Arab discontent spreading as Lebanon fighting continues

Nearly a month into Hizbullah-Israeli fighting, Arab anger at their governments is growing.

arab protest 88 (photo credit: AP)
arab protest 88
(photo credit: AP)
Nearly four weeks of fighting between Hizbullah and Israel, on top of price increases, stalled democratic reforms, and bloodshed in Iraq, are making for a summer of discontent across the Middle East. Fierce anti-US protests have erupted in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait - all top American allies. At the same time, the demonstrators have vented their anger at their Arab rulers, praising their new hero: Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. "The whole region has been engulfed in anger since the war on Iraq more than three years ago," says Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The frustration is just huge." The domestic anger was weighing heavily on Arab leaders as their foreign ministers gathered in Beirut on Monday for an emergency meeting. Moderates like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia may want a halt to the fighting, but they can't be seen as backing a US-promoted cease-fire plan that Hizbullah has depicted as a surrender. Even more worrisome for Arab leaders is the possibility that violence may turn on them. On Saturday, al-Qaida announced a new branch in Egypt - and while it was not clear how realistic the threat was, it fed fears that public anger would boost militants around the region. Lebanon may have been the spark, but there's been plenty of tender for the discontent, particularly the situation in Iraq and domestic economic strains. Iraq has seen mounting sectarian violence, with the unity government in place since May unable to curb it, and late last month, the Egyptian government reduced subsidies on most gas prices. In cash-strapped Jordan, many people were wrestling with rising prices for commodities after three consecutive fuel price hikes in the past year. "Who cares about democracy while struggling for food and butter for their children," said 35-year-old Jordanian hotel receptionist Mustafa Qabbani, a father of three. "We live in a state of non-stop worry about our future in a war zone," said construction engineer Bassam Awad, 39. The anger over mounting civilian deaths in Lebanon has focused not only on Israel and its ally the United States; it has also turned on leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia because of their blaming of Hizbullah - sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly - for starting the fighting by snatching two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid. Meanwhile, Nasrallah has emerged as a hero, even among some secular Sunnis in Egypt and Jordan. In Egypt, protestors and opposition newspapers compare him with the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the old Arab nationalist champion against Israel. Some look with dismay, however, at the lionizing of the guerrillas. "Hizbullah took Lebanon hostage, and then came the tragedy we all know. Ironically, as the number of victims increases, the party becomes more popular," wrote Lebanese columnist Dalal al-Bizri in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Sunday. "The slogan now is, 'Islam and resistance are the solution."'