THE egalitarian and revolutionary ideals invoked by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have rallied the support of millions of Arabs and Muslims. But inside Iraq, some critics and even supporters argue that the inconsistency between his slogans and his repressive system could backfire against the leadership.
This debate, which seems confined to a closed circles of intellectuals, does not appear to be evolving into an organized opposition movement. Nor is there any indication that Western pressure is creating an internal upheaval in Iraq, despite isolated reports of mutinies in the military.
To the contrary, the United States-led campaign against Iraq's Aug. 2 occupation of Kuwait is met with scorn among Saddam's supporters and critics alike.
``If Saddam were complying with US whims, the West would not have made a big fuss about his domestic policies,'' says an artist, who expressed disillusionment with Arab nationalist leaders who did not allow democracy.
Iraq has tortured and killed opponents of the regime, says Amnesty International, an international human rights group.
In a closely controlled society like Iraq, it is difficult to measure public opinion. After the sudden collapse of communist regimes in Eastern European, many Arab intellectuals expressed concern that the years of Iraqi repression could result in a backlash against nationalist and egalitarian ideas.
Such a scenario would be a nightmare for millions of Saddam's supporters and for intellectuals and activists who hope that the current confrontation with the West will bring about a more equal and sovereign Arab order in the region.
Some intellectuals in Iraq, and even in Jordan, warn that, as in the case of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president, Saddam's pitfall may prove to be his stringent restrictions on political freedoms.
``In this very place, we demonstrated in the '50s in support of Abdel Nasser,'' says the artist, pointing to historic downtown Rashid Street. ``We were proud of his challenge to the West, but oblivious to repression in Egypt.''
But this repression backlashed in Egypt and paved the way for Anwar Sadat to reverse Nasser's nationalist policies and turn the country into a key Western ally. Sadat was assassinated October 1981.
Strong supporters of Saddam and members of his Baathist Party argue that any criticism of Iraqi domestic policies will play into the hands of the West.
``No voice should be louder than that of the nationalist battle,'' is the slogan of Saddam's supporters.
But in Baghdad, intellectuals from within and outside the Baathist Party directly challenge this slogan.
``Many Arab and third-world regimes used the nationalist struggle as a pretext to justify authoritarianism,'' says an Iraqi novelist.
Elias Farah, a senior official in the Baathist Nationalist Command, also stresses that Baathism and nationalism are not incompatible with democracy.
``The dangers which face the Arab world ... do not justify the sacrifice of democracy,'' Dr. Farah said in an interview in the imposing edifice of the Baathist National Command.
The Syrian-born philospher, who spoke in general terms without a specific reference to Iraq, argues, however, that the democratic model in the West is hypocritical in dealing with human rights in the third world.
Farah accused the West and the US in particular of treating third-world countries as ``guinea pigs in a laboratory'' by interrupting the natural socioeconomic development toward democracy through political and military interventions.
A process of liberalization, involving a new constitution, pluralism, and a presidential elections, was interrupted by the Gulf crisis, Iraqi officials argue.
SOME Iraqi intellectuals, however, are skeptical about the real intentions of the leadership.
``They will never change,'' said a former communist, who vividly remembers being tortured after Iraq's short-lived pluralism came to an abrupt end in 1977 and the Baathists cracked down on their communist allies.
But others argue that Saddam, who has gained tremendous popular support among Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, millions of Arabs in the Magreb countries, and in Yemen and Jordan, will have to reconsider his style of leadership.
``He has no international allies. He has to live up to his image as nationalist popular hero,'' says the novelist.
On the domestic level, the challenge is more serious. As international sanctions start to hurt and Iraqis are forced to lead a more austere lifestyle, the country's ability to endure hardship may depend on a loosening of the leadership's tight control.
The flood of Western journalists, television networks, international personalities, and political activists to Baghdad should contribute to an opening up of the closed society, says a senior Arab official who visited Baghdad recently.
``It might turn out to be a very valuable experience for both,'' he says. ``The West is rediscovering Iraq and vice versa. What is more significant, Iraq might be rediscovering itself.''