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Middle East: Caught Between The 'Street' And The U.S., Arab States Brace For Impact Of War

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

With events unfolding in Iraq, the Arab world is being stirred by a wave of public protests that have created a new predicament for regional governments. Iraq's neighbors, in particular, fear the U.S.-led war may lead to dramatic changes in the region and bring serious challenges to their regimes.

Prague, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From Bahrain to Tunis, almost daily street demonstrations have taken place over the past week to denounce the U.S.-British military intervention in Iraq.

Some rallies have turned violent, notably in Cairo and in the Yemeni capital Sana'a, where security forces killed at least two protesters last week (21 March).

Regardless of political complexion, newspapers across the Arab world are voicing solidarity with the Iraqi people and castigating those regional governments that have discreetly supported the U.S. war plans in hopes Washington would rapidly topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's feared regime.

In a front-page interview published yesterday in Lebanon's "Al-Safir" daily, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad predicted that, regardless of its outcome, war in Iraq will spawn more and more anti-American resistance in the Arab world.

Yet before it affects either the U.S. or Britain, the antiwar fury may well first hit Arab governments.

Mohamed-Cherif Ferjani teaches Arab civilization and Islamic Studies at Lyon University and runs the French-based Group for Research and Studies on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs (GREMMO). He said most Arab leaders fear the consequences of ongoing developments in Iraq.

"[Governments] are caught between fear of the street -- which is totally opposed to war, to the [U.S.-led] aggression [against Iraq], and which, in a very simplistic way, sometimes expresses this opposition through open support of Saddam Hussein -- and fear that the United States will move to list them among the 'axis of evil' or, for those countries that are financially reliant on Washington, that this aid will be suspended," Ferjani said.

Among other justifications to the war on Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush has argued that that country was part of an "axis of evil" that sponsors international terrorism and that also includes Iran and North Korea. Although Syria and Saudi Arabia are not part of this group, Washington suspects both countries have sponsored terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.

More recently, Bush argued that Saddam's overthrow would help spread the seeds of democracy across the region. These latest comments have shocked Iraq's Arab neighbors, which now suspect Washington of nurturing plans to remodel the Middle East's geopolitical balance.

Yielding to U.S. pressures, some Middle Eastern Arab countries have quietly helped the U.S. prepare for war on Iraq while advocating a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the region and a major recipient of U.S. aid, has let coalition warships use the Suez Canal to enter the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia, which has been under close U.S. scrutiny since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, hosted hundreds of U.S. soldiers in the lead-up to the war. Jordan, to which Bush has pledged over $1 billion in economic and military aid, has also authorized the deployment of a number of U.S. troops on its territory. Last week, Amman expelled five Iraqi diplomats on charges of undermining state security.

Other countries -- such as Kuwait, which hosts tens of thousands of coalition troops on its soil -- have been openly cooperating with the Bush administration. But they appear to be the exception that proves the rule.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, some Arab leaders are now trying to funnel public wrath while resorting to force to quell the angriest protesters. Others are trying to win over antiwar protest movements for fear they could turn into antigovernment rallies.

On 25 March, the Syrian government authorized civil servants to stop work to join antiwar marches through Damascus and other cities amid a wave of uncontrolled protests. Also, shortly after repressing an unsanctioned demonstration in the eastern city of Sfax, the Tunisian government for the first time authorized unregistered political parties to stage an antiwar rally in the capital, Tunis.

Following heavy clashes with police on 21 March, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said peaceful street protests would be allowed provided organizers notify authorities in advance. Since 1981, public rallies in Egypt have been authorized only on university campuses or in mosque complexes.

That same day, Algeria observed a minute's silence to express solidarity with the Iraqi people at the government's request.

GREMMO Director Ferjani believes present circumstances leave Arab governments with little room to maneuver. "I believe the attitude [of Arab governments] is a mix of fear -- which leads to repression, especially when protests threaten to get out of hand -- and a tendency to take the initiative and organize protests or, when under pressure, to let nonofficial views be expressed while keeping them under control," Ferjani said.

Experts warn that challenges to governments vary greatly from one Arab country to another. Bruno Etienne, who teaches political science at Aix-en-Provence University in southern France and is a specialist on Islam, told RFE/RL that war will not have the same impact on Iraq's neighbors as in countries located further afield, such as Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco.

Similarly, the ethno-political structure of each country has to be taken into account when assessing the possible consequences of the conflict. Finally, Etienne said, the repressive and secretive nature of many Arab governments makes it difficult to gauge public opinion there.

"One has to be very careful [when talking about Arab public opinion] because it is very difficult to assess clearly what the Arab public thinks, wants, or says. For example, the Palestinian issue has been stirring passions across the Arab world for the past 40 years. Yet you would hardly be able to find one dozen Arabs who went to Palestine to sacrifice their lives for that cause. That being said, it seems that there are indeed some developments going on and that it is relevant to think about the gap that exists between political leaderships and [public opinion] in Arab countries," Etienne said.

Fearing the consequences that a prolonged war could have on its regime, Saudi Arabia's ruling dynasty on 25 March announced it had presented both Baghdad and Washington a proposal to end the fighting.

Riyadh's initiative followed an Arab League meeting in Cairo, which, despite a final resolution condemning the U.S. "aggression" against Iraq and calling for the immediate withdrawal of coalition forces, exposed persistent dissentions among the bloc's 22 member countries on the Iraq issue.

Reflecting growing concerns for the Middle East's future, the joint declaration also calls on all Arab countries "to abstain from participating in military actions that could damage the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq or any other Arab country."

In Etienne's opinion, none of the Middle or Near Eastern Arab regimes will escape unscathed from the Iraqi conflict. "[These regimes] fear that, should the [U.S.-led military] operation against Iraq end conclusively and should a new international order emerge in the Middle and Near East regions, either they would have to make serious concessions that would eventually threaten their semi-dictatorial hegemonies or their populations would start making various demands," he said.

Slogans heard in Arab capitals over the past week have so far focused on the plight of the Iraqi people. If most protesters are denouncing Washington's Middle East policy and support of Israel, only a minority are expressing its sympathy toward Saddam.

Yet, Etienne points out that the situation could rapidly change and that, in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other countries ruled by tribal elites or religious minorities, the antiwar protest wave may soon offer other groups "an opportunity to raise their heads."

In other countries, such as Tunisia or its neighbors in the Maghreb region, the ongoing war is likely to bring anti-American liberal and Islamic oppositions closer.

GREMMO Director Ferjani said: "One can already see a rapprochement [between these two groups], notably in the streets. For example, [on 25 March] in Tunis, representatives of left-wing parties -- of the social-democrat opposition, the extreme left, Islamic groups, the Human Rights League and even the General Tunisian Workers Union -- took to the street together. In other words, the front that yesterday was standing against terrorism and its sponsors and that was not really visible is now progressively turning against the United States of America."

Most Arab Islamic groups -- including the Palestinian Hamas -- have condemned the 11 September attacks, some because they feared possible reprisals from secular governments, others because they reject terrorism as a means to achieve political goals.

But regional analysts believe Washington's post-11 September claims that war in Afghanistan and the eradication of the Taliban would lead to a world of greater justice and solidarity has failed to convince the Arab public. All the more so now that war -- which many Arabs describe as "unjust" -- is raging in Iraq.

"With this war," Ferjani said, "the Americans have squandered the capital of solidarity and sympathy they had acquired [in Arab countries] after 11 September."