prince said, "you are, at the end of the day, in the eyes of history, a winner and not a loser."

Robert Ruby is a Sun correspondent based in the Mideast.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad