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BEIRUT — All Arabs, regimes and citizens agree on one thing: War on Iraq may affect the entire world, but they and their region will pay the highest price by far.

The war itself could be terrible, but they also fear what may follow. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa warns that it will “open the gates of hell,” and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said it will light a “gigantic fire” of violence and terror.

An Arab world deeply conscious of its long history of humiliation by foreigners is about to see one of its member-states conquered and occupied. And the Bush administration does not hide its ambition to make this the first step in a “reshaping” of the whole region at least as much in the interest of the Arabs’ historic adversary, Israel, as in its own.

Commentators forecast potential consequences ranging from the breakdown of Iraq into civil war and its dismemberment by neighboring powers to an attempt by Israel to subjugate the Palestinians once and for all, perhaps with another 1948-style mass expulsion.

Yet the Arab people, if not regimes, are agreed on something else too: that they are doing less than anyone else on Earth to forestall the calamity about to engulf them.

It is disgraceful, Arab commentators say, that other governments — even close allies of America — are more far energetic to this end than Arab governments themselves, and that other peoples around the world have taken to the streets in antiwar demonstrations that far outdo those held in Arab countries.

“European countries,” comments Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper, “have more Arab national feeling than we Arabs ourselves.” It was the Turkish government, it pointed out, that recently — if unsuccessfully — lobbied Arab states to sign on to regional initiative to avert a war. It was at European instigation that Mubarak belatedly sought to reassert Egypt’s traditional role as the promoter of collective Arab action.

As Palestine has always been the pan-Arab cause par excellence, the Arabs thought that their rulers had reached a nadir of impotence and defeatism with their failure over the past two years to furnish meaningful help to the intifada, or at least to get the United States to rein in its Israeli protege. But now, with Iraq, they have sunk yet further.

Commentators call it the virtual demise of the “pan-Arab principle” — that Arab states, as constituent parts of a greater Arab “nation,” should always combine in defense of the higher Arab interest — an ideal that has dominated regional politics since Arab independence.

“The first shot fired in the Anglo-Saxon war on Iraq,” says Syria’s al-Baath newspaper, “will be the coup de grace to the corpse of the Arab system — that least influential player in what is happening to the Arab world today.”

Officially, all the Arab states oppose a new war on Iraq. That is what they proclaimed at their last annual summit conference. They are staging another summit Sunday, with what appears to be a maximum objective of launching an 11th hour “Arab solution,” which in practice could only be a concerted attempt to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down — or a minimum one of throwing their weight behind the war-averting endeavors of others. But the summit — if held at all — is widely expected to be a fiasco.

Arab leaders will go to it hopelessly trapped between fear of their people and fear of the U.S., upon whose good will they will feel themselves, in the post-Hussein era, more than ever dependent.

Some, like Syria, tend toward the ingratiation of their people, staking out a strong “patriotic” position against war; this time, unlike in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Damascus deems it the safer, less painful option.

But for others, ingratiation of America is the sounder, indeed the only possible, course, with the result that — in a mockery of last year’s summit — half a dozen of them have offered their territories as launching pads for the coming onslaught.

And those that have not, such as Egypt, are almost universally deemed to be colluding with the Anglo-American “war camp”; or, at the very least, to be more aligned with it than they are with antiwar Europeans. “The Arab system,” said Palestinian commentator Hafiz Barghouti, “hasn’t just declared its impotence to stop the war, it has volunteered to join in — as if in resistance to the desire of many friendly governments and peoples to stop the potential massacre of the Iraqi people.”

“But history will also record,” he goes on, “that not only the Arab system failed, retreated and colluded with the aggressors; that the Arab people, too, were spineless and terrified.”

His comment is typical of much woeful Arab speculation as to why the Arab “street” has been so relatively quiescent, especially since popular disgust with governments — failed, corrupt, tyrannical — runs incomparably deeper in this region than almost anywhere else.

One answer commentators come up with is the ruthless repression with which such governments would counter any serious manifestations of the popular will. Another is the apathy induced by the knowledge that, with such regimes, demonstrations never change anything — unless, that is, they for once assume so massive and explosive a form that they change the regimes themselves.

That they very well could is the fear haunting pro-American regimes like Jordan’s and Egypt’s; both know that the outward calm is no measure of the pent-up anger that lies beneath the surface, and that what “Palestine” on its own failed to ignite Iraq and Palestine together could.

“One missile on Baghdad,” says Egyptian journalist Amira Howeidi, “and things are going to go crazy, especially in the universities.”

Indeed, some argue that disgust with the existing order runs so very deep that many Arabs will actually welcome the Anglo-American “aggression” they simultaneously abhor. When Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, some deplored this for what it was — the most spectacular violation of Arab brotherhood — yet they simultaneously applauded it in the belief that, though Hussein himself was the most rotten ruler of a rotten Arab order, he was supplying the dynamite that would blow the order away.

It didn’t happen; with U.S. help, the order, including Hussein, was entirely restored. But this time, as leading columnist Raghida Dergham points out, the U.S. itself is supplying the dynamite.

“The oppression of those who live under the Iraq regime, and the discontent of those other Arabs who deem their own regimes beyond reform, has reached the point of despair. And despair has bred acquiescence to anything that might shake the foundations of the Arab world, even a war that was conceived by men — Bush’s policymakers — famed for their loathing and contempt for the Arab peoples and their total loyalty to Israel, indeed to (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon himself.”

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