AMMAN, Jordan -- As bombs slam into Baghdad and U.S. leaders predict the inevitable collapse of the Iraqi regime, the Arab world is smoldering with a barely suppressed rage that many of the region's other authoritarian leaders fear may soon be turned against their own governments.
Though there is little sympathy for Saddam Hussein in any Arab country, seeing an Arab and Muslim neighbor being pounded into submission by a foreign invader is stirring a profound sense of humiliation and despair among Arabs
A Bahraini riot-police officer holding a baton in his hand, front, blocks a group of Bahraini students near the U.S. embassy in Manama, Bahrain, Sunday March 23, 2003 who were protesting against the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Police later used teargas to disperse the demonstrators. (AP Photo/Ali Fraidoon)
At the same time, Arab leaders who spoke out against war and struggled without success to prevent it now struggle to contain the anger of their citizens. In calling on their security forces and riot police to suppress anti-war demonstrations, they underscore the fragility of their regimes, many of them traditional U.S. allies.
Most anger has been directed at the United States. Yet many Arab governments, especially those that offered tacit or overt support to the U.S. military effort, may find themselves vulnerable to the wrath of their people in the weeks and months ahead, many Arabs believe.
"If this drags on for a long time, regime change would not be out of the question everywhere," said Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador to the United States. "Some regimes could not sustain this war for very long because they are not that stable, especially those that have more or less supported the war."
For months, Arab leaders have been issuing dire warnings that war in Iraq will unleash the forces of extremism and dramatically destabilize the region. For months, President Bush and his administration have held out a sharply contrasting vision of the region's future, promising that the replacement of Hussein's regime will result in a "new era of freedom" for a part of the world that missed the wave of democratization that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now that the war is under way, most believe that the toppling of an Arab leader by an invading U.S. force will profoundly alter the geopolitical map of this volatile, angry part of the world in ways that could prove critical to the outcome of America's ambitious plans to reshape the region.
So far, the most cataclysmic predictions of instability have not been borne out. No Arab capital has witnessed protests on the scale of those seen in Europe, where anti-war demonstrations have drawn hundreds of thousands of people. But the crowds are growing in Arab streets.
Protests erupted for a second day in the Middle East on Saturday after violent anti-American clashes involving tens of thousands the day before. U.S. embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were closed or reduced services as missions reviewed security.
Riot police used tear gas against some 200 high school students who threw stones near the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Hundreds of riot police watched as about 5,000 students gathered at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Most of the region's governments are firmly in control of their security services and have demonstrated their readiness to deploy them to prevent citizens from venting their anger.
"The Arab people feel a sense of defeat because they can't move against the regimes that run their countries," said Haitham Kilani, a Syrian political analyst.
Jordan's King Abdullah seemed to understand those concerns when he went on television to address the nation, appealing for calm and urging Jordanians to put the interests of stability above their concerns about Iraq. " I know the pain and anger you are feeling," he said. "I am one of you, I share feelings of every one of you."
Yet the address coincided with the unleashing of America's "shock and awe" bombing campaign in Baghdad, and many Jordanians missed the speech because they were watching the coverage on live news channels, underscoring the widening gulf between the interests of Arab rulers and the concerns of their citizens.
"The king is really embarrassed by this American action," said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. "He said he tried his best to prevent it, but he admitted he could do nothing."
Behind much of the anger lies a sense of helplessness on the part of ordinary people and their governments to influence the course of events in their neighborhood. That Arab leaders who spoke out against war, even as some of them were facilitating the U.S. military effort, now turn to security forces to suppress the protests of their citizens only compounds the frustration of ordinary Arabs.
Khalid Zeid, whose clothing store is across from the main mosque in downtown Amman, chose to stay home during Friday prayers rather than risk confrontation with the riot police who were out in force to prevent demonstrations. Yet he shares the views of the few thousand who took to the streets, that America is waging war for oil, that it is intent on dominating the region and that Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands is a bigger threat to peace in the region than Iraq.
"I do blame the Arab leaders. They have done nothing to stop this," he said. "But what can we do? We don't have a voice."
Skeptical about democracy
Despite Bush's promises of a new era of democracy for Arab nations, many predict that the Iraq war will result only in a new era of repression, with the tacit support of a U.S. administration that needs to secure its allies and its military bases in the region.
"When the United States requests support from Arab governments for unpopular policies, the outcome is almost always increased repression as governments fear their public's anger and unleash their security services to pre-empt opposition," said a commentary in the Beirut Daily Star. "And American acquiescence to crackdowns is enhanced by the fear that opening up politically could lead to elected governments that are likely to be less friendly to American foreign policy, including Islamist groups."
That is one reason why so many Arabs find it hard to believe the Bush administration's assurances that America wants to see democratization in the Middle East, said Georges Jabbour, a member of the Syrian parliament and a professor of politics at Damascus University. He added that true democracy in the Middle East would likely see the return of conservative, Islamist governments that would hardly be friendly to U.S. interests in the region, and could well ally themselves with the forces of terrorism that America has vowed to defeat.
Some Arab observers, however, suspect the warnings of Islamic fundamentalism from Arab leaders are self-serving, designed to secure America's unquestioning support for their repressive regimes. "This is why the Arab states are so antsy. They don't care about Iraq. They want the status quo," said Hassan al Ansari, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. "It is just scaring the Arab public and scaring the U.S. when they say that if there is democracy tomorrow they will vote us [U.S.-allied regimes] out of power," he said.
But others believe the threat is real, and growing. "The pressure, the humiliation, the lack of freedom--these all have been building for 20 years," said Masri, the former Jordanian prime minister. "To underestimate the serious long-term repercussions of this is to underestimate this wave of fundamentalism that has been accumulating for a long time, and which was already felt in America on Sept. 11."
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