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Benjamin Orbach: Beneath the angry 'Arab street'

Day by day, an American in Egypt can feel the resentments harden

Saturday, March 22, 2003

CAIRO - Arab Street" protests have become a fixture on the nightly news, as "Operation Iraqi Freedom" has sparked deep anger and frustration among Arabs. Viewing the "Arab Street" simply for its potential to combust in the near future is a mistake, though. A deeper look at the "Street" reveals a resentment based on having the terms of life made more difficult by a forced acknowledgement of powerlessness.

   Benjamin Orbach, a Pittsburgh native, is a David L. Boren Graduate Fellow of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (benjaminorbach@yahoo.com). 

The usual displays of anger that Americans associate with the "Arab Street" can be found in Cairo's Liberation Square. Over the last few days, crowds have gathered, but not to support the forthcoming "liberation" of the Iraqi people. Instead, surrounded by hundreds of riot police with helmets, shields, and bamboo stick batons, the "Street" waves pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and chants fiery slogans: "God is Great, Down with America!" "Mubarak, Mubarak, Where are you? . . . . Sheikh al-Azhar, Sheikh al-Azhar, Where are you?" (Referring to the Egyptian president and Egyptian religious authority) "Egypt's Voice is Free!" "With blood, with our souls, we support you Baghdad!"

The choice of symbols and words are poignant. Nasser was the icon of Arab power and the representation of the Pan-Arab dream in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the shattering of this vision in 1967, he is remembered for standing up to the West. He projected power for a people long accustomed to the receiving end of imperialism.

These slogans, along with others protesting for Palestinian rights, reflect aggravated appeals. They are cries for a firm leadership that will demand justice for Arabs and Muslims. On the "Street," the United States has attacked Iraq to control its oil, to protect Israel and to continue the war against Islam. These protests should not be confused as support for Saddam, though few believe that he possesses weapons of mass destruction. People offer their sacrifice for Baghdad, not its regime; this is a war of aggression against the suffering Iraqi people.

The "Arab Street" runs deeper, however, than the angry and at times violent protesters in Cairo's squares.

Yesterday, I passed my doorman's wife, who was washing the lobby with a rag. She lives with her husband and children in the lobby's backrooms, earning less than $75 a month. Before the start of the war, we would happily exchange pleasantries. Now, she no longer looks me in the eye and minimally acknowledges my "Good Mornings." The grocer's friendly welcomes and banter have turned into reserved hellos. A faculty friend at the American University asked me what happened to America, while my Arabic teacher expressed disbelief at the idea that George W. Bush should decide the future of the Iraqi people.

At my falafel stand, where they don't know my nationality, the cook announced that he hates Americans "because they have no mercy."

Regional media reflects the feelings of the "Street" as well. Between reports on the Nile Channel News, the network repeatedly shows a pair of montages. The first includes Arab women shopping in a market and children playing in a school yard; it fades out with the word "Iraq," floating across the screen. The second is comprised of U.S. and British sound-bites transposed against President Bush's smirk and protesters demonstrating around the world. It ends with the phrase, "No to war, when the world says no."

Americans are not only perceived as the outsider in a culture rooted in tradition and long-term relationships, but as enforcing their will against local and world opinion. If life here was an action movie, we would be the bad guy who gets it in the end.

While attacks take place on a fellow Arab and Muslim country, daily life in Cairo continues. On Thursday night, the big weekend night in the Arab world, the wedding hall down the block blasted music until midnight, and wedding processions honked their way down the street per custom. Yesterday morning, from my balcony, I watched a shepherd lead his flock of brown sheep to graze amid the garbage piles that line the local soccer field's outer walls.

This continuation of daily routines should not be taken for granted just because the "Street" is not going to sack U.S.-friendly regimes. While the sense of impotence that accompanies the dictates of a foreign power is unlikely to ignite revolutions, it will drive a select few to prove their strength against that power. As Americans have learned, it does not take many of these men to change our world and our future.

The administration's answer to this problem is liberation. According to Washington's script, everyone will love America again when Iraqis greet Marines with rice. Maybe the doorman's wife and the grocer will once again smile in my direction.

It is a better bet, however, that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" will become another bullet on the list of grievances that include sponsored dictators, broken promises, and lopsided support for Israel. Earning credibility, and overcoming our history in this region, might be an "impossible dream." Americans certainly should not think that it will come the moment that U.S. tanks enter Baghdad and take down Saddam.

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