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Iran's President And The Battle For The Arab Street

Ahmadinejad's defiance seems to go over well in Cairo.
Ahmadinejad's defiance seems to go over well in Cairo.
A few weeks ago, RFE/RL's Persian-language service asked listeners in Iran to send in their assessments of the performance of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The question generated a lively response in the form of phone calls, text messages, and e-mails. The overwhelming majority of this self-selected group of respondents was highly critical of Ahmadinejad, who is expected to seek reelection for a second four-year term next year. "Ahmadi has to go," was a common refrain. Dozens of respondents criticized Ahmadinejad's uncompromising position on the nuclear issue. "We don't need nuclear energy. We need jobs and food," one young listener wrote.

Ahmadinejad: anti-Western with a fiery rhetorical chaser
There seems little doubt that Ahmadinejad has lost much of the popularity he had when he ascended to the presidency on an unabashedly populist platform. Economic conditions -- particularly inflation and unemployment -- are declining despite rising revenues from hydrocarbon exports. Electricity supplies are grossly inadequate and power cuts have become a daily hardship despite the country's abundant energy resources.

Despite his poor ratings at home, Ahmadinejad enjoys considerable popularity in the Arab world, where he is seen as a symbol of defiant resistance to the United States and Israel. During a trip to Egypt two years ago, I was shocked to hear young and middle-aged Egyptians lauding the Iranian president for daring to express his highly controversial and provocative views on the Holocaust. But their logic was simple -- they were willing to applaud any Muslim leader who was ready to challenge Israel head on.

This summer I visited Egypt again and expected to find that attitudes had changed. After all, I figured, Egyptians must have heard about Ahmadinejad's problems at home. They must have known that his economic mismanagement had led to new hardships. And, in general, Sunni Arabs were increasingly nervous about Shi'a Iran's growing regional influence and its nuclear program.

But what I discovered was that his reputation in the Arab world continues to grow. I had long discussions with more than a half-dozen young Egyptians, and all of them regarded Ahmadinejad as nothing less than a hero, someone who is not intimidated by U.S. threats of attack and who is unambiguous in his threats of retaliation if Israel were to launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. My Egyptian friends were thrilled that there is a Muslim leader who is not cowed by the United States -- like most Arab leaders, they said, who either remain silent or to varying degrees cooperate with Washington and, by extension, with Israel.

When I argued that Ahmadinejad is in fact weakening Iran's position through his economic policies and by provoking the West to impose further sanctions, I got the impression that such arguments were new to these young Egyptians. They listened politely and thought about what I'd said, but their final position boiled down to this: "We also have corruption and mismanagement in Egypt; we have unemployment and inflation; but Ahmadinejad at least stands up to the United States and Israel, while [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarek does nothing."

The people I spoke with in Egypt were not religious fundamentalists nor fanatics; they asked questions about job opportunities in the West and expressed a desire to enjoy life. But one could see wounded Arab pride still propelling the third and fourth generations since the defeats of 1948 to admire leaders who could defy Israel and the United States. While only rigged elections and an antidemocratic constitution can ensure Ahmadinejad's reelection in Iran, his popularity in the Arab world is higher than ever for this simple reason.

I left Egypt dispirited, pessimistic about the West's chances of influencing opinions in the Arab world. But the issue is too important for pessimism to prevail. The need for accurate information, for debate, for a marketplace of ideas in the Arab world is so great that the West must not be deterred from developing and implementing a massive, strategic public-diplomacy initiative in the Arab world.

Mardo Soghom is senior media-market analyst for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL