Gulf Conflict Threatens Arab Democracy

`WE are all for Saddam Hussein here,'' says Adel, a young shopkeeper in the myriad of souvenir stands of the Tunisian capital's old center. ``We don't want war to come, but one thing is certain,'' he adds. ``If the Americans get in a war with Iraq, they will lose for sure.'' This mix of bravado and passionate popular support for Iraq is what officials in moderate Arab countries like Tunisia and Algeria say they face as they try not only to promote an elusive ``Arab solution'' to the Gulf crisis, but also to maintain economically essential ties with the West.

Many officials and experts in these countries say the worst turn that the conflict could take would be warfare pitting the West, led by the United States, against an Arab country.

That outcome, they say, could provoke new extremism in the region and destabilize fragile democratic reforms their countries are undertaking. ``The risk for Algeria as for the whole Maghreb is a radicalization of the masses,'' an Algerian official says.

Some experts say the Arab countries need more democratic reforms to escape the frustration and disenfranchisement that can end up making a strong and confrontational leader like Saddam attractive.

``One of the big losers in this affair could be democracy itself,'' says Ait Ahmed, president of the opposition Socialist Forces Front, one of Algeria's four major political parties. ``The democratic movement was already fragile, but without it there is no future for the Arab world.''

Some Tunisian experts see the US military engagement in the Gulf leading to negative residual effects for the US. ``Tunisia is a moderate country on friendly terms with the United States, but in spite of that one can easily feel the rancor,'' says Rachid Driss, longtime Tunisian diplomat and now director of the Association of International Studies here. ``That rancor translates into backing for Iraq, which in turn could have an important influence on the development of extremist groups.''

The effect has already registered in Algeria. In a move to patch up relations with a largely pro-Iraqi public, the country's Islamic fundamentalist party last week took up Saddam's call for a ``Holy War'' by encouraging Muslims to prepare for battle against ``corrupt'' Arab regimes and ``foreign hegemony.''

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won local elections in June and expects to do well in legislative elections in 1991, found itself in an embarrassing position: Saudi Arabia, which requested US intervention, has funded the FIS for years. The fundamentalists initially kept quiet, then issued ambiguous statements supporting both the Iraqi and Saudi positions.

All this is not to say that support for Saddam is unanimous in these countries. ``The guy is a nut, he cares nothing about anything but his own quest for power,'' says Khaled, a taxi driver in Algiers. ``I hope he is stopped, and I don't mind if it's the United States that does it.''

In Tunis, Hatem M'rad writes in the news weekly ``Le Maghreb'' that ``Saddam Hussein does not express his era, which aspires to greater freedom, democracy, and tranquility. The countries of Eastern Europe are today coming out of terror,'' he adds, while ``the Arab world is preparing to enter in.''

Yet even Mr. M'rad acknowledges that his views strike a chord with only a small minority of Tunisians.

Most intellectuals in Algeria and Tunisia express varying degrees of sympathy for Iraq. The result is that the public's natural inclination to side with Iraq, which has played on basic Arab concerns such as independence, distribution of wealth, and the Palestinian issue, is reinforced by the support of intellectuals.

And governments say they have little choice but to take account of such strong public opinion. ``We can't exactly preach continued progress in the direction of a stronger democracy, and at the same time take no account of our public opinion,'' says one Tunisian official. ``Even the US, which wants to encourage democracy's development around the world, would have to agree that would be hypocritical.''

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