Bin Laden video plays to mixed reviews in Arab world

Egyptians largely accept tape as authentic but are more upset over Palestinians' plight.

"Yes, I saw it," says Ahmed Ghazi, a local butcher, referring to the video tape of Osama bin Laden. "Personally though, I couldn't care less whether it's real or a fake. Right now, we Arabs have better things to think about than bin Laden."

At Cafe Riche, one of Cairo's most popular watering holes, the Egyptian clientele, mulling over the day's news, explain that these "better things" are events in Gaza and the West Bank.

For Arabs across the Middle East, the release of the bin Laden tape by US authorities Thursday has been largely eclipsed by Israeli attacks on Palestinians following the recent wave of suicide bombings. These have incited far stronger emotions than the video.

Nabil Zaki, editor in chief of Egypt's opposition weekly Al-Ahaly, agrees. "We're more concerned with events in Palestine at the moment. Of course, there's no sympathy for bin Laden. But bloodshed in the occupied territories is our No. 1 concern."

Despite such views, others regard the tape as significant because it confirms a gradual shift in Middle East opinion. In the months since Sept. 11, Arabs have reflected on their initial suspicion of US claims that bin Laden was responsible for the atrocities.

As Arab leaders gave tacit support to America's war on terrorism, their people have slowly - and sometimes uncomfortably - begun to accept that the perpetrators of the attacks might indeed be fellow Muslims.

As Faiza al Ridi, a librarian, explains: "Many of us believe this tape is real because we now know that bin Laden is a terrorist who has spoken about such things before.... Ultimately, we don't care about bin Laden. He is guilty of murder, and we can recognize that with or without a video."

Mohamed Salah, a political writer for the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, says that the video is likely to be authentic because America has nothing to gain from screening the tape when the war is almost won. "The longterm implications of the video are more important than the short," he says. "It could well be bin Laden's intention to leave something for history by portraying himself as a hero of Islam. It's his way of making sure that he's remembered from beyond the grave."

Despite such arguments in favor of the video's authenticity, some are less convinced, citing sound and translation problems.

Mohamed al-Bakry, an English teacher, says: "The problem is that Arabic words have many meanings. So the things that bin Laden says could mean something altogether different in another context. And because we can't hear everything clearly, we can't be sure that the right context is being used."

Another popular line of thought, discussed extensively on Arab TV, is why the US decided to broadcast the video, rather than present it to a court of law.

"If bin Laden is to be condemned," says Hussan Suweilam, a military analyst interviewed on an Egyptian talk show, "then this should be done by the courts and not in a trial by television. This makes the tape suspicious."

On Al Jazeera, the popular Qatari satellite news station, a poll conducted over the weekend found that 80 percent of viewers thought the video was fake.

Such opinions, although anomalous with the Arab majority who now accept bin Laden's guilt, are fanned by the few remaining voices of militant Islam still heard after Sept. 11.

One such man continuing to speak out is Hani Sebai, who was given a life sentence in absentia by the Egyptian government in 1999 for alleged terror activities within the Islamic Jihad.

Now living in London, Mr. Sebai remains an unofficial mouthpiece for the militants and was reported by the Arab media as saying: "The US has the technical ability to fake such things. The sound was very bad, which is strange because when bin Laden released videos to Al Jazeera in the past, you could hear every word."

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