Hear their cry for help

January 14, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

CAIRO, Egypt - I attended Friday's noon prayers here at Al-Azhar, the most important mosque in Islam. Thousands of Egyptian faithful went through their traditional prostrations and listened to the sermon by the sheik of Al-Azhar, who spoke in measured tones about how God deals with "oppressors." At the end, he appealed to God to rescue the Palestinians. It was all very solemn and understated. And then the excitement started.

A split second after he finished, someone tossed in the air hundreds of political leaflets, and a young man was lifted onto the shoulders of the crowd and began denouncing "American tyranny."

Hundreds of the faithful then marched around the mosque chanting behind him, while the silent majority shuffled out. It was as if you were seeing two services: first the state-run service and then the street-run service, where the real steam was let off. But here's what struck me most: While America came in for a lashing, no one in this crowd was chanting in support of Saddam Hussein.

This was in keeping with everything I heard in dozens of interviews in Cairo. The good news is that Mr. Hussein is no longer viewed as any kind of folk hero, and most people, it seems, would welcome his demise. The bad news is that George W. Bush and U.S. policy are disliked even more. What gives?

By steam-rolling Kuwait in 1990, Mr. Hussein looked strong. Today, he appears to be weak, on the defensive and surrendering to everything the United Nations and United States are demanding.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Hussein was still benefiting from years of having bought off Arab journalists, who sang his praises. That chorus seems to have dried up now that he is no longer passing out so many Mercedes-Benzes. In the early 1990s, Mr. Hussein was still viewed as the Sunni Muslim sword standing up to the Iranian Shiites, and most Arabs cared little about how he had abused his people. Now it gets written about. Finally, the 9/11 attack, which emanated from this region, has strengthened people who want to talk about Arab misgovernance.

Raymond Stock, a literary researcher here, told me that an Arab friend of his summed up the mood this way: "Iraq is like a plane that has been hijacked. If the American commandos can free the plane without harming the passengers, then most people will be relieved."

Then why is George W. Bush so intensely disliked? In part, it's because people feel the president and his team have stopped talking to the world. They only growl at it now. But the biggest factor remains the Bush team's seeming indifference to making any serious effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when so much killing is going on.

The administration's refusal to apply any imagination to defusing this conflict, and even belittling it while calling Ariel Sharon "a man of peace," has embittered the Arab public. This now clouds everything we do here. Invading Iraq is cast as a war to protect Israel. Democratization is cast as a way to punish the Arabs.

Yes, official Arab newspapers and TV have nourished Arab anger toward America and Israel for decades - and still do. And one regime after another has exploited this conflict for political purposes.

But when you sit in a room at the U.S. ambassador's house with 30 bright young Egyptian entrepreneurs, mostly U.S.-educated, and this issue is practically all they want to talk about - or you meet with American studies students at Cairo University and they tell you that many students in their class refused to play a simulation game of the U.S. Congress for fear of being tainted - you feel that there has to be something authentic in their anger about this open wound.

Until it is sealed, it will remain a well for the "thoughts of mass destruction" that will energize every radical anti-American group out here. I am convinced that much of the anger over U.S. policy is really a cry of help from people who know what they have to do - to democratize, liberalize their economies - and who know that they will be lost for another 50 years if they don't, but can't do it because these ideas are promoted by a power they feel is indifferent to their deepest hurt.

I am not talking about what is right, or what is fair, or even what is rational. I am talking about what is. And if we ignore it, if we dismiss it all as a fraud, we will never fully harvest the positive changes that could come from regime change in Iraq.

The Egyptian playwright Ali Salem says: "We have an Egyptian proverb: `The drunk is in the care of the sober.' You are the sober. Don't forget that."

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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