Wednesday, July 19, 2006


CAIRO Hezbollah is a Shiite militia. Its followers hang pictures of the grandfather of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in their offices and in the towns. And it says its mandate is to liberate Lebanon and Lebanese prisoners from Israel.

None of that matters to Ahmed Mekky, 40, an Egyptian lawyer and a Sunni Mulism. Like many other people around the region, Mekky says he supports Hezbollah because it is doing what the Arab leadership has been frightened to do for too long - standing up to Israel and the United States.

"We are praying that God would make Hezbollah victorious," Mekky said as he stood beside a newspaper kiosk in downtown Cairo Wednesday. "All the Arab governments are asleep."

Perhaps more so than at any time since Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, the bloodletting between Hezbollah and Israel has highlighted the huge divide between many Arab countries, and between many people and their leaders. Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Countries, see in Hezbollah a dangerous beachhead for Iranian influence in the region. They have criticized Hezbollah for the raid that led to the Israeli attack on Lebanon.

But the longer the conflict drags on, the more these leaders are finding their own credibility called into question. The longer satellite television shows images of civilians killed and maimed by Israeli bombs, the more these leaders face hostility from their own people. The longer Hezbollah fires rockets into Israeli cities and towns, killing and wounding Israelis the longer these leaders have to face questions about why they do not take similar action as well.

"People know that the Arab governments are impotent and are always looking for excuses to justify their failure to do anything," said Adnan Abu- Odeh, a former adviser to King Hussein of Jordan. "In fact, historically, this episode is another example of how Israel embarrasses the moderate regimes in the region."

The attacks on those who have not stood with Hezbollah have been biting. Al Dustoor Newspaper, an Egyptian opposition weekly newspaper, mocked President Hosni Mubarak in a headline comparing him to the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah's son died in 1997 during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Mubarak has been accused of positioning his son, Gamal, to take over as president in six years. The headline: "The difference between a leader who offers his son as a martyr and a leader who offers his son as a successor!"

In Egypt, 75 prominent academics, political leaders and former government officials, issued a statement declaring solidarity with Hezbollah, commending Nassrallah, and criticizing Arab governments as "silent and impotent."

It is impossible, of course, to talk about one "Arab Street," because opinions are as varied as they would be in any multicultural, multinational, multireligious region. But it has gotten to the point that even some of those who are critical of Hezbollah for the cross-border raid into Israel, are calling for unity in standing up to Israel and the United States.

"What is certain is that Hezbollah's step and that taken by Hamas before it, lacks political wisdom," wrote the Saudi journalist, Dawood Al Shiryan, in the pan-Arab newspaper, Al Hayat. "But to insist on calling the resistance to account for this mistake now that Israel's violent response has been launched has created a political reality that is difficult to describe."

Should Hezbollah and Hamas emerge victorious, he argued, leaders of countries like Egypt and Jordan will be isolated from the leaders of those groups. And if they lose, Egypt and Jordan will bear part of the blame. In many ways, the dynamics of the region were predictable. Hatred of Israel runs deep, even when it is not visible at the surface. Arab governments have struggled for legitimacy while often relying on security forces and restricted voting rights to maintain their monopoly on power. And the experience of the Arab League, an organization that was supposed to advocate for the combined Arab interest, has repeatedly demonstrated that Arab states cannot agree on a common interest.

But this crisis has proved particularly vexing to the leadership and galling to many people because it came after the Palestinians elected as their leaders another group that so-called moderate Arab leaders did not trust: Hamas. In the public view, their leaders failed to come to the aid of Hamas when its funds were cut off by the West and then failed to do anything when Israel attacked in Gaza in response to the kidnapping and killing of soldiers. Even in Syria, which has offered strong rhetorical support for Hezbollah during this crisis and is accused of having helped arm and train it in the past, there is growing frustration that tough words are not followed by tough deeds.

The Syrian authorities have cracked down recently on people who speak out against the government, so people were afraid to be identified. But in recent conversations at a café in the center of town, many people expressed just that sentiment. "The Syrian leaders don't want war with Israel, but what's the use of supporting Hezbollah under the table," said a retired lawyer who was afraid to be identified for fear of retribution.

In Egypt, the public sentiment toward the government is even more hostile. People repeatedly said that their government was hiding behind the idea that it was trying to block Shiite, or Iranian influence, when they believed it was really doing America's bidding. At the moment, Iran appears extremely popular among many ordinary Sunni Muslims.

"I wish we would send them reinforcements so that they can defend themselves, even if we send them medicine," said Gharib Hamed, 33, a pizza deliveryman in Cairo. "Hezbollah says that Iran is supporting them. I wish the Arab states would all help Hezbollah too. I am impressed with Iran's role."

Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, a cashier at a grocery store in the residential area of Zamalek was watching the Egyptian satellite news when he expressed his own frustrations with Arab leaders. "If I could go fight with them, I would," he said. "Where the hell are we?"

Katherine Zoepf contributed reporting from Damascus.


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