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Published on Monday, October 8, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times

Arab Regimes Breed Discontent and Anger at U.S., Analysts Say

Washington is allied with repressive governments and hasn't pushed democracy.

By T. Christian Miller


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Abdullah Dasmal was sipping coffee in a cafe here two weeks ago when the news came that his country had cut diplomatic ties with Afghanistan. His mobile phone chirped, and a message in flowing Arabic script winked onto the tiny screen.

Within minutes, all the shop's Arab patrons were reaching into their pockets to withdraw phones chiming in a cacophony of tones. Friends throughout the oil-rich Emirates were forwarding the same message.

It was short and simple: "Stand together with Afghanistan!" "You see," Dasmal, 34, said, pointing to his phone. "Even the rich are willing to sacrifice their lives. They may be wearing jeans or speaking English, but they'll go to the holy war, even if our government tries to stop them."

Even before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan on Sunday, a burning hatred of the U.S. simmered in much of the Arab world--including here, one of the most cosmopolitan and moderate Arab nations.

The explanation for the anger caroming through cafes and marketplaces is the same as elsewhere in the Arab world: the U.S. support of Israel and its alleged indifference to the Palestinians killed in the year-old intifada, and long-term sanctions against Iraq blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children.

But deeper than those obvious reasons, analysts and ordinary citizens say, is another factor, an uncomfortable reality long ignored by the West: The governments of the Arab nations are among the most repressive in the world.

In most of the countries, there is no free press. There is no freedom of association. Dissent is crushed. Torture is common. Opposition parties are weak or ineffective.

As a result, the rulers of Arab countries are often out of step with their people. So although most Arab leaders have pledged cooperation in the U.S.-led battle against terrorism, their people are far less supportive.

Even worse, some analysts argue, the lack of a democratic outlet in Arab countries fosters a breeding ground for Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden and allies in his Al Qaeda terrorist network.

In a taped statement aired hours after Sunday's attack, Bin Laden tried to exploit the split between Arab governments and their people. He charged that Arab governments had "backed the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child."

Experts say Bin Laden is able to appeal to rank-and-file Arabs angered by years of government oppression and factors such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The lack of democracy and support of human rights has contributed to a sense of frustration, anger and humiliation," said Judy Barsalou, grant director with the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded agency focused on conflict resolution. "That's a direct pipeline to new terrorists."

U.S. alliances with repressive regimes during the Cold War often wound up exploding, such as the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Nicaragua, which was ousted by the Marxist Sandinistas, or the U.S.-supported shah of Iran, whose ouster gave rise to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now, at the start of a new war on terrorism, some analysts fear that the U.S. may be on the verge of repeating past mistakes, supporting authoritarian governments whose people may one day rebel and set fire to the Middle East.

As the U.S. embarks on what President Bush calls a fight to preserve values of freedom and democracy, it is rushing to seek closer ties with governments that are largely hostile to just such values.

"If you support absolute power and prevent people from expressing their grievances, it's like giving permission for them to take their grievances [to extremist groups]," said Essam al Arian, a leader of an outlawed political group in Egypt.

Few Stabs at Democracy

Many former Communist countries have embraced free and fair elections. Every nation in the Western hemisphere except Cuba is a democracy. Throughout much of Asia, democratic institutions have taken hold, even in volatile countries such as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

But from North Africa through the Levant to the Persian Gulf, there are only scattered attempts at democracy.

The U.S. has never pushed hard for democracy in the area. In large part, this is because of the fear that fundamentalist extremists could take over after democratic elections, leading to the creation of an Islamic state eager to attack Israel and unleash terror throughout the world.

But it is also because the U.S. has more important concerns in the region than democracy, analysts say.

"There's a long-standing tradition to look away from human rights and democracy to protect oil and Israel," said Les Campbell, the Middle East regional director for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a bipartisan group promoting democracy throughout the world. "When you cut through it, it's those two things."

The lack of democracy benefits the countries' leaders, who often have vested interests in maintaining the region's stability--to preserve personal oil fortunes, for example.

But to maintain stability, they have had to focus societal anger away from internal problems such as poverty and lack of social mobility toward external problems such as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This, in turn, backfires against the United States by stirring outrage and postponing meaningful, long-term solutions, experts say.

"It's a false stability," said Arian, the leader of the outlawed Egyptian group. "We call it the fire under the ashes."

A Mostly Closed Society

The Arab world has never been a beacon of freedom. Although periods of political openness have existed in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, the region has never sustained a fully open and democratic society.

Rulers in the region range from hereditary monarchs such as Saudi Arabia's King Fahd to dictators such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and presidents such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, chosen in electoral contests routinely criticized as unfair.

Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen are cited as having the most democratic governments, but with significant qualification. Tunisia has been criticized repeatedly for crushing an open press. Morocco and Jordan are monarchies. Yemen is listed as a terrorist-supporting nation by the U.S. State Department.

Mahfouz Azzam, the vice president of Egypt's Labor Party, said Mubarak's ruling party controls the polling places, voter lists and ballot boxes, enabling it to manipulate results. Of 454 seats in the People's Assembly, fewer than two dozen are controlled by opposition figures.

Street protests are routinely quashed throughout the region. In many Arab countries, for instance, police constrained protests on the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian intifada in late September with rows of riot police or bans on public gatherings.

The frustrations can easily be seen in the streets.

Ahmad Rikaby, a geography professor, and his friend Ahmad Awadallah, a chef, recently came to the historic Al Azhar mosque in central Cairo for Friday prayers.

As the two stood under a beating sun surrounded by black-clad security police with machine guns, both scoffed at the idea that Egypt is a democracy.

"In Egypt, we can't demonstrate against [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon. If we could, I would demonstrate now, at once," Rikaby said.

A further problem in the Arab world is the lack of a free press. In most places, media are state-supported. In the United Arab Emirates, the top story in the papers about two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on America was a paean to the wise leadership of Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayyan, the country's leader for 30 years.

And when newspapers and television stations strive to criticize, they are often attacked. In Tunisia last year, a journalist went on a 40-day hunger strike against police who had arrested his brother and shut off his phone.

Human rights get even less respect. Last year, a Saudi newspaper glowingly reported an incident in which a man who had thrown acid in another man's face, blinding him, had his eye surgically removed. Saudi Arabia follows a strict Islamic code called Sharia.

Many Arab countries have an extensive apparatus of secret police. In many nations, groups that advocate a civil society or human rights simply do not exist.

It's a recipe for a society in which anger builds but has no place to go.

"If you treat people as slaves and don't respect their morality, their religion, their character and way of behavior, what do you think will happen?" Azzam asked. "If you support military force against people at the same time you are preaching democracy, what do you think will happen?"

Opposition Crushed

The Arab world itself is proof of the problems repression can bring. Its long history of crushing opposition groups partly explains its fertility in terms of extremist organizations.

Many of the extremist groups, such as Egypt's Islamic Jihad and Gamaa al Islamiya, were founded after governments outlawed and imprisoned tens of thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood, founded in the late 1920s, sought a nonviolent path to uniting all Muslim countries into a single nation with an Islamic government.

In fact, the original aim of Bin Laden and many other terrorist leaders was to overthrow Arab governments they considered illegitimate. When those governments cracked down, the groups turned to attack the United States, accused of propping up the authoritarian regimes, as well as supporting Israel.

"Who is protecting these regimes? It's their uncle, Uncle Sam," Azzam said.

A fully democratic Middle East would be no panacea. The extremist groups are the primary argument against abandoning the region's kings, dictators and dubiously elected presidents.

The key would be to create transitional governments that somehow manage to keep the lid on the more violent elements while allowing full expression to fundamentalists' concerns.

And some scholars and local leaders have suggested that the idea of religious government based on Islam is antithetical to a pluralistic democracy.

But even if the structures of Western-style democracy, with legislatures and a president, don't work, its basic principles--free and fair elections, the rule of law, civil rights--could be adapted to an Arab society.

If not, Rikaby, the geography professor, said the future is clear.

"It's like a balloon. It's best to let a little air out," he said. "If you don't let it out, it will get hard and blow up, like a bomb."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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