Egyptians in street protests over Arab deaths

Anti-Israeli feeling high in pro-Palestinian otbreak
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The Independent Online

Angry and anguished at the deaths of fellow Arabs in clashes with Israelis, Egyptians took to the streets to protest, and their government let them.

Angry and anguished at the deaths of fellow Arabs in clashes with Israelis, Egyptians took to the streets to protest, and their government let them.

Other Egyptians got a different response when they tried to express themselves at the most basic political level - by voting in parliamentary elections that coincided with the height of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Veiled women and bearded men the government feared supported Islamic fundamentalists were barred from the polls by Egyptian security agents.

The story was similar in Morocco, where some of the Arabs' largest pro-Palestinian protests were held. Soon after, the government banned three newspapers that had dared raise questions about a sensitive domestic affair, a two-decade-old failed assassination attempt against the late king in which the papers speculated the current prime minister was implicated.

With their spontaneous marches and rallies, boycott campaigns and even music videos in support of the Palestinian cause, it seemed Arabs, so often silenced by repressive regimes, were finding their voices. The protests, which reached their peak late last year, have faded. Optimists, though, have been left with hope for progress in the relationship between Mideast governments and the governed.

"In many places in the Arab world ... average citizens are becoming increasingly restive and getting louder," CIA Director George Tenet told the US Congress earlier this month. "Recent events show the right catalysts - such as the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence - can move people to act."

But Amy Hawthorne of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy cautioned that if Arab governments think they are being pushed too far or too fast, they have shown they won't hesitate to react with force.

The protests "have the potential to have positive effects, but people shouldn't overstate how quickly these changes are going to be seen. The old ways are going to persist for some time," said Hawthorne, an expert on pro-democracy campaigns in the Mideast.

New technologies - from satellite television to the Internet - have fueled the pro-Palestinian protests. Governments have less and less control over what their citizens see and hear.

Instead of watching staid state television, Arabs with satellite dishes can tune into foreign broadcasters like CNN or the BBC. Homegrown stations like Qatar's al-Jazeera or Lebanon's Future are even more popular, offering lively, independent-minded news in Arabic.

Instead of turning to official newspapers, news junkies click on Internet chat rooms and email newsletters, some devoted exclusively to the Palestinian cause.

Dina Aboud, a 26-year-old graphic arts instructor at Cairo University, said she paid little attention to politics before seeing a satellite station's video, set to stirring music, of the death of 12-year-old Mohammed Jamal Aldura. Dramatic television footage of a weeping, terrified Mohammed and his father caught in Gaza crossfire in October has been shown again and again on Arab stations, transforming the boy into a symbol of the Palestinians' plight.

Aboud joined a protest boycott she heard about from friends, who shared email-generated lists of American and Israeli products to be avoided. She was gratified, she said, when her government's officials were forced to make public arguments against the boycott, which they said would only hurt Egyptian importers.

Thanks to the media, "everybody knows everything, so they (government officials) cannot hide what they are doing. Government should be influenced by people. At the end of the day, they (government officials) must represent the people," Aboud said, though she acknowledged Egyptians are still hesitant to speak out about domestic issues.

The pro-Palestinian protests were "better than nothing. It's a step," she said.

In a recent case of governments taking their cue from the street, only hours after US and British warplanes blasted Iraqi air defense sites on February 16, Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank town of Ramallah, waving Iraqi flags and chanting "Death to America." The next day, some 200 Jordanians stood in the rain outside the Iraqi Embassy in Amman on Saturday, shouting "Long Live Saddam" and burning a US flag.

Almost every Arab government spoke out against the airstrikes on Iraq, making for an unfriendly atmosphere when US Secretary of State Colin Powell visits the Middle East at the end of this week.

Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said Egypt lacked grassroots political movements to take advantage of the small opening presented by the pro-Palestinian protests. He added it was only a small elite who access to new communications technologies like the Internet, and that that "thin layer of society" had little stake in change.

"The type of people who have access to it (the Internet) have no interest in using it except to consolidate their own status," he said, dismissing "the idea that globalization is going to turn the world upside down."

But Mohammed Fayek, Cairo-based secretary general of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, insisted ordinary people did influence their governments. He said the pro-Palestinian protests led Arab leaders, often divided by rivalries and regional disputes, to come together in October for their first full summit in four years.

Protesters had demanded that Egypt, Jordan and Morocco break diplomatic relations with Israel. The summit stopped short of calling for that drastic step.

'The fact that they were able to meet at all was a positive step, though the resolutions were not exactly what the people wanted," Fayek said.

Hanny Megally of Human Rights Watch is skeptical Arab governments are doing much more than allowing their citizens to let off steam with the protests, noting that they were closely watched. Egyptian officials restricting demonstrators to college campuses or the streets adjacent to mosques.

But even a small taste of freedom will change thinking, Megally said, and make it harder for governments to continue repressing speech and ignoring the desires of their citizens.

"You let go a little bit so that people can talk. Once they're talking , you begin to listen to what they're saying," Megally said. "But at the moment, there's still fear of opening up."

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