When Atef Hamdan saw the television images of Iraqi farmers firing dusty antique weapons at high-tech American helicopters, the 39-year-old used-clothing salesman got out his passport and rushed to the Iraqi Embassy.
Hundreds of other Egyptians also arrived, with suitcases full of clothes. They said they wanted to fight for the brave Iraqi people. And they wanted to fight for their new hero: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"Saddam is so brave and is making us proud," said Hamdan, sitting at a coffeehouse while he waited for his visa to be processed. "When I meet Saddam, I will shake his hand and say, 'You are my Arab warrior.' "
In recent years, the aging Hussein, with his secular nationalism and record of brutality, had declined as a symbol of Arab pride. Many people turned toward the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, seeing him as a representative of uncorrupted Islam. But since the war began in Iraq, Hussein has bounced back in the minds of many Arabs as able to protect Arab dignity and thwart the world's only superpower.
It's not possible to put numbers on how many people in the Arab world support Hussein, but in conversations here and in other countries, it's easy to find people who say their feelings have changed.
"I used to find Saddam disgusting, but now, I admit, he makes us proud," said Mahmoud Abdel Ghaffen, 26, who said he and five friends would all leave for Iraq the minute they had the funds. "He is fighting back when no one thought he could."
"I have my passport on me," he said. "If someone told me, 'Get in this bus, fight for Saddam,' I would clap and cheer and go. I would die for justice."
In Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, some citizens were also saying they wanted to take up arms for Hussein. Even newspapers that in the days leading up to the war never dared to mention Hussein's name are now praising his ability to fight back.
"Six days have passed and not one Iraqi city has fallen to the invaders," wrote Mahmoud Abdel Moneim, a columnist for the al-Ahram daily newspaper. "Saddam Hussein hasn't fled, and he hasn't given in. The whole world mocks the allies and their weapons and their numbers, which are incapable of achieving any victory over Iraqi forces who are supported by no one."
Early this month, Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, acknowledged that a few Saudi citizens might have crossed into Iraq via Jordan to fight the U.S. military. Some young Saudi men have said that only a closed border is preventing hundreds or even thousands from going to fight the invaders, as Saudis did in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Some of this could be bravado born of fury, but the potential for danger is real. Several Westerners have been shot in Saudi Arabia in recent months in attacks the U.S. Embassy has characterized as terrorist acts.
Enthusiasm for Hussein is rooted in a deep sense of frustration and humiliation in the Arab world over a string of failed wars against Israel, Washington's support of Israel against the Palestinians and belief among many that the United States is fighting a war against Islam.
"Israel is like the spoiled child of America, and Arabs are like the abandoned child," said Ayman Abdel Al, 38, an artist who said he never wanted to like Hussein. "We wanted America to want Arabs. Now, American hates us. . . . Who are we going to look up [to]? Of course, some people will like Saddam. Everyone else hates us."
Compounding the feelings among Arabs is anger at their own authoritarian governments and frustration that the United States preaches democracy in the Arab world but backs monarchies and single-party states to its own benefit.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, many Arabs felt they were under siege, depicted as the world's enemy -- bearded terrorists and soulless fanatics.
For some nationalists, the war in Iraq has been a salve. "Everyone thought it was going to be this easy, rapid walkover," said Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of al-Ahram weekly, the English-language version of the al-Ahram newspaper, who said he despises Hussein. "Now there is a recipe for respecting Saddam. This war will go down in Arab history as the time when Arabs were able to regain some self-confidence, even though he is the wrong leader at the right moment."
But many Islamic leaders and intellectuals are warning that praising Hussein is not the answer.
"This is total foolish nonsense," said Gamal Banna, one of Egypt's most respected Islamic scholars. "This man was slaughtering brother Muslims. He is worse than a tyrant and dictator, and the truth is we Arabs didn't do enough to stop him.
"Young people have too short of a memory," said Banna, who has published hundreds of books in the belief that a secular democracy should rule Muslim states. "Whenever someone tells me they want to leave for Iraq and fight for Saddam, I tell them, 'Stop talking. We Arabs are better than that.' "
But to Abdel Halim Mohamad, who gathered with friends at a coffee shop on a chilly morning, worrying as they watched images of Iraqi civilian casualties on a television screen, Hussein is the only hope. "We never thought he was a good man," said Mohamad, who said he had signed up to fight in Iraq. "Now we are forced to change our minds. Now he is defending our Arab name, and he is making us proud."
Staff writer Carol Morello in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.