Where Will All That Anger Go?
The College of Islamic Law at the University of Damascus is a hotbed of the antiwar movement in Syria. In its cavernous stone entryway, students mill around near a display of cartoons criticizing the conflict in Iraq. In one frame, Uncle Sam grinds the U.N. under his boot. In another, a figure representing Israel drags an empty-headed America into combat with the Iraqis. Looking on, a group of young female students, scarves wrapped around their heads, talk excitedly.
The students have just attended a lecture on economic jihad -- and now are vowing to boycott American goods. Their male relatives, they say, are going further: A brother of one student and a cousin of another have traveled to Iraq to fight the coalition forces. "Lots of young people are willing to give their lives," says one young woman. The mood in Damascus is angry -- and fearful of what other "regime changes" the Bush Administration may be planning. "We are deeply worried about what is going on," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, former dean of University of Damascus Law School. "Syria may be the next on the list."
Rarely has the atmosphere in the Middle East been so charged. From Tehran to Cairo, government leaders and ordinary citizens alike are wondering what will follow the fall of Saddam. Most people in the region remain deeply skeptical that anything positive can come from America's intervention in Iraq. Even scenes of Shiites celebrating in the streets of Baghdad may not impress the Arab world much. "What I see on TV is a welcome to the departure of Saddam Hussein, not a welcome to American troops," says Dia Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Egypt.
True, a quiet minority of intellectuals and entrepreneurs believes the Bush Administration's experiment stands a chance of shaking the region out of its long period of stagnation. "I tell people: 'Look to [the experiences of] Germany, Japan, and South Korea,"' says Ihsan Sankar, a Syrian businessman and former member of parliament. American influence, he argues, could foster healthy economies and the return of democracy, which countries such as Syria and Iraq haven't seen since the 1950s.
For now, though, the voices of outrage are mostly drowning out the voices of optimism. Everywhere in the Arab lands except Kuwait, public opinion has run against the war. People have largely forgotten the Iraqi regime's brutality, focusing instead on pictures of killed and wounded civilians, including children. And few give credence to President George W. Bush's claims that he is freeing the Iraqis. "Everything America says about democracy is a big lie," says Mayyas Abbas, a recent political science graduate who works in Syrian customs. "It's just a pretext to invade if they need oil or anything else."
Even longstanding American friends and clients, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are on edge. Governments fret about what the U.S. will expect of them. The Saudis, for instance, are taking a close look at their educational system, which has been under fire from the U.S. for nurturing Islamic militancy. And the Egyptian regime worries that Washington may link its huge aid package to human rights and democratic reforms. Meanwhile, the people of these countries are growing more restive about American policies in the region and their rulers' ties to the U.S. "The government is caught between the fires," says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a foreign affairs columnist for Cairo daily Al-Ahram. "They want to remain in the good books of the U.S., but they don't want to antagonize the street."
Unless the U.S. finds a way to win over Arab hearts and minds, the legacy of the war may be greater anti-Americanism -- and a swelling of the ranks of militant Islamic groups that make use of the Internet to recruit. That's happening even in secular Syria. "Young people are waking up again to religion," says Saleh al Ali, a professor of Islamic economy at the University of Damascus. "This is a result of the media, computers, and everything."
Arab moderates blame the U.S. for sowing turmoil in the aftermath of September 11. "The U.S. has caused instability in the region," says Abdel Moneim Said Aly, chairman of the Al-Ahram Center. "All the fundamentalist movements in the Arab world have been strengthened." Cairo, for example, has witnessed some of its largest demonstrations ever. To keep protests under control, the government even struck a compromise with its old enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group. The Brotherhood can now hold large demonstrations criticizing the U.S. and the Iraq war as long as they keep silent about the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In Jordan, too, King Abdullah has allowed the opposition to blow off steam with frequent demonstrations. The question is whether the protesters will feel emboldened to go on to target the government's close ties to Israel and the U.S.
Whether the Arab world's anger intensifies or begins to calm down depends on how the situation in Iraq evolves. A fiasco such as a civil war or a humanitarian catastrophe afflicting thousands of Iraqis would further damage U.S. credibility in the region. On the other hand, a consensus on the shape of a future government led by Iraqis or sharply improved living standards might gradually soften hardened minds. Above all, the U.S. needs to avoid giving the impression that it is reviving a colonial regime. Already, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest group representing the Shiite majority, is uneasy about U.S. postwar plans. "The Shiites are not going to accept a military government forever," warns Bayan Jabor, SCIRI's representative for Syria and Lebanon.
There's another issue that's equally important to the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than anything, the Bush Administration's inaction on this question -- and its strong support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- has inflamed anti-American attitudes. Now, Bush, partly in response to prodding from his coalition partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is promising to resume the peace process. If Bush persuades Sharon to stop building settlements and return to the bargaining table -- a tall order -- Arab perceptions of Washington could change. "The U.S. now has a bad name in the region because of what is happening with Palestine," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at American University in Cairo, noting that most Arabs see a double standard in America's tough line on the Palestinians, vs. its softness on Israel. "But if the U.S. shows sincerity and consistency, it will be gradually accepted."
Regardless of what happens in the Palestinian conflict, the demise of the Baath regime in Baghdad could have profound implications for Syria, the birthplace of the Baath Party in 1947. Opponents of Syria's youthful President Bashar al Assad, who has moved slowly on reform, would take courage from the fall of Saddam, a far more ruthless leader than Assad. "When there is fire in Baghdad, there is black rain in Damascus," says one Syrian politician.
By playing to the street as an impassioned critic of the war, Assad has protected himself in Syria for now. But he has been rebuked by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for allowing shipments of night-vision goggles to Iraq -- a charge the Syrians deny. While there doesn't seem to be a clear U.S. plan to intervene in Syria, Assad could be frozen out of the region's new order.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt may also have to struggle to find their place in a changing Middle East. The Saudi royal family seems likely to back away from the U.S. The Saudis may well ask the U.S. to remove the 7,000 or so troops that have been stationed in the Kingdom since the first Gulf War in 1991, to support air patrols over Iraq. The Saudis are also contemplating holding elections for their Consultative Council or to regional assemblies. Such moves would aim at placating both Saudi and U.S. opinion. But the Saudis will watch any effort by the U.S. to turn Iraq into an OPEC rival with suspicion.
Meanwhile, Washington may push the Mubarak government in Egypt to implement economic reforms, such as accelerating privatizations and more democratic elections. Otherwise, the U.S. may begin to withhold economic and military aid the Egyptian regime thinks is vital. In the past, Mubarak has rebuffed such pressure, arguing that such changes would threaten Egyptian stability and peace with Israel. But the U.S. may not accept those arguments now. Of course, growing popular discontent combined with American pressure for more political openness could create a tricky situation. There has long been a taboo against the fundamentalists, who Ibrahim says could gain anywhere from 15% to 40% of parliamentary seats in a fair election, thereby gaining real power in Egypt.
Over time, anti-American protests in Damascus, Cairo, and Amman are likely to die down. The question now is whether the Arab world's anger against America will gradually dissipate -- or be channeled against their own regimes.
By Stanley Reed in Damascus, with Susan Postlewaite in Cairo