Arab citizens seize boycott banner

Delegates from 19 Arab nations met in Syria last week to discuss economic action against Israel.

Infuriated by Washington's support for Israel and the reluctance of Arab regimes to take action, Arabs throughout the Middle East and North Africa have launched individual and group boycotts of American products. High-visibility American food chains are being hit hardest. Branch managers of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Egypt have conceded sales falling by 20 to 50 percent since the outbreak of the intifada, or uprising, 19 months ago.

In Beirut, Nisrine Mansour used to buy American goods without a second thought. But that changed when she realized her cash could end up helping Israel.

"When I realized that many American companies openly support Israel, I began looking very hard at what I buy in shops," she says.

Ms. Mansour, along with other Lebanese activists, has formed a group called Act Now, which advocates a boycott of American goods and of companies that have dealings with Israel. Act Now is not acting alone, either – across the Arab world, citizens are taking action. Smokers of the popular Marlboro cigarettes are switching to French or local brands. The boycott has even had the backing of religious leaders.

Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Lebanese Shia cleric, has called on Arabs to replace American products with European and Asian goods in appreciation of the political support of those countries.

Delegates from 19 Arab countries gathered in Damascus this past week for a meeting of the Arab Boycott Bureau. The group, which was established by the Arab League in 1951, oversees the boycott of companies dealing with Israel. The meeting was only the second held since 1993.

"The popular Arab rally around the boycott of Israel and its supporters is yet another form of struggle. If the boycott were activated properly, it would affect Israel at all levels: technical, military, and practical. It would in fact paralyze its economy," says Ahmad Khazaa, the bureau's general commissioner.

Syria, Israel's most implacable foe, has been the driving force behind reviving the Arab boycott, and it organized the previous meeting last October. It attempted to raise the subject during the Arab summit in March, but the Saudi peace initiative dominated the session.

"The Syrians believe that the Arab world has grown too conciliatory toward Israel," says Yahya Sadowski, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "They would like to shift it back."

Enthusiasm for the boycott diminished after Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel and the 1991 Madrid summit launched a new round of Middle East peace talks. Despite the inflamed passions aroused by the intifada, many Arab governments are struggling with hefty debt burdens, and for them a return to the days of sweeping boycotts on companies dealing with Israel is not a realistic option.

Saudi Arabia, for example, despite its vast oil wealth, has a public debt of $170 billion.

"Saudi Arabia is not about to embargo a US oil company that wants to bring investment to the country, so reducing the debt and keeping the people happy," says Professor Sadowski.

Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, stayed away from the Damascus meeting. Egypt's government, while permitting boycotts of US and Israeli goods, has still refused to officially take part. However, the Egyptian people remain among the most ardent supporters of a boycott.

McDonald's tried last year to neutralize the impact of the Egyptian boycott by hiring a well-known country crooner whose famous song, "I hate Israel" topped the charts for weeks.

Kentucky Fried Chicken was the target of protesters at Cairo University last month. They torched one of the outlets.

"Our boycott is another way to put pressure on the US government for its reactions towards the Israeli acts in Palestine," says Talat Mossalam, a member of a labor party and the Egyptian organization leading the boycott of Israeli and US products. "Until now, there has only been a partial boycott here in Egypt. It is the responsibility of each individual and so there are those who don't pay attention."

Encouraging Lebanese to participate in the boycott has been harder. Lebanon is one of the most Western-oriented societies in the Middle East, where English and French is widely spoken and Western trends avidly followed. Act Now has held sit-ins outside McDonald's and the popular Starbucks coffee shop in Beirut's Hamra shopping district. But it's not only American foods that are being targeted in Beirut.

Hundreds of goods found on the shelves of Beirut supermarkets and corner shops come stamped with a "U" or "K" symbol, denoting that the product has been formally approved by Jewish organizations as Kosher, or fit to eat under Jewish dietary laws. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which says it's the largest and oldest Kosher supervising agency in the world, approves more than 2,300 companies around the globe with over 300,000 labels. In exchange for the Kosher approval, manufacturers pay a fee, which helps fund pro-Israel activities, such as lobbying Congress to support sanctions legislation against Syria and to express solidarity with Israel. "I don't have a problem with Jewish religious customs, but I was shocked to discover that by purchasing these goods, I was indirectly helping Israel," says consumer activist Mansour.

Act Now is seeking to refine its boycott to focus on a handful of select companies, such as the tobacco giant Philip Morris. "Philip Morris is the ideal boycott target," Mansour says. "Cigarettes are nonessential, it's a widespread product, and it's a tobacco company for which no one feels much sympathy."

• Philip Smucker contributed to this report from Cairo.

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