Fury and favor in the Arab world

While Qatar welcomes Uncle Sam, Egyptian police torture antiwar protesters. If the war lasts long, some say, the scales may tip toward rage.

Published April 5, 2003 12:12AM (EST)

Just hours after U.S. bombs began falling on Baghdad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak saw his worst political fears play out on the streets of Cairo, where tens of thousands of angry protesters embodied the Arab reaction to the invasion of Iraq. But the crowd, made up of students, leftists and Muslim Brothers, also turned their anger and frustration toward Mubarak, a longtime ally of the West who maintains power in the impoverished country by repressing political dissent. In a public statement just before the war, Mubarak blamed Saddam Hussein for bringing the invasion upon himself. But the crowds seemed to disagree: Chanting "Mubarak! Leave! Leave!" and "Alaa [Mubarak's son], tell your dad that millions hate him!" the surging crowd broke through riot-police lines and seized control of the central Tahrir Square.

Demonstrations without formal approval have essentially been banned there since 1967. And so the uprising last month, with illegal protesters controlling the streets and publicly denouncing the Egyptian government, was like nothing Cairo had seen since the 1970s.

As hopes for a quick war and a decisive peace in Iraq largely fade, governments in the Arab region face a challenge that they've come to dread: With vivid pictures of Iraqi destruction and death on every television, they are under pressure to do something about it -- and sometimes, the anger expands beyond the British, beyond the Americans, to scald their own home governments.

Thanks in many cases to repressive methods for controlling dissent, none of the governments are likely to fall. Some, in fact, have little at all to fear. But how the war plays out outside Iraq in the coming weeks could say a lot about the future stability of governments in the region, and that, in turn, could directly affect how those regimes deal with the United States.

Mubarak's reaction to the Egyptian dissent was predictable, violent, and very effective, at least for the short term. The day after protesters captured the central square, a crowd assembled at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque for Friday afternoon prayers and prepared to march again. This time, thousands of police officers surrounded the building and trapped the crowd inside. Protesters broke windows in order to escape into the streets, only to be met by cannons, tear gas and attack dogs.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian police forces fanned out across the city, arresting approximately 1,500 people, some of whom had been part of the first protest and some who were simply well-known political activists, including two members of the Egyptian Parliament. According to Human Right Watch, many of those arrested were beaten, tortured and threatened with rape.

How effective was the crackdown? The next week in Cairo, a much smaller, properly sanctioned demonstration occurred after the Friday prayers, as policemen escorted a well-behaved crowd away from downtown as they chanted anti-American and anti-British (but not anti-Mubarak) slogans and then peacefully dispersed. Days later, Mubarak changed his rhetoric about the war, suggesting the U.S.-led battle for Iraq would likely produce more terrorist threats: "If there is one [Osama] bin Laden now," he warned, "there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward."

Mubarak's momentary flip-flop illustrated what has long been a difficult balancing act not only for Egypt but also for Arab regimes such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On the one hand they depend on the United States for economic and security aid, but on the other they have to at least pay lip service to the passions of their people. Arabs see the hypocrisy, and the bowing to the West, and they seethe.

"All the Arab governments have been so emasculated and discredited and humiliated by this war," says Sheila Carapico, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "Nobody there expects their governments to do anything about it. People are just mad."

Granted, the passions of the masses can be, and usually are, ignored by the autocratic Arab administrations. But when the issue is of war and peace, and when that war involves a nearby Arab nation being invaded by U.S.-led troops, the pressure from the street is dismissed at leaders' peril.

Even for Arab governments without a strategic alliance with the United States, such as Iran, Syria, and Yemen, there are fears that a protracted war could bring instability at home. At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, are the anomalies of the region, such as Kuwait and Qatar, which have openly welcomed American troops without the slightest concern about a backlash.

For now, most eyes are on the major Arab players who have to walk a tightrope between the Middle East and the West. "It's still too early in the game to say any of these Arab governments are in danger," says Chris Toesning, editor of the Middle East Report, a scholarly monthly. Indeed, considering the nonstop images Arabs are seeing on television of bombed-out Iraqi marketplaces and news accounts about an Iraqi maternity hospital being hit by coalition forces, the political mood on the streets remains calm, relatively speaking. "Demonstrations are to be expected," says Judith Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. "But for now it's a wait-and-see attitude."

"The key is how long the war lasts," says P.S. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, a foreign policy think tank. "How deep is the sentiment? What other domestic issues could get fed into the protests, and are there groups that can mobilizes that anger? The reverse is, what tools do the governments have for clamping down? A good security force? Do they have state-run media to help people blow off steam" by printing angry anti-American editorials?

Here's a look at the countries in the region, and how the war is likely to play out in coming weeks.

Saudi Arabia

During Gulf War I, the Saudis stepped up as the key U.S. ally among Arab states. This time they begged off, choosing to work quietly behind the scenes to aid the military campaign. Despite press reports that Saudis are privately furious about the war, don't look for antiwar protests in the streets, since demonstrations, not to mention political parties, are outlawed.

Of all the regimes in the region, the Saudi royal family has the least to fear, simply because it exerts such complete control over all elements of public and political life. While other Arab governments have at least made a pass at creating democratic-looking, representative-type institutions, the Saudi monarchy never bothered.

"They have always operated in their own special atmosphere," says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. That political silence has been paid for with oil revenues, or more specifically with Saudi's famously cushy cradle-to-grave welfare state. Recently though, even that has been showing signs of strain, leading in part to a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.


For 22 years Mubarak has ruled the largest Arab country in the world (its population today is 70 million), and without his iron grip Egypt would almost certainly swing hostile to America. And he has used a brutal security force to maintain his power and his country's stability. Throughout the 1990s, his forces waged a relentless crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to prevent their fundamentalism from taking root. Today he remains firmly in control of all aspects of government, faces no viable opposition party, and is grooming his son to succeed him.

Still, Toesning notes, "the Egyptian regime has been getting more erratic and unpredictable over the years  [The] indiscriminate nature of the recent Cairo crackdown tells me they're freaked out about what's going on and taking drastic measures to tone the protests down."

As his bin Laden quote shows, Mubarak is also adept at playing the Egyptian masses. Recently, Al Azhar in Cairo, the most venerable institution of Islamic learning, called for a jihad in order "to defend themselves, their doctrine and lands," against an American invasion of Iraq. Mubarak certainly OK'd that proclamation before it was issued. The government can also use its press to help Egyptians vent their anger. "Dreadful massacre in Baghdad," read a recent banner headline in Egypt's mass circulation Akhbar al-Yawm newspaper.


In 1990, when Yemen was a member of the U.N. Security Council and voted not to support the Gulf War, it was famously told by a U.S. representative that the country had just cast the most expensive vote in history. One of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with a 30 percent unemployment rate, Yemen lost billions in U.S. aid. "The plan next time around was to support the United States come hell or high water," says Carapico at the University of Richmond. But with war opposition cutting across the political spectrum, Yemen again begged off. Unlike Egypt, Yemen does not enjoy a strong internal security force and therefore must tolerate more dissent at home, particularly from Islamists who are upset about getting maneuvered out of power, says Singer.

Even without ties to the U.S., Yemen's government has been battling its people in the streets since the war started. Three protesters were killed last month. "It's not like Egypt," says Carapico, who describes heavily armed Yemen as the "wild, wild West." "You shoot at a crowd in Yemen, they shoot back." Last week the U.S. State Department, citing terrorist threats, renewed its warning about travel to Yemen, authorizing the voluntary departure of nonessential embassy personnel and family members. Yemen remains a favorite base for al-Qaida terrorists, who like a country that's next to Saudi Arabia, whose government does not control every mountain and valley, and where walking around with an automatic weapon does not necessarily draw attention.


King Abdullah, whose public base of support is much weaker than his late, famous father's, enjoys the backing of a strong riot police, general and special security services, and a force of secret police. He may need it in the weeks ahead. Located between Iraq and the West Bank, Jordan plays home to a very large Palestinian population that's beginning to see in the U.S. occupation of Iraq similarities to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Also, several southern Jordanian trucking towns rely on commercial trade routes to Iraq for their livelihood, and those routes have been blown apart by the war.

"Most people think Jordan is in the tightest spot," Toesning notes.

"Jordan is the place where major urban demonstrations can get out of control," Voll says. In 1991, Jordan remained neutral in Gulf War I. Today though, the king is desperate to maintain ties to the West in hopes of boosting Jordan's sagging economy. In 2000, Jordan acceded to the World Trade Organization and signed free-trade agreements with the United States. For now, Friday sermons continue to be pre-approved by government officials.


A counter to the official voices of moderation that spring from the capitals in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Syria has long prided itself on taking a hard line against the West, Israel, and more recently the Iraqi war. While other Arab leaders are afraid to speak out, Syrian President Bashar Assad has stepped to the forefront as the Arab ruler most willing to denounce the war, labeling the invasion a "fiasco" and suggesting American officials be tried for crimes against humanity.

"He's definitely playing to the street," says Charles Kimball, chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Assad may also be using the war to divert attention from Syria's rigid police. There's still lingering resentment that the liberties granted during the so-called Damascus Spring of 2001, such as allowing political opponents to meet, were sharply reversed last year and marked by mass arrests.

If the war in Iraq does take months, that may be good news for Damascus, since some analysts believe the United States may want to extend its regime-change program to Syria. But will Americans have the stomach for another Middle East military adventure if knocking off Iraq ends in a victory that's bloodier and messier than expected? "If Syria is on the list," says Voll, "the longer the Iraq war goes on, the less likely the United States is to invade Syria."


Thursday's terrorist attacks on the British embassy in Istanbul highlighted what government leaders there have known for weeks: The Turkish people uniformly oppose the war. Politically, the good news is that by denying the United States access to Turkish military bases to launch a northern offensive against Baghdad, the Turkish Parliament can say it stood up for popular opinion. The bad news is that defiant stance cost Turkey billions in critical economic aid, which the country's faltering economy desperately needs. And then there's the unknown surrounding Turkey's politically powerful military, which was in favor of letting in U.S. troops. "The military is the giant anaconda behind Turkey's door," says Mary Ann Tetreault, professor of international affairs at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas. If in coming weeks Saddam's regime collapses and Kurds in northern Iraq begin to make advances toward creating an independent Kurdish state, thereby stirring unrest among Kurds in Turkey, the giant anaconda could strike.


Saddam's army killed 1 million Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and today, Iran has no love for its western neighbor. But as a charter member of Bush's axis of evil, Iran doesn't trust the United States, either. That helps explain why a new, state-run TV station being broadcast to the Iraqi people from Tehran is both anti-Saddam and antiwar.

Ironically, the U.S.-led war to liberate and democratize Iraq is hurting Iran's youth-led democracy movement, which for years has been trying to institute reforms by wrestling power away from conservative, anti-American clerics. "Part of the youth revolution movement is to create economic recovery through closer relations with the United States and the West," explains Singer. In the current climate, where the United States is seen as waging an illegitimate war against Iraq, any such talk puts Iranian youths at risk of being painted as pro-American.

"The war strengthens the conservatives' hold on power," says Singer. And with war casualties mounting, many Iranian progressives themselves, once hopeful of having a democratic neighbor to the west, have become disillusioned with America.


Pakistan is not an Arab country, but it is widely regarded as one of the big pillars of the Islamic world most at risk from an invasion of Iraq. Following the Sept. 11 attack on America, Pakistan emerged as a key regional ally in the war on terror, helping the United States root out the Qaida-friendly Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf made the overt alliance at the risk of provoking powerful Islamic radicals in his country.

Fast-forward to this week, and those Islamist groups held the largest rally in Pakistan's recent history, with a quarter of a million people protesting against the war in the city of Peshawar. Then the Pakistani senate unanimously passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people, deploring the war on Iraq, and demanding that the U.N. Security Council step in and end it. Similar to the dynamics in Iran, the war in Iraq means liberal, secularist Pakistanis are afraid that today's anti-western mood makes it politically impossible for them to debate Islamic militants, since pro-democracy activists are dismissed as pro-American apologists. As the war rages on, Musharraf himself is being denounced by the religious right as an American stooge and viewed suspiciously by some of his officers.


Like Iranians, Kuwaitis understand first-hand the brutality of Saddam, having suffered through his 1990 invasion. They still feel residual goodwill toward American troops for leading the coalition forces to liberate Kuwait during Gulf War I. That's one reason the U.S. finds an unusually warm welcome there. Today, the Iraqi replacement government assembled by the White House is in Kuwait waiting for its call to duty.

"Kuwait has special status because it was invaded, and it's a status that other Arab countries recognize -- that Kuwait has a different view of the war," says Tetreault. Not that the Kuwaiti government isn't concerned about a prolonged war and a possibly messy peace. "Collateral damage doesn't look collateral to most Arabs, including Kuwaitis," she says. "It's very difficult for people to deal with women and children getting killed." If resentment ever boiled over into the form of public protests in oil-rich Kuwait -- even peaceful protests -- the White House will know for sure it had completely failed to win and hearts and minds in the region.

Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates

All three tiny, wealthy Arab outposts enjoy close relations with the United States and have little to worry about in terms of local unrest, proving once again how money and good leadership can smooth over almost any problem. "There's been an admirable redistribution program from oil revenues, so there's no huge deprived class of unemployed people on street corners plotting uprisings," says Tetreault. That generosity has also helped to put on a lid on Islamic fundamentalism.

(By contrast, fundamentalism is rampant in Saudi Arabia, where there's open tension about where all the oil revenue goes, and how much trickles down.)

The other factor behind America's warm welcome is that these miniature countries need the United States for protection, both from outright invasions like Iraq's 1990 move on Kuwait and during periodic border disputes. "If they throw the U.S. out," Tetreault asks, "who's going to protect them if they get picked on?"

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Al-qaida Egyptian Protests Iran Iraq War Middle East Osama Bin Laden Pakistan Syria Yemen