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Hizbullah winning over Arab street

Key Arab leaders condemn the Shiite group, despite its popularity with their citizens.

By , Sameh NaGuib / July 18, 2006


With Israel's confrontation with Hizbullah and Lebanon lurching closer to all-out war, winds of anger are blowing through the Middle East that are likely to strengthen the political hand of radical Islamists from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

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Since the fighting began, at least 24 Israelis, 12 of them civilians, have been killed and at least 175 Lebanese, nearly all civilians. In recent weeks, about 200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in a separate showdown between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group who won power in elections earlier this year.

The confrontation – coupled with the rising civilian toll – also poses a serious threat to US interests in the region.

Islamists who are hostile to Israel and the US – and to their Arab allies who have criticized Hizbullah – are shoring up support, increasing the chances they will seize power if the elections President Bush has urged for the region take place.

Iran is making new friends, as is Syria. And if history is a guide, a new wave of outrage could bring new recruits to terrorist groups, much as Israel's occupation of parts of Lebanon in 1982 fueled the rise of Hizbullah.

Last Friday, Mr. Bush called Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – America's closest Arab allies – and urged them to help defuse the crisis. Those calls, and the attitudes of those countries' people, served to emphasize the ways in which this crisis could hurt Israeli and American interests far beyond Lebanon and the Palestine territories.

Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded with a joint statement condemning Hizbullah for "adventurism that does not serve Arab interests." Soon after, a Saudi spokesman also blamed Hizbullah "adventurism" as "exposing Arab nations ... to grave dangers without these nations having a say in the matter."

But countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have little influence over the militant Shiite group and its backers Iran and Syria, so their statements may be of little practical value. Instead, their comments emphasize the widening gap between these regimes and their people.

"These events put pressure on Arab governments to take action, and they haven't," says Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington. "Shouldn't they be recalling their ambassadors? That's what the people on the street would be thinking."

That gap, fed by support for Palestinians, hatred of Israel, and anger at its close alliance with America, is already being exploited by the region's Islamist movements, turning TV images of dead civilians into political opposition to their own regimes. In particular, the peace deals signed by Egypt and Jordan with Israel make these governments less popular with their people.

"The Arab leaders are traitors who work for the Americans and the Israelis.... [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah represents Arab and Islamic dignity," says Ahmed, an Egyptian mechanic who asked that his full name not be used.

"The regime claimed that peace with Israel would create prosperity and jobs. But we have been at peace for over 20 years and have not seen any prosperity. We can't watch our Palestinian and Lebanese and Iraqi brothers be slaughtered every day and do nothing."

In Saudi, too, the regime's position isn't shared by its public. "I don't think the Saudi government's statement is in tune with how most Saudis feel about the Lebanese situation," says Bassem Alim, an activist lawyer based in Jeddah, and frequent government critic.

"The way they said it was extremely damaging to their reputation in the Islamic world."

Anger at Saudi Arabia's close relationship with the US, and by association Israel, has long generated support for Al Qaeda among many Saudis, so the government has taken a risk by speaking in a manner that jihadists view as supporting Israel.