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Arab Governments Face Public Displays of Anger at Home Over Iraq War - 2003-03-23


As war continues in Iraq, Arab governments are facing their own collateral damage. Governments in the region are battling the fallout of anti-war sentiment.

In a familiar chant heard at demonstrations in capitals around the Middle East, these protesters said they will give their spirit and their blood for Iraq.

Some of the public displays of support for Iraq have turned violent, with clashes between police and protesters in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan.

Although the protests are focused against the United States, analysts said many Arab governments fear that the street anger could be diverted toward them, particularly those that are closely allied with the United States. The analysts, like Hala Mustafa of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that is why countries like Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan are particularly concerned about the demonstrations.

"These kinds of demonstrations started by opposing some foreign issues or protest against American policies, but it could end by criticizing or opposing or protesting against their own governments," Mr. Mustafa said.

How forceful these protests become depends on how long the U.S.-led war against Iraq continues, says Cairo University professor Hassan Nafae. "I am quite sure if the war continues and the Iraqi people resist the war and you have a lot of casualties and so on, the anger will mount in the streets," Mr. Nafae said. Mr. Nafae adds that while the public displays of anger are not likely to change basic government policies, they may force some Arab governments to be more critical of the United States about the war, and possibly other issues.

"Maybe the regimes in the area will be forced to change their political discourse and be more critical to the American position," he said.

Another political risk is that the protests could embolden Islamic opposition groups in pro-western Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan, says Hala Mustafa of the al-Ahram center.

"Any disturbance or any disorder could be to the advantage of the protest movement like the Islamic movement in the opposition," Mr. Mustafa said.

The last thing the Arab governments want to do is anything that would strengthen their domestic opponents. But at the same time, many of them depend on good economic relations with the United States, and in some cases direct aid. Regional analysts say moderate Arab governments will be involved in a delicate political balancing act in the coming weeks.