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    Middle East
     Sep 6, 2006
Bush's Hezbollah hangover
By Ashraf Fahim

CAIRO - It is now the long morning after for President George W Bush and his merry band of misguided Middle East grand strategists, who gambled big by letting the Israeli army run wild in Lebanon and came up empty.

As in Iraq, circa March 2003, the Arab world was supposed to have been shocked and awed by an almighty display of US-made firepower, with the uppity Islamists rather than the uppity Arab



nationalists on the receiving end this time around.

Hezbollah would wilt beneath the firestorm and Lebanese democracy would flourish anew through the cracks of the newly made rubble. Seeing their proxy brought low, Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's backers, would cower in frightened obeisance.

But it was not to be. Hezbollah faced down the Israelis, with its small guerrilla force outmaneuvering Israeli units at every step. For example, the elite Sayaret Maglan unit, wrote Uzi Manihami in The Times of London, "were astonished by the firepower and perseverance of Hezbollah". Said one Maglan soldier: "Evidently they had never heard that an Arab soldier is supposed to run away after a short engagement with the Israelis."

The United States, having held Israel's hat while it killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians (but still failed to achieve its objectives), now faces an even greater crisis of credibility than it already did, if such a thing is imaginable.

And ironically, the war has given even greater momentum to the Islamist movements already bolstered by America's ham-fisted policies in Iraq, Palestine, Iran and elsewhere.

Egypt is a perfect example. Here Hezbollah's success against Israel and the Hosni Mubarak government's failure to support the Shi'ite militia (initially it joined Jordan and the Saudis in blaming Hezbollah for the conflict) have emboldened the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, has been a particular beneficiary. Responding to the public mood somewhat better, the group's leader, Mahdi Akef, offered to dispatch "10,000 mujahideen" to Lebanon.

It takes a great deal to shake the Arab world's sleeping giant - Egypt's world-weary masses are less depoliticized than they are political cynics preoccupied with making ends meet. The government is likewise preoccupied with keeping its people sated with their daily bread, while filling the streets with security forces just in case a loaf is not enough to stifle any rumblings of discontent, no matter how small.

These factors combined to ensure that no more than 1,000 Egyptians (in a country of more than 70 million) managed to reach any one street protest during the war. But this should not obscure the fact that the opposition, of all trends, were boosted by the Mubarak government's equivocal response to the war and Hezbollah's success, and unified in vociferous opposition to US support for Israel.

Egypt may not be the regional force it once was, but most analysts would still agree that where Egypt goes, so may the Arab world - and in that sense, the war doesn't augur well for the US.

Some analysis had imagined the Sunni-Shi'ite divide widening over this war. Former US ambassador to Israel and pro-Israel lobbyist Martin Indyk sees in the Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian positions the possibility for Israel of "a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arab world against Iran". But the Arab public has shown none of officialdom's squeamishness about throwing its lot in with Shi'ite Hezbollah, and state rhetoric has shifted to take public sentiment into account.

Egypt is the largest Sunni-majority Arab state, and its authorities at al-Azhar, the most important seat of Sunni learning, have not begrudged tiny, Shi'ite Hezbollah its success against mighty Israel.

Beyond the pulpit, more important, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has become a folk hero. His namesakes populate the maternity wards, including the twins Hassan and Nasrallah of Alexandria. His portrait adorns taxis, bookstores, cafes and, for some reason, the stalls of an inordinate number of fruit sellers (fakahany) in the Egyptian capital. And he came in first in a poll of those leaders most admired by Egyptians that was carried out by government opponent Saadedine Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center.

The fact that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came second in that poll is symptomatic of US failures in the region. Iran's willingness to risk a confrontation with the US over its nuclear program has won it many admirers and, rather than fearing an abstract Persian or Shi'ite threat, many Arabs wish their governments were similarly forthright.

Hezbollah's public relations bonanza in the Arab world encapsulates secularism's long, slow defeat in its effort to convince the public that it has the answers to their myriad afflictions. Try as they might, the liberal opposition in Egypt fail to capture the popular imagination. Their anti-authoritarian message is reasonable enough, but falls flat in a region that feels itself under siege.

But even were liberals' fortunes to turn, it would be cold comfort for the Bush administration. Whatever faith liberals held in the United States as a force for good has long since vanished. The Kefaya movement, for example, which campaigns for Mubarak's ouster, is the ideological opposite of the more powerful Brotherhood. They were, nevertheless, of one mind when it came to Lebanon, with Kefaya matching the Brotherhood's bluster with its own petition to procure a million signatures to abrogate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

The normally pro-US liberal sociologist Saadedine Ibrahim, a thorn in the regime's side who was jailed for his troubles, recently wrote scathingly of the bitter harvest for US policy.

"Their policies in support of the actions of their closest regional ally, Israel, have helped midwife the newborn," he wrote, mocking US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's stone-hearted comment during the bloodletting that these were but the "birth pangs of a new Middle East". "But it will not be exactly the baby they have longed for. For one thing, it will be neither secular nor friendly to the United States," Ibrahim said.

Even the most jaded cynics in the region have been taken aback at the way Bush has talked up the need for democracy, only to leave victorious Islamists in what few elections there are (bar Iraq, where the US has little choice but to hedge) twisting in the wind.

From the Bush administration's indifference to human-rights violations when they victimize Islamists, to its failure to condemn Israel's jailing of Hamas ministers, to its palpable fear of the Brotherhood's gains in Egypt, to its support for the attack on Lebanon in part in the hopes of turning the Lebanese against Hezbollah, the trend is clear: "Instead of welcoming these particular elected officials into the newly emerging democratic fold, Washington began a cold war on Muslim democrats ... Now the cold war on Islamists has escalated into a shooting war," wrote Ibrahim.

There is no great mystery as to the reasons the Islamists win elections; they run against failed political systems; in a region strangled by corruption they are considered incorruptible; they provide social services where governments fail; they don't compromise when it comes to standing up to the US and Israel; and especially after Hezbollah's victory, they are seen as capable on the battlefield - the royalists and republicans hold summits, the Islamists blow up Merkava tanks.

Another key to their success has been the moderation of their goals and willingness to work within the system and with their ideological opponents. In some cases, that includes adopting their opponents' rhetoric. Nasrallah has done himself no harm by peppering his speeches with appeals to Arab nationalism. Nasrallah has dropped references to an Islamic Lebanon to win allies of all denominations.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine have also softened their messages. This can be seen through the actions of the Brotherhood's 88 members of the Egyptian parliament, as Joshua Stracher and Samir Shehata note in Middle East Research and Information Project.

"The Brotherhood parliamentary bloc is being noticed in Egypt for its work across ideological lines to serve constituents and increase its collective knowledge of local, national and international affairs," they write. "Moreover, the delegation has not pursued an agenda focused on banning books and legislating the length of skirts. It has pursued an agenda of political reform."

A river in Egypt
For all the obviousness of its self-inflicted wounds, the Bush administration is in a public state of denial. Speaking on August 29, Rice seemed as if she had, Van Winkle-like, slept through the past three years or so.

"Five years ago, who could have imagined that a vibrant debate about democratic reform and economic reform and social reform would be raging in every country of the broader Middle East?" she said. "Who could have imagined the positive changes we have already witnessed in places as different as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait and Morocco, and Jordan?"

Rice clearly realizes that when it comes to US foreign policy in the Middle East, it is possible to fool a lot of Americans a lot of the time. It is harder, however, to fool anybody in the Arab world any of the time, rendering stillborn US efforts at public diplomacy.

In the Arab world, US actions across the Middle East are seen as part of an integrated strategy to promote US interests regardless of Arab ambitions - much the same way they're seen by policymakers in Washington. So when Israel went into Lebanon, and the Bush administration made no secret of its desire to forestall an immediate ceasefire, the US was understandably blamed for Israel's war.

That anger was well founded. Renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, for one, has written of the Bush administration's deep involvement in the planning of Israel's bombing campaign in Lebanon. One reason it did so was in the hopes of testing how effective US weaponry would be against Iranian nuclear installations, as Iran was assumed to have helped Hezbollah build its bunkers. Reports since the end of the war have hinted at the administration's deep despondency at the outcome, of course.

The support Hezbollah receives from Iran and Syria was part of the justification used for the war, and is now being used to explain away Hezbollah's success. This explanation may wash in the US, but it doesn't in the Arab world.

As a recent study by the World Policy Council (WPC) stated, "Much has been made in the US media of the Syrian and Iranian-origin weaponry used by Hezbollah ... There has been no parallel discussion of the origin of Israel's weaponry, the vast bulk of which is from the United States."

Americans may not be informed about this omission, but Arabs certainly are. Particular outrage was caused by reports during the war that the US, with British assistance, had replenished Israeli stocks of precision-guided bombs. The initial report, on July 22, came just as reports of massive Lebanese civilian casualties circulated.

According to the WPC report, during the Bush administration, from 2001 to 2005 "Israel received $10.5 billion in foreign military financing ... and $6.3 billion in US arms deliveries".

It is difficult to overstate the degree to which Arab military defeats to the US Army in the two Gulf wars, and to the US-backed Israeli army, particularly in the Six Day War of 1967, have fed a sense of humiliation and resentment at the US.

But with the US now bogged down in Iraq and Israel stunned in southern Lebanon, there is a feeling that something beyond compliance with US dictate may be possible. Even Bashar al-Assad of Syria now talks of liberating the Golan by guerrilla war, something his father never dared do. The US and Israel are not Zeus, raining lightning bolts on helpless mortals below, it seems to many, but earthbound Achilles, fearsome but vulnerable.

These events do not presage an Islamic revolution, the coming of a new caliphate, or a war of civilizations. But they will and are creating the kind of upheaval that is unlikely to be in America's favor.

What remains now of the Bush administration's plans for the "broader Middle East" is not clear. A managed transition to pro-Western democracy has now become much more difficult. Sonar would be needed to plot the depths of anti-US and Israeli sentiment across the political spectrum.

And even the most self-possessed neo-conservative must now realize that the problem is not pro-Western dictators mystifying their publics Oz-like from behind the curtain with tales of the dastardly Zionists - it is well-informed, anti-Western publics, newly inspired, clamoring at the gates for their leaders to show the same resourcefulness as the guerrillas of south Lebanon.

Let Bush fear the fakahany of Cairo.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London. His writing can be found at www.storminateacup.org.uk.

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