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Palestinian Issue Has Distracted Arabs from Domestic Issues - 2002-05-01

Political analysts in Egypt say that with the United States and Europe more fully engaged in a Middle East peace process, Arab leaders will eventually have little choice but to begin the process of social and economic reform.

It has become quite rare to hear speeches by Arab leaders in which the topic is something other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, many political analysts here publicly acknowledge some Arab governments have remained in power by directing the public's emotions toward the Mideast conflict as a way of diverting attention away from growing domestic problems.

However, even during the most violent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Egypt, many protesters expressed deep anger about such issues as unemployment, education, transportation and health care for the elderly.

In Egypt, for example, while the government has traditionally said the unemployment rate is around 11 percent, many economists say it could really be 20 percent or even higher.

Mohammad Kamal teaches political science at Cairo University. He said there is a growing awareness among Arab governments that domestic issues will have to be addressed "now that the United States and Europe are fully engaged in the Middle East peace process."

"I think it will have a positive impact on Arab domestic politics in general because many Arab regimes delayed political reform in the name of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the name of fighting Israel. So once the conflict is over, people will start asking questions about democracy and economic reform, and so on. And the government, the ruling elite, will have to answer these questions: democracy, unemployment, economic reform in general, and the government will have to respond to these challenges and will not be able to postpone them in the name of conflict," he said. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's nationally televised Labor Day speech Tuesday touched on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the Egyptian leader spent most of his time discussing the need for social and economic reform.

He mentioned Malaysia and China as economic examples to follow. He called for the modernization of factories and transportation systems, improvements in education and health care, and the creation of free-trade zones in order to attract more foreign investment. Mr. Mubarak said the country must enhance democracy. And he noted that while Egypt was hurt by the September terrorist attacks in the United States, he said "Egypt cannot lay all of its economic problems on this single incident."

Abdullah el Ashaal is an expert on Arab affairs who lectures at several universities in Cairo. He said Arab governments will have a chance to address many pressing social and economic issues once public anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is calmed.

"The promotion of democracy, the promotion of education, to look into the economic situation, and to take care of the youth and to upgrade the situation of women and the weak and fragile elements in the society, and also to get to the new civilization because the Arab world is too much far away from joining the train of progress in the whole world. So if you pacify the front of the Arab-Israeli conflict I think this would give us a chance to take care of our problems," he said.

Mr. el Ashaal said he is sure there will be some Arab governments that will resist reform by continuing to focus public attention toward the Mideast conflict. However, he said these are the governments "that will run the greatest risk of eventually being toppled by the masses."