Egypt permits anti-U.S. street demonstrations

Governments in Cairo, other Arab nations face anger of populace at war

War In Iraq

March 29, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO - Helmeted riot police stood shoulder-to-shoulder yesterday across a broad boulevard, bracing for the approaching demonstrators loudly denouncing America's war on Iraq.

Remarkably, the protestors marching outside Al-Azhar, this city's central mosque, and shouting "Our souls, our blood for Saddam" obediently stopped. After their leaders spoke from the back of trucks, the crowd dispersed.

No less remarkable, yesterday's protest was officially permitted. The crowd was able to express its anger at the United States, and the Egyptian government thus diverted criticism from itself.

The longer the war against Iraq continues, however, the greater the danger that Egypt and other Arab states will could face serious unrest from a public that abhors American troops on Iraqi soil, regardless of its disdain for Saddam Hussein.

Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and several other Arab states have allowed American forces to use their territory, while Egypt and others have voiced what their citizens hear as timid objections dangerously out of step with public opinion.

"If the war continues, the people will explode, even against our own governments, our own regimes," said Hatem Saleh, 32, who runs a petroleum company in Cairo and marched yesterday with a banner urging a boycott of U.S. products. "They won't be able to contain the anger."

Riot police clashed yesterday with anti-American protestors in Amman, Jordan, and demonstrators also marched in the Yemeni capital, San`a.

Here, protests were violent a week ago and included criticism of President Hosni Mubarak and the government. The English-language Cairo Times, one of the few publications here to support the war, editorialized that "both foreign and Arab leaders sweat as the promised short war lengthens while ordinary folks everywhere just feel more disgusted."

The larger the protests, the greater the cause for concern for the government here. Every additional day of the war, analysts say, the standing of regimes that support the United States is weakened.

"The war itself is in many ways discrediting the political regimes around Iraq and in the Arab world," said Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. "They are unable to deliver the minimum demands of their constituents - genuine support for the Iraqi people."

Kazziha said Arab leaders banked on U.S. promises of a quick, clean war with few civilian casualties. And unlike their own governments, he said, the people see the Iraqi resistance as proof of their own resolve:

"An increasing number of thoughtful Arabs are now seeing that when governments want to resist outside influence and depend on their own people, they can do it. We are not as disarmed as our people may think. We don't have to fly to Washington and fall into their arms. If we depend on our own people, our own people will respond."

Many people here see American troops as occupiers, not liberators, and are emboldened by television images of soldiers bogged down and pleased by small victories such as a downed helicopter or images of American prisoners of war.

Other analysts say the disquiet has deeper roots, with the Iraq war serving as a flash point for frustration of years of economic hardship, much of it caused by regional strife that has decimated Egypt's tourism industry.

"We are in a fix," said Essam Montasser, an Egyptian who until a few months ago served as an economic adviser to the Kuwaiti government. "The public feeling is that America is run by an extremist government, and their leaders do not reflect this position."

Montasser said the protests reflect "not only their hatred for the war, but the immense economic stress and tensions that come from that. The government does not want those issues to get mixed. Last week's protests were genuine and included unprecedented criticism of the government and its policies. That crossed the line."

Egypt's concerns were amply on display yesterday. Police armed with batons and carrying riot shields stood guard across the downtown, at Tahrir Square, and in Islamic Cairo, the heart of the old city and next to the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar.

Major intersections were sealed off blocks away from potential trouble spots, and fire engines and trucks equipped with rooftop water cannons were readied to disperse the crowds. Plainclothes police, regarded as the most ruthless enforcers of public order, stood watchful guard on street corners.

Screeching voices of countless imams boomed through the city of 16 million, calling on Muslims to unite against America's "murder of freedom." At Al-Azhar mosque, one of the city's oldest, where last week's protests began, a vast crowd marched along the main boulevard.

"George Bush, you arrogant man," some chanted. "Your war in Iraq is rejected." Others shouted, "Jihad is our life" and held aloft naked replicas of the Statue of Liberty. A few children carried toy machine guns to symbolize resistance.

Last week, about half the slogans were directed against the Egyptian government. Yesterday, protesters kept their internal dissent quiet, but were not so reserved when interviewed.

"Of course I'm angry with my government," said Tarek Tawfik, a 25-year-old who works at a shoe factory. "We should all stand by Iraq. Our president expressed himself on television that he is against the war. But he is powerless to stop it because a war is what America wants."

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