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The "Arab Street" in the First Days of War

By: Nader Habibi

Over the past few months that the world was debating the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein, one of the major worries of the critics of war was the reaction of the "Arab street." The war on Iraq, it was argued, would spark off massive demonstrations in Arab capitals, with strong potentials for violence and political instability. Egyptian president Hosni Mobarak described the potential impact of an Iraq war on the Arab societies as "opening the gates of hell."

In light of these strong warnings, it is worthwhile to look at the reaction of the Arab street in the first few days of war. As expected, large anti-American demonstrations broke out in many Arab capitals. These demonstrations have continued for the past few days, with varying degrees of intensity. But the reactions so far have not opened the "gates of hell," as predicted by President Mobarak. The demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt have turned violent, although the violence has been generally contained. As of March 23, only two people had died during anti-war protests-in the Yemeni capital of Sanna. Furthermore, there have been no reports of major demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, which are hosting U.S. military facilities on their soil. The only Gulf country witnessing large demonstrations thus far is Bahrain, where police confronted a large crowd marching toward the U.S. embassy.

There are several reasons why the Arab protests have not been as destructive as was earlier anticipated. First, some of the Arab governments did their best to address the anti-war sentiment of their citizens by actively expressing their opposition to the Iraq war during the past few months. Even the Arab governments that have close security ties with the United States-such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and the U.A.E.-did not endorse the war option. While such sentiments from Arab governments did not stop the U.S. military operation, it helped them bolster their domestic legitimacy by following public opinion. As a result, the simmering anger of the Arab street is mostly directed towards the United States and the United Kingdom, rather than their own pro-Western governments. Even after the war began on March 19, the Arab regimes, including the traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, continued their condemnations of the attack.

The second reason is the low level of civilian casualties. Unlike the first Gulf War, the U.S. military has so far successfully avoided large-scale "collateral damage." The Arab world, which is closely monitoring the war through Al-Jazeera and other independent satellite TV channels, would be more enraged if the number of civilian casualties were higher. If the casualty figures rise sharply, though, the protests could turn more violent.

The third reason is the relatively tolerant reaction of the Arab governments to these demonstrations. Far from trying to suppress the protests, the governments have tried to contain them. In Jordan, King Abdullah called for peaceful protests and many civil organizations, such as the lawyers association, have openly joined the protests. In Egypt, the police have tried to control the geographic location of the protests by limiting them to universities and mosques, but the protests have nevertheless continued. Furthermore in some of the Arab oil exporting countries of Persian Gulf, the Islamic organizations and religious leaders have invited people to engage in peaceful demonstrations and avoid violence. The al-Vefagh Islamic group in Bahrain, for example, condemned the violent protests of high school students near the U.S. embassy. Similarly, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia warned people against following those who are calling for holly war "Jihad." Instead, he invited people to engage in peaceful protests.

So, the U.S. war against Iraq has not opened the "gates of hell"-at least not yet. The reaction of the "Arab street" over the next few weeks will depend largely on the developments in Iraq. So long as the war continues, the protests are likely to persist, and even gain momentum. The Arab governments will most likely tolerate mass protests and just try to keep them under control. However, a continuation of nonviolent anti-war protests could have profound and unintended political consequences for the Arab world. The protestors could use these mass demonstrations to express their domestic political grievances along with their solidarity with Iraq. The very act of nonviolent mass protest is an exercise in freedom, which might increase the Arab appetite for political reform. And since the protests are happening for a cause that the Arab governments cannot dare oppose, this "exercise" cannot be stopped so easily. In that case, the Arab protests against the war in Iraq could indirectly contribute to the promotion of a mass movement for political reform in the Arab world.

About the author:
Nader Habibi works for an economic consulting firm in Philadelphia as a regional specialist for Persian Gulf. He has taught economics in Iran, Turkey and most recently in the United States. His latest publication is a novel called "Atul's Quest." Atul's Quest offers a satirical look at racial attitudes in developing countries and third world immigrant communities in the United States.

... Payvand News - 3/31/03 ... --

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