CAIRO – All over the Arab world, regimes and the Arab street seem to know how Saddam Hussein could actually win this war – with no losses to Iraq’s long-suffering people, oil wealth and infrastructure, not to mention Saddam’s military forces. He could comply to each and any United Nations formality and offer total, unrestricted cooperation. He could thus convince the UN Security Council – and world public opinion – that war is not necessary. If Saddam really engaged in transparency, he might pull out a victory against the Bush administration.

Will he do it? Arab diplomats who know him say he won’t. That’s the certainty they are carrying with them to the Arab “ordinary” summit this Saturday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm-al-Sheikh. Arab leaders at the summit won’t even call for Saddam Hussein to step down as president of Iraq. Deploring the “extreme weakness” of the Arab world, Arab League general secretary Amr Moussa admitted that war could happen “in the next few days.”

At least in theory, the common Arab position is to prevent their territories from becoming a base to attack another Arab country. In practice, Kuwait has been turned into a US boot camp, and Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are also an integral part of the US war machine. These states have already hinted that they would not abide by any decision of the Arab summit on this matter.

The overall feeling is that the Arabs are watching a disaster movie, passive, ecstatic spectators unable to leave their seats. The plot is all about them, but they don’t seem to realize it. The eastern flank of the Arab nation will be conquered, occupied and run by a new MacArthur. The plot thickens: Iraq may plunge into civil war, it may be balkanized by neighboring Turkey and Iran, Israel may try to smash the Palestinians for good, orchestrating a mass expulsion to Jordan. But the Arabs remain paralyzed. It was Turkey that had to call them to Istanbul to discuss how to prevent war. It was the European Union that had to force Egypt to reassert its traditional role of leader of collective Arab initiatives.

Arab diplomats and pundits are widely sounding the death of pan-Arabism – that romantic ’50s idea that Arab states are part of a great Arab nation and should always be united to defend it. It all went downhill: at the summit on Saturday, Arab leaders are reduced to being torn between fear of the United States and fear of their own people. Palestinian writer Hafez Barghouti offers a devastating analysis of the process: “The Arab system hasn’t just declared its impotence to stop the war, it has volunteered to join in ­ as if in resistance to the desire of many friendly governments and peoples to stop the potential massacre of the Iraqi people. But history will also record that not only the Arab system failed, retreated and colluded with the aggressors; the Arab people, too, were spineless and terrified.”

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah openly regretted that in “the greatest Muslim demonstration, the reunion of 2 million Muslims in Mecca,” there were no calls against war. Nasrullah has fiercely accused a few Arab regimes of secretly supporting war. Nevertheless, pro-US regimes such as Egypt and Jordan, which fear their own public opinion, know all too well that the silence of the Arab street masks tremendous anger. The endless humiliation of Palestine followed daily on live TV, coupled with the upcoming special-effects invasion of Iraq, could be the final spark to light up the volcano.

One of the defining aspects of the Muslim ummah is a feeling of brotherhood. A Muslim in Kashmir feels hurt almost physically by the suffering of a Muslim in Ramallah, and vice-versa. That’s how hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world feel hurt by the suffering of the Iraqi people – caught between Saddam’s reign of terror and the sanctions-induced nightmare. But despair in the Arab world with the disgraceful record of many regimes is now so pervasive that not a few Arabs are actually welcoming an invasion of Iraq – even if this war is conducted by a Washington that didn’t even try to disguise its loathing and contempt for Arabs. Diplomats in Cairo confirm that Arab regimes have been under enormous pressure by the United States: “Their hands are tied. That’s why the extraordinary summit collapsed,” said one. Others are more unforgiving: “Some leaders simply don’t have a global vision of their true national interests. If they had presented an united front, they would have changed things. It’s like they are not conscious [of] how serious the situation is. They are limited by their desire to remain in power.” For Salama Ahmad, an editorialist at the semi-official Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper, “they will gather just to wash their hands and pretend their conscience is clear.” Another Arab diplomat is even gloomier: “They don’t have military means. Financial means are practically non-existent. And oil as a weapon, nobody even dreams of it anymore.” Nobody did until the idea was floated at the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Kuala Lumpur (see OIC: Organized irrelevance, February 27). It’s unlikely Arab nations will actually consider it.

Even Africans have been more forceful than Arabs. At the end of the 22nd Franco-African summit in Paris last week, they all signed a “Declaration on Iraq” calling for more and reinforced UN inspections. Ahmed Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister, was dejected: “I keep telling everybody that it took only 15 minutes for the African countries to reach a unanimous position about Iraq.”

But now the three African countries that are current non-permanent members of the Security Council are also under extreme political and economic pressure by the US. There are subtle nuances. Cameroon won’t be easily swayed: France is Cameroon’s main trade partner. But Guinea will be president of the Security Council in March. The country is poor, 90 percent Muslim and a member of the OIC. Washington has already offered it an array of economic carrots: pocket change. Angola is another weak link: it has emerged only recently from a 27-year-long civil war. It defends a pacific solution in Iraq at all costs. But US oil companies are very much present in Angola, and the country badly needs an international donors conference to start its rebuilding process.

Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has invited the leadership trio of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Malaysia, South Africa and Cuba, to visit Iraq, follow the work of the inspectors and then render their verdict to the international community. But Saddam Hussein has hinted in the now famous CBS interview with suave Texan Dan Rather that he does not plan to destroy his Al Samoud 2 missiles, because they were tested without being fully charged and without guiding systems: this would mean they in fact do not exceed the 150-kilometer range prescribed by the UN. He may be calculating that if the destroys them, he could preempt the US-UK-Spain war camp at the UN. Arab diplomats say he won’t, because his missiles and his yet-to-be-found cache of chemical and biological materiel are his prime instruments to instill fear and prevent any internal rebellion.

Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, sums it all up: “Unfortunately, the destiny of our region is crafted abroad. This is what we are seeing now: our future is being dictated by people outside, be it a dictator like Saddam on one side, or the Americans on the other.” This leaves the “ordinary” summit of the Arab League this Saturday at least serving one purpose: to demonstrate how dangerous is the abyss between the acts of Arab regimes and the will of their populations. The abyss is the utmost, undisputed source of terrorism in the Arab world – terrorism that will only be amplified by the Second Gulf War.

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