The Gulf War in the Arab World

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Salah Jaber

I’VE BEEN ASKED to speak about the anti-war movement in the Arab countries. I want to point to two specific features of the movements in these countries. First, it wasn’t precisely an antiwar movement, but a movement in solidarity with Iraq in the war, against the U.S. coalition aggression. This involves different political tasks from that of the antiwar movement in Western countries.

Second, in comparison with the Western countries, you had overwhelming mass feeling—with the partial exception of Egypt—in support of Iraq, although the mass feeling didn’t materialize in a movement in all countries. There are many countries where it is difficult to have any movement because of the repression, for instance in Syria.

So the countries in the Arab area where we have seen a real mass expression of solidarity with Iraq were mainly —at least in the eastern part—Jordan and the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1%7, the West Bank and Gaza. More generally, the Palestinian people were the backbone of this expression, including in Jordan.

Then you have the Maghreb countries—the western part of the Arab world —where you have large mass movements, particularly in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, in solidarity with Iraq. This was due to the greater possibilities for open political activity, and to the fact that the governments had a policy of letting the mass movement express itself in some way.

Concerning this mass movement in solidarity with Iraq, I will deal briefly with three points: the political issues, the political process involved in the movement, and its problems.

I started by saying that this movement wasn’t anti-war, but rather in solidarity with Iraq. The reasons for this solidarity are related mainly to the opposing camp, Iraq’s enemies—not so much, at least at the start, coming from sympathy with Saddam Hussein.

In the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight years, there never was mass feeling of solidarity with Iraq or sympathy for Saddam Hussein. So the starting point m this last crisis was the character of Sad- dam Hussein’s enemies, not Saddam himself. In addition, there wasn’t really sympathy for the annexation of Kuwait as such, although the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq didn’t attract much sympathy for the Kuwaitis either.

The fact that the Palestinian people, one of the peoples in that area most concerned with the issue of self-determination, didn’t feel any sympathy for Kuwait and in fact sympathized with Iraq reflects the level of complexity of the problem there, including the nature of Kuwait as a peculiar and artificial state created to plunder the riches of the area.

But the main reason for the solidarity with Iraq was the imperialist intervention and its double standard: Palestinians see this huge mobilization in defense of Kuwait and yet the same forces, especially the United States, are the main backers of the Israeli state that has been occupying, annexing and oppressing the Palestinian people for decades.

This reason—the anti-imperialist reason—for supporting Iraq will be found anywhere in the Arab area, including Egypt At the beginning of the crisis Egypt was the place where you would find the least sympathy for Saddam; two million Egyptian workers in Iraq had a barbaric experience of the nature of this dictatorship. Nevertheless even in Egypt, as the coalition deployment built up and mainly after the aggression started, feeling shifted in favor of Iraq. This had some expression even at the level of street mobilizations.

Now, the forces involved in the movement in the Arab countries have to be seen in light of the situation before August 2 (the date of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—ed.). This situation is characterized by a general weakness of the left and a near-absence of independent working-class movements with one or two exceptions. Against this background there is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, attempting to fill the gap and channel existing mass sentiment into a reactionary social campaign.

Openings for the Left

The beginning of the Iraqi invasion produced a crisis in the ranks of the fundamentalist movement. Many of the groups had been financed by key countries in the anti-Iraq coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia, always one of the main backers of the most reactionary fundamentalist movements in the area.

Even the ‘radical” wing of the fundamentalists didn’t have any sympathy with Iraq) they had more sympathy for Khomeini. Iraq was seen to have an anti-Muslim regime. On the one hand, they had to recognize the mass feelings in solidarity with Iraq, while on the other their previous policies were normally anti-Iraq. This problem created political disputes, even open divergences, among the fundamentalists.

Thus there was an opening for radical, socialist or anti-imperialist forces to build themselves in the mass movement The problem is that this opportunity wasn’t grasped in full, partly because of the general weakness of the left, and because of the position taken by what is still a big part of the left in the Arab world, the pm-Moscow Communist parties.

These parties followed the Soviet position, which as you know was not one of solidarity with Iraq but of support for the United Nations. This ambiguous position on the whole question helped the fundamentalist current.

Then the fundamentalists were also aided by the stand of Saddam himself, who in a very opportunist move played the “Islamic card” against the coalition, after having raised the banner of struggle against fundamentalism throughout the war with Iran. Saddam suddenly turned himself into an Islamic leader who called an Islamic conference in Baghdad right before the war.

The fundamentalists succeeded during the war in maintaining large influence over the mass movement. That was true from the beginning in a country like Jordan, where they were one of the main forces in the mobilizations. In Jordan the whole country, including the king, had to state some kind of support for Iraq. But it was also true in the Maghreb, especially in Algeria where the fundamentalists were very strong—at least they didn’t suffer from their early contradictions.

In Morocco and Tunisia, the fundamentalists’ role was more united. In these countries, progressive and leftist forces played a greater role. Even the working-class movements, given that these are the only two countries in the area where there are some kind of autonomous workers’ movements, played a significant role in the mobilizations.

The political problems faced in this general mobilization, wherever it took place in the Arab countries, are of a kind quite different from, what you might expect here in the West—the reverse, in fact In the West there was a very strong bias, war intoxication, disinformation, one-sided pro-coalition news. In several Arab countries you had the opposite intoxication, making people believe that Iraq was winning the war, even after the coalition attack started.

Obviously this wasn’t the case in all Arab countries—in Saudi Arabia and Syria the government media supported the coalition. But in the countries where we saw the mobilizations, strong illusions about Saddam Hussein developed over the course of the crisis.

Once the crisis was underway, due to the anti-imperialist feeling of solidarity with Iraq and the absence of a strong socialist alternative in the mass movement, very strong illusions arose. Saddam Hussein became the champion of the Arab nationalist cause. Inside the mass movement Saddam’s mystifications about Israel and his reasons for invading Kuwait (to liberate the whole Arab world for Islam) were accepted.

One of the problems this caused could be seen at the level of the Palestinian movement The Palestinian people, after years of intifada, experienced some degree of despair over the lack of results of their struggle. They looked for some savior and found only Saddam Hussein.

This has created some new problems for the Palestinian movement, also in terms of Palestine solidarity work inside the Israeli state and in Western countries. The political backwardness of the movement led to slogans such as calling for Saddam to throw chemical Scuds at Israel, which is from all points of view stupid. If this ever happened the main victims would be the Palestinians themselves, who unlike the Jewish population of the Israeli state didn’t have gas masks.

This kind of slogan, very harmful to the Palestinian people, came from the great illusions and political backwardness even among leading forces in the Palestinian movement.

Defeat and Disorientation

Then there are political problems to be seen in the aftermath of the Iraqi defeat On the one hand, the bitterness of this defeat leads to a kind of demoralization. The bitterness is in proportion to the illusions; in the Arab world this defeat is a terrible blow after all the expectations of Iraqi victory.

Second is the position about what is going on now in Iraq, a popular Arab and Kurdish uprising against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Because of the illusions that were spread in the Arab world before the Iraqi defeat, you find no popular support or sympathy in the Arab world for this struggle.

On the contrary, there is a kind of sympathy for Saddam against this uprising, linked to some reactionary stands. It is viewed as a “Shiite” uprising, there is anti-Kurdish chauvinism, there is a confused anti-imperialist sentiment that sees this uprising as a tool of imperialism, but the truth is exactly the opposite The United States and the Saudi governments didn’t want this uprising to succeed, and they acted accordingly!

This shows the urgency of drawing the lessons of this crisis in the Arab countries. Mainly for the radical left, the conditions for building any socialist alternative in this area include now drawing the balance sheet and not mixing up issues, taking opportunist stands or tailing mass sentiment as it may exist at one stage.

Finally, although it concerns even more the movement in Western countries, I think that what is happening now in Iraq shows the importance of an ongoing movement The Iraq war is not finished. The movement must continue, not only to denounce the coalition collusion with Saddam Hussein against the Arab and Kurdish people of Iraq, but also to continue to struggle against the political side of this coalition aggression.

What is imposed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 is absolutely scandalous, a pure imperialist diktat against one single country, but aimed at the whole Third World. One stipulation of the resolution considers null Iraq’s cancellation of its debt and orders Iraq to honor to the last dime every one of its debts. This has a clear meaning for the campaign to cancel the debt—Fidel Castro’s stand, for example—and that’s one reason why there is, rightly, great anger against this resolution.

July-August 1991, ATC 33