CAIRO – George W. Bush may have never read Dante Alighieri. But Bush’s three ultimatums – to Iraq, to the United Nations and to the European Union – seem to come straight from one of old Europe’s greatest creative artists. “Abandon all hope ye who enter,” says Dante in The Divine Comedy at the gates of hell. “Abandon all hope ye who engage in irrelevant talk,” says Bush at the gates of heaven as he prepares for the first installment in a long round of engagement in the Middle East.

As we approach the final countdown at the Security Council, it’s the United States and the United Kingdom, backed by Spain, against France and Germany, backed by Russia and China: a one-page second resolution stating that Iraq is in material breach against a memorandum setting deadlines for Iraqi disarmament. The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations has dubbed the deceivingly bland semantics of the second resolution “a declaration of war.”

The immediate reaction of the Arab League to total war has been total panic. Secretary general Amr Moussa said, “You can never belittle the consequences of war, especially in a Middle East already frustrated with the Israeli occupation and the bias towards Israel. So adding insult to injury is too much for us.”

Insult has been added to injury long before the tabled second resolution. As Asia Times Online has reported (The great Arab face-saving theater, February 19), the Arab League has no cohesive, independent, forcefully argued position vis-a-vis the US: it has only managed to attach most – but not all – of its camels to the Franco-German-Russian “more time for the inspectors” position. Half of Kuwait, a league member, has been turned into a US boot camp. Qatar and Bahrain will also help in the invasion of Iraq. The Arab League is a sad exercise in schizophrenia – trying to appease Washington and engage it in dialogue while at the same time performing full-time contortionism to calm its angry and restless populations.

While the world grapples with extraordinary events, the Arab League couldn’t do more than settle for an ordinary summit to be held in Cairo early next month. Syria has been lobbying hard for a meaningful summit. Syria knows very well that it is next on the list of the Washington hawks. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – who is the top dog running US foreign policy in the Middle East – just last week offered American congressmen his own list of who’s next: Syria, Iran and Libya.

Syria has been fighting hard at the UN to remind anyone who will listen that peace in the Middle East will only be achieved with a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian tragedy. At the UN, Syria – as a non-permanent member of the Security Council – is staunchly aligned with the Franco-German-Russian front. At the Arab League, Lebanon – according to diplomats instigated by Syria – made sure to remind of the 2002 Beirut declaration, which establishes that an attack on one individual Arab nation would be regarded as an attack on the whole Arab nation. Kuwait was furious – and that’s the main reason there cannot possibly be a consensus in the Arab League.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah may be sincere in his current efforts to introduce democratic reforms in the kingdom, but Saudi Arabia is living in dreamland hoping that Saddam Hussein will accept free elections under the supervision of the UN. Egyptian political scientist Wahid Abdel-Meguid laments that “the Americans always impose discussions about post-Saddam [Iraq] while Arab countries try to maximize the chances of a peaceful solution.”

Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tries to be more optimistic: “The Arab and European stances are mutually dependent. The Arabs will make a firmer stand with the encouragement of Europe.” But he also warns that “the Arabs are not in a position to risk everything for someone like Saddam Hussein.” Professor Bahgat Korany from AUC agrees, and adds that with the Saudis not exactly enjoying Washington’s good graces, most other key Arab nations are resigned that “even the Europeans can’t stop the American war machine.”

But the whole world keeps trying anyway. That is the message coming from the Kuala Lumpur meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – 116 countries representing more than 50 percent of the world population, two-thirds of the UN, and including six non-permanent members of the Security Council: Syria, Pakistan, Chile, Angola, Guinea and Cameroon. These last three African nations have already stated their anti-war position at the Franco-African summit in Paris last week. Even under serious carrot-and-stick approaches in New York for these next few days, they won’t be easily swayed to vote for a second resolution that in fact will be a green light for war. For the absolute majority of the 186 UN member states that are not part of the Security Council P5 (as the five permanent members are known), this second resolution now tabled means nothing else than a UN authorization for preemptive war.

At the NAM meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad repeated what Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, has been saying these past few days in the Arab world: the war will inevitably be perceived as anti-Muslim.

Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, agrees: “Washington’s actions suggest it has targeted Islam and that it plans to reshape the region in a manner that will obviate the emergence of an Arab nationalist or Islamic ideology of unification or resistance. Towards this end, it most likely intends to redraw the map of the region on the basis of ethnic or sectarian rivalries.” Nafaa paints an alarming picture: “If what appears to be American designs see the light of day, Arabs and Muslims realize that the only nation to benefit will be Israel, and Washington will have paved the way for it to become an unrivaled regional power virtually overnight.” A stroll through the campus of the liberal American University in Cairo is always instructive, and one hears fiercely anti-US and anti-Israel comments.

There’s absolutely no love lost for Israel in Egypt. Diplomats in Cairo comment that Israel, in partnership with the US, is actively involved in the partition of Sudan, which Egypt considers its back yard. It is all about water. Herodotus rightly pointed out that Egypt was a gift from the Nile, but the possibility of the gift being wrapped by Israeli control of the nascent waters of the Nile makes for endless sleepless nights. It’s a situation parallel to the future of the River Jordan – a key in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. With Israel controlling the flow of the river, a Palestine state could be starved in a few days.

The Egyptian economy is bound to suffer badly with a war in Iraq. The figures are gloomy. There will be heavy losses in many crucial fronts: tourism (the main source of foreign-exchange revenue), exports, revenue from the Suez Canal and the stock market. According to official data, tourism employs 2.2 million people in Egypt, directly and indirectly. Independent sources say that there could be as many as 10 million.

According to a study by the Federation of Egyptian Industries, Suez revenues are expected to fall by almost half, to US$1 billion. Assuming a short war ending within three months, tourism revenues will also fall by half, to $1.7 billion. Egyptian expatriates’ remittances will also be halved, to $2 billion. The import bill will rise 30 percent. Exports will decrease by 5 percent, to $5.9 billion. Foreign direct investment will be non-existent. According to economist Hamdi Abdel-Azzem, at least 200,000 Egyptian workers could be forced to return from Iraq: a social as well as an economic crisis. About 4 million to 6 million Egyptians work in the Persian Gulf region – and the absolute majority fear that they could lose their jobs. And to top it all, trade between Egyptian businesses and Iraq under the UN oil-for-food program ($1.5 billion last year) will also suffer: Egypt is one of the top five countries benefiting from the program. The US has given signals that it might be willing to “compensate” Egypt for some of these tremendous troubles, but the mood in Cairo couldn’t be more pessimistic.

Thus, appalled by the prospect of imminent war, Egyptians keep searching for alternative solutions. Mahmoud Abaza, vice president of the opposition Wafd Party, advances that “the pressure could have been more efficient and useful for all if it was geared to force the Iraqi regime to organize free elections, after a period of transition, under the surveillance of the international community. This would have been more acceptable for the Iraqi people, the Arab nation, the immediate neighbors and the international community.” Abaza’s dream would be “a coalition to save the Iraqi people instead of exterminating them.” He is devastated by the fact that the Bush administration, “the most reactionary in American history,” is using the September 11 tragedy to “build an empire devoid of all moral values that America has incarnated since its independence.”

Gamil Mattar, director of the Arab Center for Development and Futuristic Research, makes a point of referring to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, when the British and the French carved up the Middle East for themselves after the Ottoman defeat in World War I: “That map has continued largely unchanged, even in the face of attempts by some – in the name of Arab unity or the unity of greater Syria – to change it. The map lasted because the Arabs have refused to change it.” But Mattar has a very clear warning that could only be directed to Washington: “Would-be reformers will face many difficulties. The Middle Eastern state is autocratic, leaving nothing out of its orbit of influence, and at the same time it is underdeveloped. While nation-states have been established in the Middle East and even institutionalized, they have not yet succeeded in the process of nation-building. This will be a heavy burden on anyone seeking to implement far-reaching changes in political and social institutions.”

The Bush administration may be aware that Iraq is a supreme prize – the crucial frontier separating Arabs, Persians and Turks, the key bridge between the Mediterranean and Central Asia from a historic, religious, ethnic and geographic perspective. But the invading superpower may be less aware of the extreme complexity of most political, religious and ethnic problems lying ahead. For instance, Iraq – not Iran – is the country harboring the Shi’ite holy places: Kufa, Najaf and Kerbala. Even though they are a majority in Iraq, the Shi’ites have been consistently oppressed by successive Sunni empires. Ethnically they are Arabs, but religiously they are Shi’ites (see The Shi’ite factor, April 25, 2002). They are not only the most important community in the Arab world, but also a very important link with Shi’ite minorities living in the eastern Arabian Peninsula and in Lebanon. Sunni Arabs in central and eastern Iraq since the fall of the Ottoman empire have constituted the political and military elite – but they also have a common tribal origin with people from southeastern Syria, the Jordan region and northern Saudi Arabia.

The majority of soldiers in the Iraqi regular army are Shi’ite. As war breaks out, they will either flee, surrender or, most likely, engage in widespread rebellion. Washington’s plans of a clean occupation of Iraq will turn to dust. A preview of what might happen was offered early this month. In a meeting in the Turkish capital Ankara, US officials totally dismissed the Iraqi opposition – the bulk of which is Shi’ite and Kurdish. They said that post-Saddam Iraq will be under a military government, and – insult to injury – run by the same Sunni establishment put in place by Saddam Hussein.

Shi’ites are silently furious. They will revolt. Insistent rumors coming from Iraq about a massive Shi’ite revolt immediately after war breaks out don’t mention any kind of rallying organization – except for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, backed by Iran. The council has a small army of a maximum of 10,000 men, based in Iran, although they say that many are based in Iraq as well. There are no Shi’ite leaders inside Iraq because Saddam has killed them all.

So it looks as if the United States will be confronted by a replay inside a replay of the Gulf War of 1991. At the end of that “Mother of All Battles,” Saddam lost no fewer than 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces to Shi’ites and Kurds. Washington under Bush Senior at the time already wanted regime change, but it did not want a popular revolution. That’s why Saddam was de facto authorized by Washington, even in defeat, to smash both the Kurdish and Shi’ite revolts violently. There’s every indication a Shi’ite revolution may happen this time – along with a Kurdish revolution in the event of Turkish troops taking over Kurdistan. But unlike 1991, Washington won’t be able to count on a Saddam to smash them. The liberators will have to do it themselves.

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