CAIRO — No event since the creation of Israel in 1948 has so convulsed the Arab world, and no event in modern history has so deeply divided it, as the war now under way against Iraq.
What follows is a brief description of the positions taken by the major Arab states and the pressures their governments face:
"When Egypt makes a commitment, it sticks to it," says an aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "Our position is firm. Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait."
Egypt, which has sent 35,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, has taken the diplomatic lead in defending the Arab component of the anti-Iraq coalition from Baghdad's attempts to weaken it. Lacking Nasser's charisma or Sadat's flamboyance, Mubarak's character can generally be best summarized in one word: caution . Yet after some initial hesitation, the former air force commander has cast this caution aside and aligned himself squarely with the U.S.-led coalition.
Mubarak's anger at being having been deceived by Saddam Hussein, who had personally assured him that he would not invade Kuwait, has undoubtedly influenced Mubarak's position. Yet less tangible factors--Egypt's exhaustion after three wars with Israel, its bitter disillusionment with the populist promises of pan-Arabism, and what political scientist Ali Hillal Dessouki calls the "core of fairness at the center of the Egyptian soul"--have also played key roles.
Despite attempts by Islamic opposition groups to stir up anti-American passions, there are no indications yet of serious opposition to Mubarak's position. But anxiety is growing among ordinary Egyptians, who clearly are discomforted by the spectacle of U.S.-led forces destroying a fellow Arab country. The consensus among analysts is that the opposition poses no threat to Mubarak over the short term.
Egypt's large, impoverished and war-torn neighbor to the south has for some time been slipping ever deeper into the sinkhole of radical Islamic fundamentalism. Political chaos, tribal rivalries, famine and a long and bitter war against secessionist rebels in the non-Muslim south have polarized the nation and fueled deep resentments of both Egypt and the West. The Gulf War has accelerated this radical trend, with hundreds of thousands of Islamic demonstrators calling for a "holy war" against the United States.
Sudan is too poor and too preoccupied with its own troubles to pose a military threat to the anti-Iraq coalition. But Egypt is concerned that the Sudanese might allow Iraq to launch an attack on the Aswan Dam from their territory.
Mubarak has warned Sudan against such involvement. But Khartoum's military rulers have aligned themselves so closely with Iraq that many analysts think the regime will collapse if Iraq loses the war.
Tiny Jordan has been caught, literally and figuratively, in the middle of the Gulf conflict. Wedged between Iraq and Israel, Jordan has been trying to stop the war and, failing that, to stay out of it. King Hussein's worst fear is that Israel will ultimately become involved and that this will lead to a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. Jordan's population is already more than half Palestinian, and any attempt to turn it into a de facto Palestinian state would undoubtedly spell the end of the Hashemite dynasty.
Hussein, however, also has more immediate concerns. The condescending, even arrogant way in which the Saudis and Kuwaitis doled out their aid has long made Jordanians resentful of their rich Gulf cousins. Along with the close support Amman gave Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, this has helped to maneuver Jordan's ailing economy into a deep dependence on trade with Iraq.
Confronted by widespread economic unrest a few years ago, Hussein initiated a series of democratic reforms, evidently hoping that discontent could be safely vented through a more liberalized political system. Instead, the king ended up with more democracy than he may have bargained for.
Islamic fundamentalism, pan-Arabic passions and stored-up grievances against Israel and its bloody suppression of the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank now hold sway on the streets of Amman. "The mood on the Jordanian street has given Hussein only two options: to swim with the popular tide or be swept aside by it," an Arab diplomat says.
The consummate political survivor, Hussein has chosen the former course. This has badly tarnished his image as a moderate, pro-Western monarch. But of all the likely losers in this conflict, he probably stands the best chance of surviving.
Of all the members of the anti-Iraq coalition, Syria is the one whose regime most closely resembles the one in Baghdad. Both are police states; both have supported terrorism abroad. Syria's President Hafez Assad and Iraq's Hussein even head rival wings of the same Baath Party--although lately Hussein is finding Baathism's secular ideology something of a nuisance as he tries to portray his war with the West as a religious struggle between Islam and the infidels.