Global Policy Forum

Anti-US Feeling Leaves Arab Reformers Isolated


By Neil MacFarquhar

New York Times
August 9, 2006

A soldier cleaned portraits of Syria's leaders, past and present, in Damascus. War news has trumped worries over the recent jailing of activists. The very people whom the United States wanted to encourage to promote democracy from Bahrain to Casablanca instead feel trapped by a policy that they now ridicule more or less as "destroying the region in order to save it."

Indeed, many of those reformers who have been working for change in their own societies — often isolated, harassed by state security, or marginalized to begin with — say American policy either strangles nascent reform movements or props up repressive governments that remain Washington's best allies in the region.

"We are really afraid of this ‘new Middle East,' " said Ali Abdulemam, a 28-year-old computer engineer who founded the most popular political Web site in Bahrain. He was referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement last month that the situation in Lebanon represented the birth pangs of a "new Middle East."

"They talk about how they will reorganize the region in a different way, but they never talk about the people," Mr. Abdulemam said. "They never mention what the people want. They are just giving more power to the systems that exist already." His plight is shared by reformers across the Arab world.

Fawaziah al-Bakr, who promotes educational change and women's rights in Saudi Arabia, helped organize women to protest the Israeli attacks. "Nobody is talking about reform in Saudi Arabia," she said. "All we talk about is the war, what to do about the war. There is no question that the U.S. has lost morally because of the war. Even if you like the people and the culture of the United States, you can't defend it."

The statement by Ms. Rice — during a fleeting stopover in Beirut last month — is being juxtaposed with the mounting carnage to rally popular opposition against all things American. In Lebanon, Israel continues bombing despite the fact that the violence could destabilize the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, elected last year in a vote that the United States hailed as a democratic example for the Middle East. Iraq was the previous such example, reformers note bitterly. In Bahrain, Mr. Abdulemam fears that a proposed new anti-terrorism law could severely curb the freewheeling discussions on, his Web site, perhaps even shutting it down, because among other things the law bans attacking the Constitution. Recently, the government cut off access to Google Earth, he said, probably because too many citizens were zeroing in on royal palaces. Members of Islamist political organizations, in particular, consider American actions a godsend, putting their own repressive governments under pressure and distancing their capitals from Washington, reformers say.

The Americans "wanted to tarnish the Islamic resistance and opposition movements, but in reality they only served them," said Sobhe Salih, a 53-year-old lawyer in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was swept into the Egyptian Parliament in an election last fall after capturing an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats. "They made them more appealing to the public, made them a beacon of hope for everyone who hates American policies." Glance at any television screen — they are everywhere — and chances are that the screen will be showing mayhem in Lebanon, Baghdad or Gaza. It usually takes a minute or so to decipher which Arab city is burning. Popular satellite news channels like Al Jazeera say repeatedly that the carnage arrives via American policy and American weapons.

Before 2003, the hardest step for any Islamist movement was recruitment, noted Mohamed Salah, an expert on Islamic extremist movements who writes for the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat from Cairo. Moving someone from being merely devout to being an extremist took a long time. No longer, he said. Moderate Arab governments, which have pursued peace with Israel for nearly 30 years, have seen that policy undermined among their publics by Hezbollah's ability to strike at Israel.

"Recruitment has become the easiest stage because the people have already been psychologically predisposed against the Americans, the West and against Israel," Mr. Salah said. Moderate reformers say they are driven to despair by what they see as inconsistencies in Washington's Middle East policy. For example, in Lebanon lives a black-turbaned Shiite cleric who runs a secretive militia close to Iran. His name is Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Washington approves of Israel's bombing campaign to stamp out his organization, Hezbollah.

There is another black-turbaned Shiite cleric who runs a different secretive militia close to Iran. His name is Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, and he lives in Iraq. He is an American friend. "In Iraq the same kind of group is an ally of the United States, while in Lebanon they are an enemy whom they are fighting," said Samir al-Qudah, a Jordanian civil engineer. "It has nothing to do with reform, but where America's interests lie." The overwhelming conclusion drawn by Arabs is that Washington's interests lie with Israel, no matter what the cost.

"Those calling for democratic reform in Egypt have discovered that once Israeli interests are in conflict with political reform in the Middle East, then the United States will immediately favor Israel's interests," said Ibrahim Issa, the editor of the weekly Al Dustour, who faces a jail sentence on charges of insulting President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Reformers invariably add that a credible effort to solve the issue of Arab land occupied by Israel, which they believe is the taproot of extremism, does not even seem to be on Washington's radar. Sheik Nasrallah is particularly adept at exploiting public anger at civilian deaths in Lebanon by talking about how fickle the United States can be as a friend. "I want you never to forget that this is the U.S. administration, Lebanon's friend, ally and lover," he mocked in a speech on Thursday. He also issued a pointed warning to other Arab leaders that if they spend more time defending their thrones than the people of Lebanon, they might find themselves pushed off those thrones.

Reformers also worry that the chaos in Iraq has fueled public perception that a despot can at least keep violence and sectarian differences at bay. In Syria, war news drowned out dismay over the jailing of activists in a crackdown by the Syrian government this spring. Omar Amiralay, a Syrian documentary filmmaker, was in a taxi recently when the radio broadcast a news bulletin about a suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed some 35 people. "The Americans should just let Saddam out of jail for a week," he quoted the driver as saying, only half joking. The dictator would slay one million Iraqis and "everything would be peaceful again." Mr. Amiralay is convinced that change will come only with an eruption from within, but people have no time to think about that now. "Uncertainty has become the order of the day," he said.

There is a general sense in the region that the Bush administration soured on pushing democracy because of the successes of Islamist parties in the most recent Egyptian and Palestinian elections — the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, in the Palestinian territories. For the first time in a while, political analysts are again comparing governments like that of Mr. Mubarak of Egypt to that of the late Shah of Iran — an isolated despot who ignored the broad wishes of the population while currying favor with the American administration. Some rulers are clearly nervous. King Abdullah of Jordan initially criticized Hezbollah when the fighting erupted nearly a month ago, but in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday he was dismissive of American plans for a "new Middle East." The monarch said he could "no longer read the political map" of the region because of black clouds gathering from Somalia to Lebanon.

That kind of attitude may prove beneficial, reformers say, allowing more breathing space for public debate as leaders try to quiet public anger. But they doubt moderates will find much of a platform. "There is no room on the street for a moderate like me," said Mr. Qudah, the civil engineer in Jordan. "We are all against Israel attacking Lebanon, but I am also against hitting cities in Israel where there are civilians. If I tried to say the things in public that I am telling you on the phone, I might be beaten. In a war like this, the extremists alone own the streets."

Mona el-Naggar contributing reporting from Cairo for this article.

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