Egypt Streets Quiet Despite Anger at U.S.
NADIA ABOU EL MAGD
Dec. 10, 2002
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CAIRO , Egypt (AP) _ The possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq has sent anti-war protesters into the streets by the tens of thousands in places like Australia, Belgium, Greece, Italy _ even the United States.
But in Egypt, with 68 million people the most populous Arab state and an influential political force in the region, the streets have been quiet despite talk of support for a fellow Arab nation.
Many Egyptians will be enraged and, if allowed, demonstrate if war breaks out. But there's been little to indicate they will do so in the numbers or with the passion to threaten American interests here or the Egyptian government, one of America's main Arab allies.
``The most important characteristic of the good citizen in Egypt today is that he keeps out of politics,'' said Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. ``The Egyptian street has been exposed to various degrees of repression. This has given birth to a fear that still grips people, destroys their moral spirit and pushes them to practice self-censorship.''
When Egyptians do take the risk and demonstrate, it is usually in support of the Palestinians, seen as the underdogs against the U.S.-supported Israelis, or because of issues closer to home, such as hikes in bread prices or a lack of jobs.
University students across Egypt demonstrated against the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, but those protests were smaller and less intense than recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Egyptians by the tens of thousands have protested, burning American and Israeli flags, in support of the Palestinian uprising that started over two years ago.
But those demonstrations have died away. Egyptian security cracked down and the protesters may have also been discouraged that their actions did not affect the government's peace treaty with Israel or its alliance with the United States.
``Egyptians main sympathy is with the Palestinians. Iraq is a marginal issue for them,'' Abdel Meguid said. ``They are mainly furious not for Saddam's sake as much as because America, which is helping Israel, is striking Iraq. That explains why they are not so angry at what Russia is doing in Chechnya.''
Attempts to rally Egyptians into the streets over Iraq have so far not resulted in demonstrations.
A new group including both leftists and conservative Muslims, the Popular Egyptian Committee for Confronting American Aggression, recently urged anti-war protests, saying ``the heart and conscience of all noble Egyptians'' should be moved since Iraqi children would be the main victims of any war.
But the group's plea has gone unanswered, even though most Egyptians oppose U.S. policies.
According to a survey of attitudes toward the United States conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press between July and October, 69 percent of Egyptians said they had an unfavorable view of the United States and 79 percent opposed the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Egypt was among the Arab armies that joined the U.S.-led coalition that attacked Iraq in 1991, but then the goals were limited to getting Iraq out of Kuwait. This time around, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has warned a U.S. strike on Iraq would further undermine U.S. credibility in the Middle East and endanger the stability of Arab states.
Such talk may be a calculated overstatement of the threat from the Arab masses. The Middle East, after all, has lived in turmoil for many years, and despite Arab-Israeli wars, two Palestinian uprisings and a previous war against Iraq, no Arab regime has fallen.
What Arab regimes may really fear is America setting a precedent of toppling regimes it doesn't like.
Jordanian columnist Rami Khouri said, ``What's really important today is not the Arab street, but the Arab basement,'' where people like Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian mentor Ayman al-Zawahri plot attacks.
Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, wrote recently that Arab dissidents no longer act according to conventional wisdom, ``by organizing demonstrations that are dispersed by policemen ... but by executing attacks that embarrass the state, and challenge its repressive apparatus.''
Political analyst Reda Helal believes it is unlikely anger at any war on Iraq will result in violence against Americans in Egypt.
``Egyptians don't hate Americans, they are angry with American foreign policy, but that anger was never translated into targeting Americans, even by militants,'' Helal said.