North African Regimes Buffeted By Winds of Antiwar Sentiment

ON the cover of a glossy Tunisian weekly, a menacing looking Saddam Hussein is described as ``the man who makes the West tremble.'' If the Iraqi leader is the bane of the West, he is also the cause of a few jitters in the usually tranquil Mediterranean reaches of the Arab world.

All across the Maghreb, beleaguered regimes are bracing for a wave of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism unleashed by the Gulf war. Islamic and other opposition groups seek to exploit the war to gain power in North African countries like Algeria and Tunisia, which have long been dominated by one party.

In response, Maghreb governments have adopted a two-pronged defense, allowing just enough public dissent to provide a safety value for anger over United States-led air strikes against Iraq, while keeping one step ahead of public opinion.

``Fundamentalists are surfing on the wave of the Gulf crisis,'' says a Tunisian official. To stay ahead of the curve, hard-pressed Maghreb leaders are stepping up their support for Saddam.

In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali held to a moderate line through the fall, calling for US restraint and an Arab solution to the Gulf crisis, even as Western troops were gathering in the Saudi desert. But after demonstrators took to the streets following the first wave of coalition attacks, Mr. Ben Ali toughened up. He condemned the raids and said he was ``scandalized'' that some Arab leaders had refused to support Iraq.

``He is trying to keep the opposition parties from using the Gulf as a rallying cry,'' says a high-level source in Tunisia, who asked not to be identified. ``He is not going to be outflanked by the Iraqi side.''

Pressures are also growing in Morocco where, last Sunday, 300,000 demonstrators called on King Hassan II to withdraw the country's 1,500-man contingent from the multinational coalition.

The implications of the Gulf crisis are also potentially significant in Algeria, where Islamic fundamentalists recently demonstrated impressive strength in municipal and regional elections.

Algerian President Chadli Benjedid has postponed national elections to allow time for newly elected Islamic officials to demonstrate their inability to govern, diplomats and analysts say. But the strategy of delay has been foiled by the Gulf war, which has given the Islamic Salvation Front a potent new issue with which to expand its political power. (See related story, Page 5.)

Coalition criticized

Following massive pro-Iraqi demonstrations Jan. 18, Mr. Benjedid stepped up his criticism of the US-led coalition for going beyond the United Nations mandate to liberate Kuwait. But Benjedid, who condemned Iraq's invasion, has resisted calls to train volunteers to fight with Iraq.

Across the Maghreb, Arab opinion has been inflamed by pictures of war damage, including civilian casualties, inflicted on Iraq by coalition war planes.

``All the killing,'' exclaims a distraught hotel clerk in Tunis. ``I don't know why the Americans do this just for oil.''

In this impoverished region, resentment also runs high over the ostentatious lifestyle of the Saudi princes and Kuwaiti sheiks for whom the war is being fought.

At the root of Saddam's vast popularity in the Maghreb is the emotional force of his appeals to Islam, Palestinian rights, and Arab nationalism.

They have filled an emotional and intellectual void in a region where memories of the Algerian revolution against French colonial rule - once a reference point to Arab self-esteem - have largely faded.

Saddam's influence strong

``He's restoring the pride of the Arab people,'' observes a diplomatic source in Tunis, who adds that Saddam's missile attacks on Israel have ``caught the imagination'' of Arabs everywhere.

``Saddam means a lot to the Arab world,'' says a Tunisian professor. ``He's changed things and restored Arab dignity after years of humiliation. Even though the Arab world is going to lose this war, its going to gain a lot.''

As elsewhere in the Arab world, the Maghreb also brims with discontent over what is perceived as the West's double standard in dealing with Israel on the Palestinian issue.

``There's a feeling that the US does not use the same weapons against all countries that break international law,'' says Beji Caid Essebsi, president of Tunisia's parliament and a former foreign minister. ``The West says this war is for the security of the region. What security? Israel's?''

Faced with such strong pro-Iraqi sentiment, Maghreb leaders are confronted with the delicate task of supporting Saddam without alienating Western and Gulf benefactors.

``The government has to take a position that absorbs the anger in the street,'' says a Tunisian businessman.

But going too far could lead to reductions in foreign aid. Financial help is more important than ever: The Gulf crisis, by slashing tourism and raising oil prices, has inflicted major damage on North African economies.

Heightened security

Despite the air of normalcy that prevails in this quiet capital, reminders of the conflict raging in the opposite end of the Arab world are hard to avoid.

Clusters of Tunisian security forces loiter visibly at airports and strategic intersections. Soldiers, armored personnel carriers, and heaps of rolled barbed wire, meanwhile, surround the embassies of countries that are leading the fight to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

Responding to US warnings that North Africa may be unsafe, hundreds of foreign diplomats and businessmen have left the region. Meanwhile, the heightened emotions generated by the war have created security concerns in Western Europe, where more than 5 million North African workers are seen as a potential source of instability and terrorism.

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