`The citizens are currently on standby'
The confusion in the Egyptian newspapers between supporting the United States or opposing the war, between the official Egyptian position that demands the war be halted and the continued coordination between Egypt and the U.S., while in the background there are tumultuous demonstrations in the streets of Cairo - though these have settled down for the moment - attests to what will happen in most Arab states apart from Kuwait.
"Five days into the war finds us perplexed. Every day we hear reports of American victories and every day we see more fiascoes. Here a fallen helicopter, there American fatalities and captured soldiers. One minute we see the bombing of Baghdad and the billowing black smoke and the next minute we hear of gunfire against the American forces, Saddam's speech and an appearance by Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan. What are we supposed to say now?"
The Egyptian journalist who spoke these words was among the supporters of the war against Iraq. Before it began, he wrote a few important articles in one of the widely distributed newspapers in Egypt, calling on Egyptians "to learn the lessons of the impending war even before it starts. We must examine ourselves," he wrote, " and understand that a war like this could not have happened if the Middle East had developed like all the other nations, if democracy was part of our system of government and if the leaders were attentive to the will of the people."
Now, in a telephone conversation, that journalist laments that the liberals in Egypt and throughout the Arab world have no one upon whom to rely except the Americans. Unlike many of his colleagues, he viewed the declaration of war not as the end of the world but rather the beginning of a new world. But "when the war is starting in what appears to be an entanglement, and when a respected newspaper like Al Quds al Arabi, which is published in London, features headlines such as `Vietnam, Iraqi style,' even we start to have our doubts," he said. "If things get complicated, we can forget a new order and any hope for change. Even worse, America will no longer be able to be a symbol of progress and development."
The confusion in the Egyptian newspapers between supporting the United States or opposing the war, between the official Egyptian position that demands the war be halted and the continued coordination between Egypt and the U.S., while in the background there are tumultuous demonstrations in the streets of Cairo - though these have settled down for the moment - attests to what will happen in most Arab states apart from Kuwait. Kuwait is the only country so far whose journalists and government have wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly come out in support of the war and called for a total victory over the Iraqi regime.
In Egypt, which this week hosted the conference of foreign ministers of the Arab League states (a conference that was nothing but a lot of words without purpose), the Iraqi problem is not how to stop the war but rather how to deal with anticipated further demonstrations.
Two Egyptian parliament members were arrested last weekend during the latest demonstrations, causing a stormy response in the parliament, which demanded their immediate release. Over 800 other Egyptian citizens were arrested and the Egyptian general security services have been on high alert for weeks.
According to Egyptian sources, the security services have the situation under control and they are using plainclothes policemen on university campuses and secret arrests of every sort of political activist.
"The problem," says a man from the Al-Ahram Research Institute, "is that the war is not in Egypt's control and with satellite dishes and the Internet, it cannot be a secret war, unseen and reported only via chunks of information released by the government.
"If you check the Egyptian chat sites, you will discover how much support there is for the Iraqi people and how much Egyptians oppose American policy.
"Even worse, the pictures of the victims and the destruction in Iraq that are being transmitted via the Internet are causing unrest, and as you know, it is enough for one crazy person to incite the masses and make things go out of control. The most threatening thing is the possibility that the security services will be forced to fire wholesale into the crowds of demonstrators."
Only the perennial Egyptian information minister, Safwat al-Sharif, is not worried and referred to last week's demonstrations as "the free expression of the citizens," who want to express their opinion. "Egypt is a country in which freedom of expression is steadfastly maintained," explained Al-Sharif. "We are an institutionalized country that enjoys democracy."
In the meantime, despite the huge demonstrations in Yemen and Egypt, the mood on the streets of the Arab cities is a far cry from the demonstrations held in Europe and in Southeast Asia. "The citizens are currently on standby," explains a Jordanian analyst. "They still don't know whether to demonstrate against Saddam, in favor of the Iraqi people or against America. The progress of the war in terrorist coming days will dictate the reactions on the streets. Jordanians, for example, are more afraid of the disorder that those demonstrations could sow than they are of the war. People are worried mainly about economic decline, the instability of prices and the condition of the country's oil reserves." [In anticipation of a halt in oil imports from Iraq, Jordan has already purchased two oil tankers from Norway - Z.B.]."
Jordan has taken a series of harsh steps to prevent the exploitation of the war for price hikes, but many residents report that these steps are not being implemented everywhere.
The pressure on the Jordanian government is evident in government announcements, which sometimes contradict reports from other sources. Thus, for example, there was a report that American special forces had left Jordan for operations in western Iraq, but the Jordanian government totally denied the report.
There was a report of American warplanes operating from within Jordanian airspace - again denied by official sources. Jordan announced it is willing to absorb up to 50,000 Iraqi and other refugees, but in reality there are severe restrictions on the entry of refugees and only about 300 non-Iraqi refugees have so far reached Jordan, and they are quickly sent to their native countries.
Jordan has also stated that it will not close the Iraqi embassy in Jordan and will not freeze Iraqi government bank accounts in the country; in reality, five Iraqi diplomats have been expelled from Jordan.
Lebanon and Syria seem to be in a different world. The Lebanese prime minister last week visited a number of European countries in order to "make his opinion of the war clear," according to the Lebanese newspapers. In reality he is worried that the war against Iraq will hamper the donations supposed to be sent to Lebanon, and he went to Europe to make sure the donors have not been scared off. The interesting aspect in Lebanon is actually Hezbollah's position regarding the war. Hezbollah now has three points of reference: Iran, the Iraqi Shi'ites and Syria
Iran continues its policy of "active neutrality," which means a great interest in Saddam's downfall, aiding the opposition groups, and harmless protestation of American infringement of Iranian airspace and the landing of three missiles, two of them apparently American, on Iranian soil. Iran's position seems to be closer to that of those who support the war than is apparent from official reactions. Iranian reports indicate, for example, that diplomatic messages have been transmitted between the U.S. and Iran via Francis Brooke, the American public relations assistant to Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella organization of the Iraqi opposition.
Brooke was warmly welcomed in Iran before the war began, mainly thanks to his connections with Condoleezza Rice and with other senior members of the American administration. Brooke theoretically visited Iran as a participant in the conference of the heads of Iraqi opposition in Iran, but he was the only American to visit Iran recently who was not fingerprinted, as has become customary in Iran following similar U.S. treatment of Iranian citizens visiting America. Brookes met with the Iranian foreign minister and with other important people and clarified that the U.S. has no intentions of targeting Iranian installations.
The fact is that since the fighting began not one word has been heard from Washington regarding Iran apart from a half-hearted apology for the missiles, and Iran, for its part, has not issued a forceful denunciation.
Hezbollah views this course of events as a clear hint at Iran's position. Syria, on the other hand, even though it has become the spearhead of the Arab opposition to the war and is demanding it be halted, continues to broadcast double messages. Public Syrian analysis in the newspapers and on the television talks of "the anticipated victory of the Iraqi nation," and Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri was warmly welcomed by his Syrian counterpart, Farouk al-Shara. Meanwhile, clear messages have been sent to Hezbollah not to heat up the southern Lebanese front and larger forces of the Lebanese army are patrolling the border with Israel.
With this, there are reports from Lebanese sources that elements in the Syrian government have held discussions about "the day after," focusing on a scenario in which Syria is liable to be subject to American pressure to promote the peace process. These discussions included the anticipation of a long American sojourn in Iraqi territory, which would necessitate Syrian cooperation with any government that is formed in Iraq under American auspices.
Then there is one more thing for Hezbollah to consider. This Shi'ite organization cannot object to the ousting of Saddam, who murdered important Shi'ite clerics in Iraq.
A "closeness" has been developing in recent days between Hezbollah and the Christian leadership in Lebanon and the secretary-general of the organization even offered not to call the war against Iraq "a crusade, if that expression offends Christians."
Apparently, it will be quite a while before there will be any essential change in the positions of the Arab states indicating that the war against Iraq is achieving additional regional goals. For the time being each one of them is taking cover and making sure that the war against Iraq will remain just that, a war against one state.