Leaders Incite Many Arab Protests
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CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ The crowds are large and their chants fiery, but Arab protests _ such as those against Israel’s pressure on Yasser Arafat _ are often used and even choreographed by the region’s governments to send messages abroad and keep anger over domestic problems in check.
Tens of thousands of Arabs have protested every day since Israeli forces seized control of the Palestinian leader’s compound in Ramallah on Friday and began taking over other West Bank towns in a major offensive that follows 18 months of violence.
Demonstrations have erupted on university campuses across Egypt, in squalid Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, and along the sidewalks of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Some of the largest have been in countries such as Iraq and Syria, whose governments keep the tightest grip on self-expression _ but use their media and security forces to organize mass demonstrations when they want to make a point to the outside world.
The region’s less repressive leaders keep a close eye on protests against Israel and the United States, allowing demonstrators to vent anger that might otherwise be directed at their own governments but reining them in when they get out of hand.
Egyptian police used tear gas and fire hoses Monday to disperse demonstrators who tried to march from Cairo University to the nearby Israeli Embassy. Students who have held daily protests across Egypt have not been allowed to venture off their campuses.
Both Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, have come under pressure to annul their treaties or sever diplomatic ties.
Roughly 60 percent of Jordan’s 5 million people are Palestinians who fled or were driven out of their homes in the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars, and calls for steps against Israel are growing. However, a senior government official said Monday that Jordan would maintain ties with Israel. Egypt has taken a similar position.
Officials say maintaining relations offers crucial influence in the conflict, though Egypt and Jordan both recalled their ambassadors to Tel Aviv more than a year ago to protest the violence that erupted in September 2000.
On the so-called Arab street, anger at Israel and the United States, its closest ally, has built up over half a century of wars and Arab-Israeli rivalry.
In Syria, the government uses the media it controls to fan that anger, with articles like a recent one in al-Baath, the ruling Baath Party’s official newspaper, that called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a Nazi.
Across the Arab world, television images of Palestinian corpses on the streets of Ramallah and Arafat’s police surrendering to Israeli troops also increase the anger.
In countries where opinion is giver freer rein, independent and state television, government officials and opposition columnists have been speaking much the same language _ the language of outrage _ on the Palestinian issue.
But as united as Arab media, people and politicians are against Israel’s crackdown on Arafat and the Palestinians, governments in the Mideast are not acting on calls to wage war on Israel or end all contacts with the Jewish state.
Few Arab leaders have to answer to voters, and fewer still want to take any step that might undermine their authority.
``There is no democracy in this part of the world and no Arab ruler cares what his people think on any issue, let alone the peace issue,″ said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political scientist.
In the calculations of the region’s leaders, analysts say, holding onto power is less a matter of appeasing their citizens than of containing threats and currying favor with the United States by supporting attempts to find a peaceful end to the Israeli-Arab crisis.
And yet Egypt’s government, which has great influence over the country’s media, has taken no steps to calm emotions fueling the protests.
Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim said the government was happy to let its people vent their anger over the plight of the Palestinians instead of focusing on unemployment, inflation, lack of economic or political opportunity or other problems.
``It is a God-sent issue for the government for the time being, to sidetrack and deflect attention from problems at home,″ Ibrahim said. But ``whenever it threatens to spill outside the university gates, then the ugly face of the security forces is shown.″
Abouleila Madi, one of the organizers of Monday’s failed march on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, said the tear gas and streams of water that met the peaceful protesters ``reveals a real dilemma″ facing the region’s governments.
``Arab regimes are incapable of doing anything, and when their people demand they do something, they confront them with violence,″ he said.