Accessibility links

Arabs Observe Baghdad's Quick Fall in Disbelief - 2003-04-10

Throughout the Arab world, there is a sense of shock that the regime of Saddam Hussein fell so quickly. While few Arabs say they support Saddam Hussein, many of them say they were expecting the people of Iraq to put up a greater fight.

While the world watched Iraqis celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein in the streets of Baghdad, the reaction in much of the Arab world was one of shock and, in some respects, disappointment.

According to political analyst Sami Baroudi, Arabs are filled with mixed emotions. The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut says, while most people realized coalition troops would eventually win the war, they did not expect Baghdad to fall so quickly.

"People were not really prepared, because they were far from the battle scene, so they were believing what they were seeing, resistance and Americans not really going to win this war," he said. "So, there was this notion that maybe it should have lasted more. You know, the honor of the Arab nation. So, there is this feeling that we did not really put up a good fight. You have to remember that not that many Arab capitals have fallen to a foreign army."

Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, up until the day before Baghdad fell, was insistently guaranteeing Iraqi victory and assuring reporters American claims of success were lies. His words found accepting ears among many people in the Arab world who wanted to support their Arab neighbor. For some, Saddam Hussein represented Arab national resistance to foreign invaders.

But newspapers throughout the region acknowledged the speed of Baghdad's fall, and expressed concern for Iraq's future.

And, according to Uraib al-Rantawi, who heads the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, the prospect of democracy emerging in Iraq is something that will galvanize attention among Arab leaders.

"Democracy in Iraq as a model, I think, it is a challenge for many of the Arab regimes, because they like to see Iraq exporting oil only, but not oil and democracy," Mr. al-Rantawi said. "Having a democracy in Iraq will affect their conservative state and societies in the neighborhood of Iraq, and I think this is the main challenge now facing the Arab countries; how to build democracy in the Arab countries."

Mr. al-Rantawi says the war in Iraq has shown the Arab world that dictatorships, as he said, almost always end in defeat.

"The most important lesson from this war, I think, is that democracy is the solution," added Mr. al-Rantawi. "A dictatorship cannot mobilize the public opinion, cannot win a war, cannot even defend themselves. Therefore, the images about the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I think, will remind many of the Arab regimes, who built many statues in their own capitals, that there may be a time when their own statues are [falling as] happened in Iraq."

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, flew to Cairo for an unexpected visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the situation in Iraq. Both men called for the United States and Britain to establish security throughout Iraq as quickly as possible.

Hisham Yousef is a spokesman for the 22-member Arab League. He says the rapidly unfolding developments in Iraq will cause a flurry of high-level consultations among Arab leaders in the coming days and weeks.

But while Mr. Yousef acknowledges there is deep concern among many Arab states regarding the developments in Iraq, he says the Arab world welcomes democracy.

"Democracy is not a threat. Democracy is something that we all aim for," he said. "The issue is that there are ways and means to bring about democracy, and we thought that this is the worst way to bring about democracy, by destroying a country.

"Democracy is a process," continued Hisham Yousef. "Even democracy in the United States was not achieved in a day and a night. Democracy takes time. It takes institutions to be built. It takes awareness. It takes development. It has to grow. And there are many Arab countries that are moving in this direction."

Mr. Yousef acknowledges the movement toward democracy in the region has been slow.

But some analysts say that, while the United States and others say they want democracy, they may not be prepared for what happens, if and when there is a democratic vote in Arab countries. Hassan Nafae is the head of the political science department at Cairo University. With anti-American and fundamentalist sentiment so high throughout the region, he says any democratic states that emerge in the Arab world could turn out to be quite antagonistic toward the United States.

"The United States must understand, and I do believe it does understand, that if you have free elections in most of the Arab world, you will have very anti-American regimes, more anti-American than the current regimes," said Mr. Nafae.

But while Mr. Nafae acknowledges the anti-American sentiment in many Arab countries, he also says, if America makes good on its promise to return the Iraqi government to the Iraqi people, new seeds of friendship and trust may be planted.