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Mideast Fulcrum

By Adel Darwish Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Support for President Bush's call to arms against terrorism is falling short of that his father received 11 years ago at the start of the Gulf War. Then, the majority at an Arab summit joined the U.S. coalition that defeated Iraq, another member of the Arab League.

But unlike the clear aims of the Gulf War -- to defeat Saddam Hussein and liberate Kuwait -- which were achieved seven months later, the aims of this President Bush's undertaking are far from clear, and the enemy has not been sharply defined.  

"Who will America fight in Afghanistan?" screamed a front-page headline in a Cairo newspaper last week. Below the headline was a picture of starving Afghan refugees. A decade ago, Saddam Hussein's brutality, aggression and violation of international law were clear to all. Today America is being asked, both openly in Arab and European editorials and in diplomatic talks, to provide material and forensic evidence linking Osama bin Laden and the Taliban to the terror attacks of Sept. 11. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw heard that request in Cairo, just as American diplomats have heard it from some Muslim leaders. Straw was told that military action should be confined to "surgical strikes" that would harm no civilians.  

With regard to Arab opinion, the Bush administration's hands-off approach to the deteriorating situation between the Palestinians and Israelis and the escalating violence between the two sides hasn't helped. Arab regimes have nodded approvingly as Arab journalists attacked Israel and the United States -- attacks that provide a diversion from their own violations of human rights and their undemocratic ways. Anti-American propagandists have been given a great opportunity to make their case to the Arab masses that Israel and the United States are acting in concert. They neglect, of course, to remind those who celebrated the appalling attacks on America that U.S. taxpayers have actually been helping to feed and house them.  

Even in moderate Middle Eastern nations ruled by pro-American governments, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, print and television journalists refer to suicide bombers -- regardless of their targets -- as "martyrs," while speaking highly critically of U.S. policy. The current American rhetoric and the use of the word "terrorists" instead of "terrorism" is also criticized by many Arab commentators.  

One of them, in a Kuwaiti paper, accused America of a double standard for accepting Israel's labeling of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters as "terrorists" when they "fought against uniformed Israeli soldiers occupying part of their country while Israel's helicopter attacks with American-made missiles to assassinate a Palestinian activist in a block of flats, which also killed a schoolboy, were not called terrorism."  

The anti-Americanism, which has increased greatly since the "Palestinian Intifada" began a year ago, has been evident in popular Arab media for years. Unfortunately for America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long ago became the fulcrum upon which the political equilibrium of the Middle East rests and the lens through which Arab opinion makers view international politics.  

"America had a golden opportunity to improve its image in the Islamic world," said an editorial last week in the Cairo daily Al-Guomhoria, which supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "but unwisely wasted it by siding with Israel against the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim nations."  

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both suffered from the acts of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups, including bin Laden's gang, and would -- in private -- welcome an alliance with America as an opportunity to destroy organizations that assist terrorists. "But they can't openly take part in a coalition that includes Israel, as it would be seen in the region as furthering Israeli aims," said a top Egyptian diplomat who has recently been in consultation with Saudi Arabians.

Are the Saudis' fears well grounded? Perhaps they are looking at Egypt, where the religious establishment seems to be out of the government's control. Most of its 1,000 imams ignored requests to hold special services in Egyptian mosques for the victims of the terror attacks, even though four Egyptians have been confirmed among the dead in the World Trade Center.

The writer is a British journalist who has covered the Mideast for 30 years. © 2001 The Washington Post Company
Adel is a veteran Middle East News correspondent and regional expert. He is a member of MidEastWeb and an editor of Mewnews, which is also distributing the article.  


haGalil onLine 08-10-2001

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