Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein; drawing by David Levine

Amman, Jordan

Never had I felt so gloomy about the Middle East as I did recently after I spent an evening with King Hussein. The King probably knows the region, and certainly the Arabs, as well as anyone else, and he carries the burden of being conceivably the last of the Hashemite rulers. Until the Saudis took over the Hijaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina, the King’s clan was custodian of the Islamic holy places there for hundreds of years. His great-grandfather was the sharif of Mecca. Abdullah, his grandfather, helped lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and was rewarded by Britain with a new kingdom east of the Jordan River. Hussein, as a teen-ager, was at Abdullah’s side when he was assassinated in 1951 at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by a disaffected Palestinian. In 1958, a cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was overthrown and murdered.

The King, who has led Jordan through many shaky periods for nearly forty years, is doing nothing to discourage the feeling that the entire region is headed for something dreadful. A week after American planes began bombing Iraq, Fouad Ayoub, a palace press officer I have known for many years, telephoned me at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman. The King and Queen Noor, he said, would be giving an informal dinner that evening for a few cabinet ministers and some foreign journalists. Although the King is unhappy with much of the press coverage he receives, no other Arab leader makes as great an effort to deal with reporters personally, especially during times of crisis.

Hussein’s palace is a collection of ordinary cream-colored villas and office buildings on top of one of Amman’s many steep hills. Inside, in a reception room with old Damascene mashrabiyah panelling, we were offered fresh fruit juices, served in Hebron blown-glass tumblers. The King, when he finally appeared with his wife, was wearing a blazer over a dark turtleneck sweater. As we entered the dining room, we were told of reports that Iraqi Scud missiles were flying over Jordan on their way to Tel Aviv.

After a simple supper of Arabic mezze, the King invited us to ask questions. He looked sad and frustrated, although he never lost his temper as he gave us his long and measured replies. He expected a long war, he told us. He assumed that the might of the allied forces was capable of dislodging Iraqi troops from Kuwait, but at a terrible cost. He was concerned about what Israel might do, but he seemed equally worried about an eruption of political unrest that would bring down Arab governments. When a British journalist pointed out that he had said nothing hopeful the entire evening, the King seemed to wince.

Saddam Hussein’s confrontation with the US, which is how many Arabs view Operation Desert Storm, is tearing violently at the connections among nations and groups in the Arab world. Saddam has proved himself to be a radical seeking to destroy the status quo. Whatever the outcome of the war, his invasion of Kuwait and his refusal to yield to the immense power opposing him have deeply changed Arab politics. Shifts have already taken place in relations between Arab states, as well as in relations between the rulers and citizens in Arab states.

Current Jordanian politics provide some glimpse of what the consequences of the war may be, and, to me, they do not look very hopeful. Trends I have observed in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East during the last six months suggest that militancy and extremism will pose increasingly serious threats to moderation. Islamic fundamentalism seems to be gaining strength at the expense of the secular forces and ideologies that have until now prevailed in most Arab countries. As a result the prospects seem bleak that the war will eventually lead to peaceful settlements of the various disputes in the region.

Saddam Hussein is very popular in Jordan. This is one of the reasons why the King has increasingly supported Iraq against the allies. For several months Jordanian officials had claimed that Jordan was neutral and had more or less abided by the UN sanctions against Iraq. But on February 6, the King bitterly condemned the attack on Iraq and charged that it was a “war against all Arabs and Muslims,” intended to put the region under foreign domination. He gives his subjects the clear impression that he regards Saddam as a close Arab brother. Everywhere you go in Amman you come across posters showing Saddam alone or with the King. One widely displayed poster shows the King ceremoniously presenting Saddam with a gun. In the cafés men listening to Amman Radio cheer when the newscaster reports an Iraqi Scud missile attack on Israel or an allied plane shot down by Iraqi fire. I can’t think of a single one of my dozens of Jordanian friends, including those who have lived for years in the US or Europe, who does not support Saddam. Hateful as he seems throughout the West and to the rulers in the Gulf themselves, Saddam, like no other leader since Nasser, speaks directly to the despair and powerlessness that many Arabs feel. That is particularly true now that he is seen in some Arab countries as standing up to the attacks of the United States and Europe in defense of Arab pride. His brutal invasion of Kuwait, for many Arabs, was forgotten on the day that American troops began arriving in Saudi Arabia.


Few Arabs in the richer Gulf states have any sympathy for Saddam, but a great many in poorer countries like Jordan do. In North Africa, anti-Western feelings set off by the Gulf showdown seem explosive, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. In Rabat, the capital of Morocco, on February 3 an estimated 300,000 people took part in the city’s biggest political demonstration since the Suez crisis in 1956. Many of them displayed pictures of Saddam, despite the fact that their king, Hassan II, has sent about 5,000 Moroccan troops to join the alliance. Well-in-formed recent visitors to Syria tell me that Saddam has a fair amount of popular backing there, despite President Hafiz al-Asad’s decision to join the alliance.

Among the poorer Arabs, only the Egyptians seem ambivalent about Saddam. That is probably because they are preoccupied with their own serious economic problems and, in any case, they have never been enthusiastic about an Arab leader who is not an Egyptian. Tens of thousands of Egyptians who recently returned from working in Iraq have no illusions about his regime. Even so, two and a half weeks after the war began, Egyptian opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and various leftist political parties, issued a statement condemning the “brutal attack launched by the American and Allied Forces,” which includes 45,000 Egyptian troops. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 Egyptians are reported to have been conscripted into Iraqi military service.

When no one else has been able to do so, Saddam offers many Arabs dreams of unity, with which they could finally achieve a respected place in the world; of prosperity, which could be brought about by an equitable distribution of Arab oil wealth;* of Israel’s defeat, which would enable the Palestinians to have justice.

Shortly before January 16, I had dinner in Amman with Daoud Kuttab, a well-known Palestinian journalist who was visiting from Jerusalem. He recalled the powerful effect that Saddam, before the Kuwait crisis, had on Palestinians in the occupied territories when he threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Throughout the intifada, Kuttab said, Palestinians watched as Israelis managed to carry on their everyday lives, going apparently unperturbed to the beach or to concerts. “Then this guy six hundred miles away makes a statement,” Kuttab said, “and all of a sudden we see Israelis rushing out to get gas masks.”

The desperation for change of some sort runs deep. Since the end of the Second World War, when most of the twenty-one Arab states became independent, not a single one has developed a stable working democracy, although there have been increasingly free elections in countries like Algeria and Jordan and some degree of press freedom in these and a few other Arab countries. Having been dominated by Turkish and then European governors for hundreds of years, Arab societies were susceptible to military dictatorship. Widespread popular demands for the destruction of Israel helped to give an element of popular legitimacy to dictatorships that otherwise would have enjoyed little or none. The central planning accompanying authoritarian rule has helped to produce economic stagnation in the poorer Arab countries.

To the West, Saddam’s rule has been appalling. To ordinary Arabs, especially those who do not have to live in Iraq, his authoritarian style and his ruthless treatment of dissidents are not unusual. In any case, these Arabs don’t look to Saddam as a model for government, but they are drawn to him by the way he addresses grievances over Israel or “Western imperialism” that are widely viewed by Arabs as being responsible for the retarded political development of their societies.

What gives Saddam his popularity, moreover, is not so much what he says as what he does. Like Nasser, he is a charismatic leader, but unlike Nasser, he does something besides talk. Arabs who have grown used to the fruitless wrangling over disputes involving, say, the Palestinians or Lebanon were deeply impressed with how Saddam, after Kuwait’s leaders refused to consider his various demands concerning oil, simply snatched the country in a matter of hours. “I have always hated Saddam because I am a liberal,” a Palestinian friend told me. “But he brings out the ‘dictator’ in me. Now I am all the way for Saddam. We Palestinians are drowning, and he is throwing us a rope.”


Significantly, Saddam’s popularity is at its highest now since the outbreak of war with the US-led coalition. In view of the powerful forces arrayed against Iraq, many Arabs had assumed that Saddam would back down before the UN’s January 15 deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. The missile attacks on Israel convinced many Arabs that his efforts to link the Palestinian issue with Kuwait amounted to more than just talk.

In six short months, Saddam’s moves have strongly influenced Jordanian politics, and not for the better. For one thing, there is the phenomenon of “intellectual terrorism,” as a Jordanian intellectual I know calls it. The intensity and dogmatism of sympathy for Saddam frequently silence anybody who has a contrary opinion.

The West Bank and Gaza Palestinians involved in the intifada were among the first to back Saddam. Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere tended to be confused about whom to support, but they soon fell in with the sentiment of the intifada. Jordanians of Bedouin origin, the so-called “East Bankers,” also quickly backed Saddam. They have always considered Iraq a friendly country, and have long harbored hostile feelings toward Gulf leaders, especially King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Kuwait, whom they view as having frequently humiliated their own, less wealthy monarch. Palestinians working in Kuwait came home to Jordan filled with bitterness toward Saddam. But it seems that most of them, partly as the result of the pervasive social pressure, reversed their view, at least in public.

Such is the fervor for Saddam that Jordanians who have slight misgivings about him are afraid to express them or, if they do, are told to shut up. A friend in Amman says that, in political conversations with colleagues, he cannot use the word “occupation” in reference to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. If he does so, he is admonished and reminded that Iraq “embraced” Kuwait, or Kuwait is “the branch that returned to the tree.”

Meanwhile the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates an Islamic state, is a relatively new and politically far-reaching development in Jordan. A couple of years ago, few people paid the members of the Brotherhood much attention, in part because of the government’s tight restrictions on all political activity. Now they are the most important political movement in the country, and are gaining more ground as the result of the crisis. Many Brotherhood members in Jordan are Palestinians, and the group has close links with the Hamas fundamentalist movement that has been active in the uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank. In its charter, Hamas calls itself the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.

The Brotherhood began to gain more power in Jordanian politics in 1989. Economic stagnation led to the “uprising of the south,” which included serious rioting in the city of Maan, traditionally an ethnic Bedouin stronghold for the regime. King Hussein was forced to relax his government’s tight control of political activity, and he called the first elections since 1967. Unlike the conventional political parties, the Brotherhood had never been banned in Jordan and easily won the most seats. Nearly everybody I met in Jordan, including government officials, refers to the election as “the beginning of democracy.”

Had the King felt inclined to oppose Saddam and back the US, he would have faced opposition both from the Brotherhood and from many of the Palestinians who make up at least 60 percent of Jordan’s population of three million. The movement, with twenty-two members sitting in the eighty-seat lower house of the Jordanian assembly and ten other deputies who support it, strongly backs Saddam. (The forty-seat upper house is appointed by the King.) Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the King on January 1 appointed five members of the Brotherhood to his cabinet for the first time.

After the allies attacked Iraq, the lower house approved a resolution calling “on all the Arab and Islamic nations to strike at American interests and the interests of those nations participating in the aggression against Iraq.” Foreign Minister Taher Masri, who comes from a prominent family in the West Bank city of Nablus, left the assembly before the vote, which he was later quoted as saying was “unwise.” The vote deeply embarrassed the King. All he could say afterward was that the parliament had “the right to express people’s anger and frustration and despair.” But it was obvious that popular opinion in Jordan was running dangerously ahead of his feelings; and in his speech on February 6, the King flatly declared, “We salute Iraq, its heroic army, its steadfast people.”

I met Azzam Tamimi, the director of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary office. He is an energetic young man in his mid-thirties, who spent five years studying physiology in England. His family is originally from Hebron, and a distant relative, Asaad Bayyoud Tamimi, is the Amman-based imam for an extremist Palestinian faction known as the Islamic Jihad. I found him in a cheerful mood. He still couldn’t believe that the Brotherhood actually held some formal political power in Jordan. “It’s like a dream,” he told me.

Jordan’s laws have always conformed generally to Sharia, or Islamic law. The Brotherhood has achieved many of its legislative and administrative goals, such as lifting restrictions on political activists and abolishing interest rates for farmers and small businessmen. So the organization devotes much of its energies to the Gulf crisis and the intifada. Tamimi seemed to agree with other fundamentalists I met that Operation Desert Storm amounted to a new Western Crusade against the Moslem faithful. He sees the war for Kuwait as nothing less than a struggle for power between Islam and Western civilization.

I found it hard to convince any Jordanians, whatever their political leanings, that the allied forces went to war with Iraq in order to repel aggression. Tamimi subscribed to a popular theory I have often heard in the Middle East, that the US used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a pretext to send a huge military force to the region to 1) smash Iraq’s growing power, 2) protect Israel, 3) take control of the region’s oil resources, and 4) crush the growing Islamic movements. “It is not a secret that we, as Muslims, look forward to eliminating the state of Israel,” he said. “It seemed [to the US] that Saddam, with his growing power, was becoming a real threat.”

The attacks on Iraq have produced a disturbing increase in anti-Western feeling in Jordan. I asked Tamimi what the parliament meant when it called on Muslims to confront the West. He said Muslims were being called on to attack any American installation of a military or semimilitary nature. However, the call seems to have been more rhetorical than practical. The Brotherhood, he said, did not have the means to attack any US installations in Jordan. Some people, however, have begun staging attacks in Amman. Since January 16, gun shots were fired at a branch of Citibank. There was one small bombing and one attempted bombing at a branch of the British Bank Of The Middle East and the library at the French Cultural Center was burned down. At the same time, fundamentalists stepped up their rhetoric. A member of the King’s cabinet, Religious Affairs Minister Ibrahim Zeid Keilani, who is a member of the Brotherhood, called in a televised sermon for a jihad “against America and its atheist allies until doomsday.”

Since the Gulf crisis, Tamimi noted with pleasure, Jordan’s television broadcasts have begun to reflect Islamic values more closely. “We have fewer Western-style films, and more films talking about Islamic history, war, and jihad,” he said. “We also have documentaries on the role of the CIA, World War II. These are the things we would like our TV to show, instead of useless things like love stories and US-made series like Dallas.”

Tamimi told me that the Brotherhood had no problem with the King. The movement did not think that a monarchy was incompatible with its concept of an Islamic state and, in any case, its members believed in democratic means of change. But the ultimate goal was a great Islamic empire. “The Muslim community extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “If the Muslim community was given the freedom to choose, it would choose to be reunited. We would be one Islamic unit.” He said that he believed the borders dividing Muslims were drawn up by colonialists against their wishes.

What would be the advantage of one huge Muslim state? I asked. “Power,” Tamimi replied without hesitation. “Power comes with unity. The United States is the greatest superpower now. Had it not had fifty united states, could it have that power?”

The first objective of power, he explained, was self-defense. “What is happening to us now—America and its allies waging a devastating war against Iraq—is because we are divided and weak,” he said. “The second thing is to be able to protect one’s resources. The oil that is in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia does not belong to the Kuwaitis or the Saudis. It belongs to every Muslim in the world. Even the American Muslims. Who are the Saudis to enjoy the wealth alone, and have Muslims in Sudan starving to death?

“The third advantage,” Tamimi continued, “is that when you are powerful, you can impress other nations. We, as an Islamic superpower, hope that we can spread our teachings to the world. Islam has to spread all over. Instead of people making fun of Islam or Muslims in the West, we would be able to provide the beautiful picture of Islam. What we can’t tolerate is being prevented from conveying the message.”

A significant effect of the crisis is the growing solidarity that has arisen between Jordan’s Islamic fundamentalists and secular political groups, among them the Palestine Liberation Organization, Arab nationalists, and communists. Hardly anywhere else in the Middle East have such diverse groups unified behind a cause. Nasser, the most powerful Arab nationalist so far, hunted down and imprisoned Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly before the war started, Tamimi’s group organized a protest rally of 15,000 people that included all the major factions in Jordan. They shouted slogans like “Use your chemicals, Saddam!” The group is also coordinating with the opposing factions in parliament.

Enmity toward the United States is the main factor behind the unity of the Brotherhood and its political rivals in Jordan. Before the Gulf crisis, the Brotherhood and most militant Muslims in the Middle East loathed Saddam, who, after all, is leader of a secular party, the Baath, and had waged a war against an Islamic republic. But Saddam during the last six months has openly sought fundamentalist support by calling for a jihad and by having the words “Allahu Akbar,” “God is Great,” sewn into the Iraqi flag. As a result, he seems to be having surprising success in attracting Muslim sympathy. “What is in his heart is Allah’s business,” Tamimi told me. “But the [Islamic] rhetoric in his speeches leaves important marks on the Iraqi people and the Muslim world. When Saddam talks about a fight against the infidels, a war that is waged on behalf of Muslims, a victory that comes from Allah, we welcome that. I think he has proven to be credible and sincere.”

The decision of Arab nationalists to join with fundamentalists is a sign of the nationalists’ diminishing strength. The biggest loser, at least for the moment, seems to be Yasser Arafat and his policy of compromise. Not only has the PLO been losing political ground to Hamas in the occupied territories and to the Brotherhood in Jordan, but Arafat is in the position of having sought a compromise with the very forces that are now attacking Iraq, and that are portrayed as the enemies of the Arabs. As far as the Brotherhood and Hamas are concerned, Tamimi told me, “there is no compromise over any part of Palestine.”

Although the PLO has thus far not officially altered its compromise policy, Tamimi believes that Arafat’s program for a negotiated “two-state solution” seems to have come to a halt, especially after the failure of the dialogue between the US and the PLO to yield results. “I hear many PLO activists talking about renouncing that policy,” he said. “There is a growing trend within the PLO that the compromise policy is not going to work because the Israelis expressed more than once the view that they were not willing to give in to the Palestinians. I think the PLO is still strong, but Arafat as a leader is losing ground. He will lose more if he continues to insist on his political program. I hope to see them return to the PLO charter, which means struggle until the complete liberation of Palestine. But, personally speaking, I don’t think Arafat is suitable as a leader anymore. If they want to continue being effective, I think they have to change their leader.” In the short-term, that would appear to be unlikely. Arafat, in fact, remains largely popular within the PLO’s ranks. (The man long considered to be Arafat’s likely successor, Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, was assassinated in Tunis on January 15. The Tunisian authorities arrested as a suspect a PLO bodyguard who until last year had belonged to the Abu Nidal terrorist group, which is said to be backed by Iraq.)

I often heard in Amman that the King has never been more popular, thanks to his decision to go along with the strong sentiment in favor of Saddam. But the outlook for Jordan does not look promising. In the unlikely event that Saddam manages to face down the alliance, the King will be carried away by militant political winds coming from Iraq. The crushing of Saddam, on the other hand, will cause deep disappointment among Jordan’s people. Having had their hopes raised, they will feel growing despair and will harbor even stronger grudges against the US and other members of the alliance. Arabs in other countries will probably react in a similar way. The frustration will be compounded by the worsening economic situation in many Arab countries, especially in North Africa. Jordan’s economy has been severely damaged already. Most of its exports went to Iraq, and its economy was also supported by remittances from Jordanians who have left their jobs in the Gulf since the crisis began with Iraq’s invasion on August 2. After the war is over, moreover, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will probably try to punish the King financially for his refusal to join in the alliance by restricting his access to credits and oil.

Theoretically, after the war the King could serve as an intermediary between the US and Arabs who sided with Iraq. But he is, I think, unlikely to rush forward with the kinds of moderate proposals that have generally characterized his efforts to solve Middle East problems. Many Jordanian officials I met in Amman seemed to think that an explosion of popular feeling could be averted if the West quickly and decisively took steps to solve the Palestinian problem after the end of the war. To them, that seems to mean forcing Israel to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But they don’t hold out much hope that this will happen.

One afternoon in late January, I had tea at the house of a cabinet minister I have known since 1985. As usual, the ground rules kept our discussion off the record. He was more discouraged than usual about the prospects of negotiating with Israel. Saddam’s missile attacks, he believed, had the effect of boosting sympathy for Israel among Americans. Like many Jordanians, he was concerned that Jordan would get “dragged” into the Gulf war if Israel used Jordanian airspace to retaliate against Iraq. He was also concerned that Israel might use the crisis as a cover to expel thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. Israel could seize a strip in the Jordan Valley, he said, “transfer” the Palestinians to it, and then withdraw across the river.

The minister, however, seemed most worried about what might happen on the streets of Jordan. “We are already in a difficult position,” he told me. “The economy is in shambles. What if there are cries in the streets of ‘Jihad!’? We don’t know how we are going to handle it.” But then he said he did know. “We would have to stop them,” he said. “But we can’t afford a clash between us and the people, especially not now.”

Those anxious remarks may apply to the possible consequences of the war in a number of other Arab countries. The hopes of many Arabs for greater freedom from the perceived grip of the West, and from the control of their own governments, will, if they are strongly put forward, probably be suppressed by Arab police forces or soldiers.

February 7, 1991

This Issue

March 7, 1991