Egypt's unrest a two-edged sword

Tomorrow, Colin Powell meets with Egypt's president amid growing anti-Israel protests.

As the latest wave of anti-Israel protesters poured into the streets of capitals across the Arab world, observers are saying that a backlash against the Arab regimes themselves is closer than ever before.

Secretary of State Colin Powell left for the Middle East yesterday to try to mediate the escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He will meet with several of the region's leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who faces growing unease from a restless Egyptian populous.

Tens of thousands of young Egyptians, approaching 80,000 on some days, have raged through the streets across the country demanding that the Israeli army end its incursions into the West Bank. While they say their "enemy" is Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, the protesters appear uncertain and confused about who their own allies are.

Some of the protesters praise Mr. Mubarak for speaking out loudly against what many of them are calling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "bloodthirsty revenge." But others say their president needs to do far more to heed the growing anger – even if it means putting young Egyptians into action against the Israeli army.

The choices for Egypt's leadership have become stark. Commenters here say Hosni Mubarak can keep trying to verbally persuade his own Washington allies to force the Israeli army to stand down, threaten an oil embargo as Iran and Iraq have, or even call for concerted Arab military action.

The same Egyptian analysts, however, say that the moves may not save his regime and that the current wave of massive street protests are bound to change the political dynamic across the Middle East for decades to come. They say that the Egyptian government, like some of its Arab neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula, is trying desperately to ride the growing wave of anger, but may, in the end, be crushed by it.

The Egyptian government has permitted religious leaders, which it usually keeps well away from heated political debates, to advocate suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic for the Palestinian people to use against the Israeli military. Last week, a top Egyptian Muslim cleric was quoted as saying that suicide attacks on Jewish settlements were acts of martyrdom. "They are one of the highest forms of martyrdom," said Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Egypt's official Mufti, responsible for issuing religious opinions, or fatwas, on issues concerning Muslims.

Hala Mustafa, a leading newspaper commentator, concerned about such remarks, says: "Some of the people in the Arab street today calling for an end to Israeli violence and a free Palestine could quickly turn on Arab regimes and target them with some of the same tactics being used in Israel."

Ms. Mustafa, senior editor and commentator with the Al Ahram daily newspaper group, warns of a possible "transformation towards fanaticism." She says that the growing popular support for suicidal strikes against enemy targets could spread well beyond Israel and the West Bank if violence continues to spiral out of control in Israel.

Milad Hanna, an Egyptian political commentator and winner of the 1998 Simon Bolivar Prize for promoting tolerance and pluralism, sees a real threat to Mubarak's government from the turmoil in the streets.

"President Mubarak will try to permit these demonstrations to go ahead up to a limit until he makes his US allies unhappy," says Mr. Hanna, "and the people who are demonstrating are all too aware of this." Enraged Egyptian protesters have been burning American and Israeli flags, often with the same book of matches. "But the wave is breaking and, in the end, President Bush won't be able to protect Mubarak," says Hanna. "When the regime falls, Bush will be shaken. He can't afford this because as soon as Egypt goes, the regime in Saudi Arabia will crumble in its wake."

Hanna says that the region's lack of democracy, its economic disparities – the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the Arab world – and mounting political strife, were bound to force a change soon enough. "That is why all the Sheikhdoms will eventually crumble," he says, even though the forces that would replace them "have no brains or strategy."

Other analysts say that there are darker extremist forces waiting in the wings for Arab regimes to falter. As fast as Egypt was thrown into turmoil with the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the country could again be plunged into uncertainty by another such attack, says religious publisher Abdallah Aggag, who has recently printed a four-part treatise by one of the country's two main fundamentalist groups, Gamaa-i Islamiya, which orchestrated the killing of dozens of tourists in 1997 in the city of Luxor. "We are living through an unprecedented new era of discontent," he says. "The streets are boiling over and if the people see that the president is not paying attention to them, he could be quickly assassinated."

As the largest Arab country in the world and the source of many recruits for Al Qaeda, the threat from Egypt's miltant groups should not be underestimated, say Western terror experts.

These days, Arab television screens are bombarded with images of all-out war. Rather than risk being blamed for not helping their Arab brethren, the Egyptian government has authorized state television stations to use new terms like "self-sacrificers" to describe suicide bombing attacks. One commentator on state television, speaking in front of a graphic of a Star of David and a Nazi Swastika, said that Israel has opted for Hitler's "final solution" to exterminate the Palestinians.

Analysts here say these images and ideas are only fueling anger and discontent across the Arab world. Many Arab youth say they now feel the urge to help in the fight against oppression.

Take Mustafa Abdu, in his late teens, who is studying for an examination in a quiet, peaceful corner of the 1,400-year-old Al Ahzar Mosque. "We, the Arabs, are all one people," he says. "We all agree now that we must go to war. Even if we are prevented by our governments from doing so, we'll go to war anyway."

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