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Iraq: Arab 'Street' Mostly Quiet

  • Charles Recknagel

There has been much press speculation that Arab popular opinion will explode in protest over U.S.-led preparations for a war against Iraq. Instead, the so-called Arab "street" has been largely silent, even as Western cities have seen millions of people turn out for antiwar rallies. RFE/RL looks at why the Arab world so far has been so quiet.

Prague, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody would have expected it a few months ago, but it is the Western "street" -- principally in Europe, Australia, and America -- that has erupted over the Iraq crisis, not popular Arab opinion.

That difference was dramatically highlighted earlier this month when a total of 4-6 million people, depending on widely varying estimates, turned out worldwide to protest any war over Iraq.

The 15 February rallies produced some of the largest marches seen in Europe since the Vietnam War era, with more than a million people protesting in London, Rome, and Barcelona and crowds of hundreds of thousands in many other key cities. There were also large demonstrations in the U.S. and Australia, and smaller ones across Asia.

But on that same day the Middle East remained noticeably quiet. There were protests in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Syria. Yet nowhere did the crowds number more than a few thousand people.

That has led many observers to wonder why the Arab street is so quiet over Iraq. Until recently, many analysts had predicted that the U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf would spark street protests across the Arab, and possibly wider Muslim, world. That is because Arab popular opinion is reported to view any U.S.-led intervention in Iraq as a war against a brother Muslim people.

Maher Othman, a correspondent with the London-based Arabic daily "Al-Hayat," said that popular Arab anger over the Iraq crisis is genuine and very widespread. But he said that so far there have been few street protests because Arab governments have successfully discouraged them. "Most if not all Arab regimes are despotic and repressive toward their own people and therefore people are not really allowed to express their views freely, while people in the West can freely express their views and how they feel," Othman said.

He continued: "Most of these [Arab] governments are recipients of American backing and therefore they allow just symbolic numbers of people to come out. They don't allow, massive, big demonstrations."

In an exception to the recent pattern of small street protests, Egyptian authorities today permitted a rally of some 200,000 antiwar protesters in a Cairo stadium. The rally to call for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis was sponsored by Egypt's political parties, trade unions, and intellectuals.

Neil Partrick, a regional expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, agreed that countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have been very effective in clamping down on protests. "Particularly countries like Jordan, which feels very exposed [in the Iraqi crisis] but other countries, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, are very effective in clamping down on dissent and very often allow demonstrations to take place [only] when they feel it is suitable to their own purposes," Partrick said.

The analyst added that, so far, opposition groups appear to be cooperating voluntarily with the government's wishes. He said that includes Islamic opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which in some countries have hostile relations with the government or are outlawed. "There certainly has been a desire for those organizations, even though their position may not be entirely legal, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, not to act wholly outside of what is acceptable from the point of view of the authorities and that certainly has been the traditional situation regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan," he said.

Partrick said one reason for such cooperation may be that Arabs feel a war is inevitable and there is little they or their governments can do to change the decisions being taken in Washington and London. "There may be a sense that war is very largely inevitable, I think that certainly is what is being said by Arab leaders of different stripes, whether they are particularly friendly or allied with the U.S. or not. And to some extent, one assumes that would be the opinion of the so-called Arab street," he said.

He said that sense of inevitability may be heightened by the clear inability of the Arab states to speak with a unified voice in the Iraq crisis. Some Arab governments have given material support to the U.S., while others have condemned the U.S. as an aggressor.

Nearly half the Arab nations currently have a U.S. military presence on their soil, including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Djibouti. Egypt is allowing U.S. troops and equipment to transit to the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal. All these states have said they will not directly participate in an invasion or occupation of Iraq themselves.

Arab nations that are highly critical of Washington's Iraq policy notably include Syria and Lebanon. Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam was quoted today as saying, "No Arab with dignity will deal with foreign occupation forces."

An Arab League meeting to forge a unified position earlier this month in Cairo degenerated into recriminations when Lebanon issued a summary statement calling on Arab states to "refuse any assistance" to a U.S. attack on Baghdad. Kuwait lodged a formal protest with the league, saying the statement was a Lebanese sleight of hand because some of the Arab foreign ministers whose names appeared as signatories had not been consulted about the text.

Arab states have scheduled an emergency gathering in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for 1 March in another bid to find a unified position in the crisis.

The lack of street protests over Iraq is in dramatic contrast to recent years, when there were large demonstrations calling for the lifting of sanctions on Baghdad. In 1998, antisanctions rallies in Egypt also protested U.S. and British military threats against Iraq for not cooperating with arms inspectors.

At that time, many protesters not only voiced sympathy for the plight of ordinary Iraqis under sanctions but also praised Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who portrayed himself as the only Arab leader defending the Palestinians. Saddam fired missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War and since then has provided cash compensation to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

But observers say that today -- while sympathy for ordinary Iraqis and Palestinians is as high as ever -- Saddam has lost much of his previous appeal. Indeed, he is now blamed by many for giving the West a reason to invade and occupy an Arab country.

Maher Othman said many Arabs feel Saddam should go into exile to spare his country a new conflict. Saudi Arabia, several other Arab states, and many Arab intellectuals have urged him to do so. "There is the feeling [Saddam] is dispensable and that he ought to go, because his continued existence in power gives the West the strongest alibi to attack, and had it not been for the fact he is a tyrant and dictator, then the case of the West in attacking Iraq would be weaker, in fact, there would not be an alibi to hit Iraq so hard and dominate Iraq and occupy it," he said.

Still, if Saddam has lost much of his popular support -- except in the Palestinian territories where his picture has regularly appeared at antiwar protests -- there is also a strong conviction that his removal is part of a U.S.-Israeli plot.

Othman said popular Arab opinion sees a U.S.-led war with Iraq as serving three purposes: "One is to topple Saddam and Iraq is a soft target, really, militarily. And the other, more major aim is to dominate Iraq because of the oil reserves. But equally importantly, it is to weaken the Arabs generally in order to make Israel feel more secure and a regional superpower. We read this in the Arabic newspapers, in essays and opinion columns in the Arab newspapers, almost on a weekly basis."

Washington and London have repeatedly denied they have any goals in a war other than to disarm Iraq and assist the Iraqi people to create a more democratic system.

Given the widespread Arab suspicion of Washington's motives, few analysts are willing to predict that the Arab street will remain as calm as it is now if a war begins, especially if it brings high numbers of civilian casualties.

At the moment, is in unclear when a war might begin, though Washington and London have said any decision to fight will be made in weeks, not months. U.S. President George W. Bush repeated yesterday that he is prepared to go to war without UN approval if the allies decide Baghdad is continuing to hide its weapons programs from UN inspectors and must be disarmed by force.

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