Does the West understand how this hated war is altering the Arab world?

Al-Jazeera has changed everything ? the agenda is no longer dominated by Western news outlets or state-controlled media

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This is the incoherent account of an incoherent week. It started in Ruwayshid, in Jordan, near the Iraqi border. It continued amid the hundreds of reporters imprisoned in the luxury hotels of Amman and ended up here in Cairo. I've just come from a huge demonstration against the war. It took place after Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar mosque.

This is the incoherent account of an incoherent week. It started in Ruwayshid, in Jordan, near the Iraqi border. It continued amid the hundreds of reporters imprisoned in the luxury hotels of Amman and ended up here in Cairo. I've just come from a huge demonstration against the war. It took place after Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar mosque.

So the voices of my week have a competing music: the anger of the Arab street and the whingeing of the correspondents forced to follow the war on cable television. If there is a pattern, it is one familiar to all who report on war and its consequences. Long, long periods of tedium and waiting, interspersed with short bursts of frantic activity. So regard the following as the snapshots of life on the war's edge.

We are close to it but we do not feel the bombs trembling the ground or the cries of the wounded. It is a strange feeling. I sense that all around me a new history is being written, wrenched from the hearts of people across this region. But try to capture it on film and you falter. Yes there are the crowds with their banners, the cries of "Death to America" and "Down with Bush and Blair". But the story we cannot reach is happening as a kind of internal, very personal revolution. I caught a glimpse of it at the Abu Sayef café in Ruwayshid. It was the first night of Donald Rumsfeld's "shock and awe". Baghdad was being bombed and Al-Jazeera was carrying the spectacle live. The bombing began in the time it took us to drive from our house on the outskirts of town to the café.

The Abu Sayef is usually a relentlessly cheerful spot. The owners are classic border traders. They know exactly who is in town and why. They listen a lot and – when the mood takes them – they reveal a little. So if you want to know who has just crossed from Iraq today, or who is heading back up the road, the Abu Sayef is the place to be. Drink tea or very sweet coffee and be patient. Some useful nugget of intelligence will usually come your way.

The taxi drivers who ply the main Amman-Baghdad use it as their last watering hole before the border. When we walked in last Wednesday night the place was packed. Locals, drivers and foreign journalists stood crowded around the big television set near the charcoal grill. The missiles were pounding official buildings five hours up the road. I don't know if Al-Jazeera pointed out what was being hit, but the locals weren't impressed. They saw flames and smoke and heard the powerful detonations. They were, literally, rendered speechless by the effect.

I looked around me and saw several of the Jordanian men with tears in their eyes. One of them, a man I'd been talking football with the day before, took me by the arm. He spoke quietly, without malice: "Why are your governments doing this to us? Why?" I did my journalistic best to occupy the middle ground. I tried to explain how the war was seen in official circles in London and Washington, but there wasn't any point. It was time to just listen, to let the man have his say.

I know that there are people in London, some of them close friends of mine, who would have argued the point with passion, who believe that sooner or later Saddam would have developed a destructive capability that would have threatened the peace of the region. Yet I wonder if they understand how dramatically this war is altering the human landscape of the Middle East? Do those who have written in other publications about the need to get tougher in Iraq – bomb more in other words – follow the logic of such advice.

I have written on this subject for over a year without stating a political point of view on this war. Sure I have views but I am a BBC correspondent and hold to the notion that my personal opinion on such an intensely divisive issue should remain personal. Actually, it isn't a case of having one opinion but a whole bag of them, fighting with each other from morning to night. But I try to stick to being as aggressively factual as possible. There is plenty of opinion and passion in the air already, at times an ecstasy of righteousness among opponents and supporters of war alike.

What I try to do here is look at acts and their consequences. So when I say that Arab opinion is enraged by the war, that Arabs regard Mr Blair and Mr Bush as the leaders of an invading and occupying force, it is merely to reflect how things are. If there is a silent Arab majority – or even minority – who believes the war is a good thing, I have yet to find it. If it exists it is so minuscule as to be politically irrelevant.

I was in Cairo by the time the marketplace bombing had taken place. The steward on the Air Egypt flight also asked me what the West thought it was doing bombing civilians. I told him that if it was Western aircraft, it surely hadn't been deliberate, and that there were some in the West who were criticising Allied commanders for not being more robust in their attacks. Again I faced a disbelieving stare.

Who did do it? I don't know for sure yet, but the people of the Arab street have no doubt. All the explanation or spin from Allied spokesmen could not persuade the citizens of Amman or Beirut or Cairo that it was anything else but an Allied missile.

So much has changed in this Arab world since the last Gulf War. The arrival of satellite television stations such as Al-Jazeera has transformed the information landscape: the agenda is no longer dominated by Western news outlets or by the craven and awful state-controlled media. Hour by hour, Arab families follow the progress of this war, and it is being mediated for them by Arab reporters. The information war is being lost in the Arab world, partly because the old sources of information no longer hold sway, and at least partly because nobody here wants to give the coalition the benefit of the doubt.

In Cairo I've been debating a lot. People here are just as angry about the war but they are not as close to it as the Jordanians of the border region. In Ruwayshid it can often feel like intruding on a personal grief when you argue. So in Cairo when I am assailed as a Westerner (never violently or aggressively), I tend to ask why Arabs never did anything about the regime of Saddam Hussein. "You say you don't like Saddam and want to see him gone but why have Arabs never acted against him?" I ask. I know the answer and so do they. Fear. Fear of their own governments, fear of Saddam, the overwhelming sense that removing a leader is an impossibility in a world that is so politically sclerotic.

But the invasion of Iraq may change all that, and not in a way that those optimistic warriors in the White House imagine. Paul Wolfowitz and Mr Rumsfeld imagine an Arab world remade in the image of the West. With the voices of the street still ringing in my ears, I would suggest the new Arab world may be anything but friendly to their vision. Far from it.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent. He was awarded the Index On Censorship Inaugural Award for Outstanding Commitment to Journalistic Integrity this week

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