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The Arab World Takes Sides

ARAB governments' reactions to the Gulf crisis have been more heavily influenced by domestic and regional trends than by the Bush administration's repeated pronouncements about national sovereignty and self-determination. For the regimes in Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen, internal political and economic challenges dictate a position opposed to United States military intervention, if not actual sympathy for Iraqi actions. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, hopes to paper over his country's deteriorating economy by allying with the US, while the rulers of Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia have taken advantage of their ability to suppress internal political opposition to demonstrate their willingness to block Iraqi initiatives.

Jordan's King Hussein walks a tightrope between Islamists and leftists jockeying for predominance in the new parliament. Remarkably free elections last winter left the National Assembly deeply divided over a wide range of economic and social issues.

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Algeria and Tunisia confront equally powerful Islamist movements, and equally severe economic difficulties. The Islamic Salvation Front won a stunning victory in Algeria's municipal and provincial elections in mid-June, largely due to endemic shortages and escalating prices in local markets, accompanied by pervasive corruption in the ruling National Liberation Front. Since its equally impressive showing in the April 1989 elections, Tunisia's Islamic Tendency Movement has voiced greater dissatisfaction with the direction of President Ben Ali's economic policies. The president's unexpectedly categorical denunciation of foreign intervention in the Gulf coincided with both a substantial reduction in state subsidies on bread, milk, and cooking oil and the formation of a broad-based National Committee for Support of Iraq.

Yemen, meanwhile, is wrestling with the daunting problems of integrating an urban and centrally-planned south with a largely tribal and unregulated north. Some of these problems were eased in recent months by Iraqi shipments of crude oil for processing at the refinery at Aden, as well as by credits made available by Iraqi agencies through the recently-formed Arab Cooperation Council. Moreover, territorial and tribal disputes with Riyad provide a basis for collaboration with Baghdad.

Syria, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia appear dramatically better off by comparison. Virtually unopposed in the domestic arena, the regime of Hafez al-Assad jumped at the chance to assume an active role in Gulf affairs, with the added prospect of receiving a much-needed boost in economic assistance from Western Europe and Saudi Arabia in return.

Financial markets in the UAE quickly returned to normal after a wave of expatriate emigration and currency transfers out of the country immediately after the invasion. And Saudi citizens across virtually all strata have expressed their approval of the government's firm line against Iraq.

Egypt is the linchpin of the pro-American camp. International Monetary Fund officials recently reviewed the country's disastrous balance of payments situation and the state's growing budget deficit. Paradoxically, the Gulf crisis has helped ameliorate Egypt's indebtedness, both due to the rebounding price of oil on world markets - which will provide a windfall of some $600 million to the exhausted Egyptian treasury - and as a result of the Bush administration's decision to cancel the country's $4.6 billion armaments debt. These monies may offset the estimated $1 billion owed by Iraqi employers to evicted Egyptian workers. But they will not compensate for the $2 billion the government expects to lose each year from sharp drops in tourism, job opportunities in the Gulf, and traffic through the Suez Canal.

Even if Washington, Bonn, and Tokyo could muster the political will and economic resources to repay Cairo for its costly military support against Saddam Hussein, the Egyptian army's move into Saudi Arabia threatens to generate more vexing problems on the home front. Criticism of the Mubarak regime's hasty deployment of Egyptian troops to the Gulf has already arisen among dissident elements of the Muslim Brethren and the left.

Such sentiments are likely to spread as the public realizes that allying with the US will not guarantee improved living conditions in Egypt's poorer urban quarters and provinces. It was just such a realization that ignited Egypt's Islamist movement at the end of the 1970s and led directly to the fall of Washington's earlier partner, Anwar al-Sadat. This time things may turn out differently. But we should not be surprised if the same crowds that stayed away from Sadat's funeral eventually turn their backs on his successor.

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