Why Jordan's Yuppies Root for Saddam

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ALI JAREKJI/REUTERS

Jordanians in Amman show solidarity with Iraq by burning U.S. and Israeli flags

Nabil Saqqar used to hate Saddam Hussein. The 19-year-old Jordanian undergrad has friends who live in Baghdad, and has heard plenty of horror stories about the Iraqi dictator's repressive regime. He recounts some of them for my benefit as we wait in a queue at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Amman. (I'll skip the gory details: suffice it to say that they put me off dinner.) But recently, Nabil's been reassessing Saddam, seeing him in a new light. "You have to admire the fact that, unlike the West, he has consistently stuck to his principles," he says, checking his hair on a shiny wall panel. "In many ways, Saddam is a hero: somebody who never wavers from his course in the face of adversity."

Sonia Faddoul and Tamara Ghuniem don't think Saddam is a hero — they know him to be a tyrant who brutalizes his own people. But in a smackdown between the Iraqi dictator and the American president, there's no doubt who they would like to see biting the dust. For the two Jordanian women, both 22, backing Saddam is neither a matter of Arab nationalism nor faith. "When you see one man stand up to the greatest power on Earth," says Sonia, matter-of-factly, "how can you not support the underdog?"

It would be no surprise to hear such sentiments from enraged street protestors, about to torch an American flag. On the 'Arab street,' the Iraqi dictator has always been able to count on the support of the lumpen element — the ill-informed, reflexively anti-Israel and anti-American mob that sees in Saddam something akin to a working class hero, his very survival a slap in the face of the hated United States.

But Nabil, Sonia and Tamara don't belong to that crowd. These young people don't hate the U.S. They don't feel threatened by American culture, they embrace it. Sonia likes parties, rock 'n' roll music and never misses an episode of Friends. Tamara is partial to Hollywood blockbusters, particularly those starring Bruce Willis or Sandra Bullock. Nabil affects a faux New York accent to go with his fading 501s and Tommy Hilfiger jacket, and says he is in love with "that tough girl on TV — Buffy."

For pro-Western Arabs, a group that includes most of the Úlite and the intellectuals, Saddam used to be, at best, an embarrassment. His adventure in Kuwait, combined with his brutish regime, made him impossible to defend. But where once he was a divisive figure, Saddam is now uniting Arab opinion firmly behind him. "You won't find a single Arab who is anti-Saddam," says political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "Not even among the sophisticated, Western-educated classes."

For the Bush administration, the loss of this crucial constituency compromises any chances of influencing Arab opinion, a crucial element of any campaign in Iraq. It complicates post-war scenarios, too: If Saddam is the Good Guy, then no matter what the outcome of the war, America can only be the Bad Guy. And of course, it gives the dictator a tool his American adversary doesn't have in the Arab world: a weapon of mass adulation.

Not all of Saddam's supporters among the Arab Úlite are starry-eyed kids like Nabil, Sonia and Tamara. Toujan Faisal is a seasoned political campaigner. As a member of the Jordanian Parliament in the mid-'90s, she stood out for her strong views on women's issues — and for her fashion sense. At a time when Islamist lawmakers were advocating traditional Arab dress for women, she defiantly wore short skirts to Parliament. These days, she is an outspoken advocate of democracy for Arab nations. "The old-style Arab regimes don't like my frankness," she says, defiantly. "But I represent modernity, and I say what needs to be said."

Faisal sees no contradiction between her political views and the proudly displayed signed picture of Saddam Hussein on her mantelpiece: "Best wishes from my heart," the reads the dictator's Arabic inscription, in green ink. Although she acknowledges that Hussein is no democrat — "If I were in his shoes, I'd rule differently." — Faisal maintains that the Iraqi dictator is probably the most impressive leader in the Arab world. "He is an old-fashioned knight," she gushes. "He has charisma and an iron will — compared with him, the other leaders of the Arab world are small pygmies. Such a man deserves to be treated with respect."

Nabil would never put a Saddam Hussein poster in his bedroom: that would be way uncool for a hip teenager. But not long ago, he'd have thought it uncool even to praise Saddam. "Among my friends, talking about politics was considered stupid, a waste of time," he says. "But now everybody talks about Saddam, and we all think he's tough." Tough like Buffy? "Yeah," Nabil laughs. "Tough like Buffy." Only in this case, it's the vampire he admires, not the slayer.