ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- Mohammed Sayed Ali Sakka was, by his parents' testimony,
an apolitical son, obedient, athletic, intent on finishing his business degree
while studying English and computer science. He understood the demands of the
global marketplace, they said, and was trying to meet them.
But two weeks ago, on a balmy Mediterranean afternoon, he was, like so many thousands of Egyptians and Arabs these days, in the middle of one of the almost daily demonstrations that have broken out to protest Israel's three-week-old military campaign against Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank.
This one turned ugly. Students surged around Alexandria University, and threw rocks at the surrounding riot police. Police answered with rounds of tear gas, buckshot and rubber bullets. By the end of the exchange, Sakka was dead.
His death in the crowd speaks to a new movement that has taken root over the last two weeks, beyond campus hotheads whose demonstrations are routine in the Middle East and religious militants who regularly burn U.S. and Israeli flags. The anger now is rousing broad-based protests in a way Osama bin Laden tried -- and failed -- with his calls for jihad as the United States attacked in Afghanistan last fall.
As the violence burns in the West Bank, it is not only college protests in Egypt or sporadic gunfire at Israeli soldiers from such groups as Hezbollah that demonstrate popular rage. It is groups of Arab women organizing blood donations, or benefit choral concerts and poetry readings in Amman and Beirut. It is telethons for Palestinian relief that have drawn an estimated quarter-billion dollars in cash, gold, cars and other donations, largely from places such as Kuwait and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have close ties to the United States.
It is not just Palestinian refugees up in arms in Lebanon and Jordan -- a standard sight -- or the canned and planned protests that the governments of Iraq and Syria stage when it suits them. It is Bahrainis in the usually placid Persian Gulf region attacking the U.S. Embassy, Kuwaitis whose 1991 liberation from Iraq no longer hinders them from burning the American flag and, perhaps most notably, the small knots of Saudi protesters given an unprecedented green light by their government to gather publicly.
It is not just politicized student leaders or officials from such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood who are involved these days. It is students like Sakka, and Queen Rania of Jordan taking to the streets, and Mohammed Abdel Salem, a bathroom fixtures salesman who is 60 and spent his lunch break at the Egyptian Red Crescent this week giving blood.
"We are Arabs, family, brothers," said Salem, one of a handful of people who trickled into the Red Crescent's downtown office on Tuesday. "If Egypt allowed it, I would carry a weapon. I'd go. The Jews have been the enemy of our religion since the day the world started."
These are some of the themes bin Laden tried to hit when he issued a videotaped call for worldwide jihad against the United States last fall. His appeal fell flat because, although the war in Afghanistan may have touched a nerve in the Arab world, it was an obscure one that prompted few to act. The geographic and ethnic connections were, in the end, too distant, the moral and political arguments too tenuous to inspire much sympathy for the likes of the Taliban or al Qaeda.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, on the other hand, seems closer to home. It is seen on a religious level as a fight for control of Jerusalem, the site of the revered al-Aqsa mosque. To Arab nationalists, it evokes the memory of defeats beginning with Israel's creation in 1948 and the desire to show, through the Palestinians, that the Arabs cannot be pushed around anymore. For others, it's a battle between local, Palestinian culture, which most Arabs recognize as part of their own, and the globalizing West, represented by Jews from Europe and their patron, the United States.
These sentiments are stoked by saturation coverage of the West Bank violence offered through Arab satellite channels, such as al-Jazeera from Qatar, and even on traditionally staid, state-controlled media. The images, which reinforce a sense of disproportionate force being applied against Palestinians, push the mainstream to act in ways that bin Laden's appeal could not.
"You see a child. A baby. They killed her," said Ali Mabrook, 21, a rental car agent who said he has always avoided demonstrations and other overt political events, because he does not think they do any good. However, he was at the Red Crescent this week to give blood as a concrete statement of support. "Politically, you want to stand next to them," said Mabrook. "Everybody should have their own nation."
"Inside, it is a feeling of insecurity," said Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. Running down the list of Arab territory overrun by Israelis in his lifetime, he said he recently felt compelled to apologize to his students during a lecture because "we have not been able to protect you."
"The Israelis are the foreigner who is coming in and humiliating you and putting your face in the sand," Kazziha said. "In my lifetime we have never overrun any of their cities. They go into Beirut, they go into Ramallah, they go into refugee camps and play havoc. It is happening all the time and it could happen to any of us."
In Egypt and Jordan particularly the public mood has been closely watched. Both countries have signed peace treaties with Israel, and the Israeli embassies in Cairo and Amman have become targets for popular ire.
So far, the situation has not altered the basic strategic position of either country. When Syrian officials began carping about the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, for example, the Egyptian commentators who are closest to President Hosni Mubarak fired back that Syria's "boy president" -- 36-year-old Bashar Assad -- had no standing to speak on such weighty issues as war and peace. Echoing Mubarak, they said that Egypt would never be drawn into another war unless it was to defend Egypt's own borders.
But the pressure is significant. Jordan's King Abdullah sent an explicit letter to President Bush that he was being "undermined" by the events in Israel, and Egypt has taken care that Sakka's death in Alexandria does not transform anti-Israeli sentiment into anger against the government in Cairo.
Students say Sakka was killed by police gunfire. Security officials say he was trampled by the crowd. Whoever is right, Mubarak's police are being careful to avoid fallout. Security police followed a foreign journalist to the young man's home, for instance, and interrupted an interview with his parents, saying it was forbidden to talk to them.
During a subsequent trip to the local police station, it became apparent how the events of the last two weeks may be hardening Arab opinion. Police on the riot lines are doing their jobs, but during recent protests in Cairo and Alexandria took the opportunity, standing near an American journalist, to make clear that they were only following orders.
Their sympathies, they said, were with the Palestinians.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company