Arab Allies of U.S. Have Grip on Protests

Times Staff Writer

In tightly controlled Arab nations whose governments support American policy in this region, large antiwar demonstrations recently have been a more accurate reflection of official efforts to alleviate public anger than of grass-roots resistance to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, political analysts said Sunday.

"Controlled demonstrations have been allowed," said Daniel Tschirgi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. The governments, he said, "wanted to vent some steam."

Tschirgi and other analysts said the countries consider such protests a convenient way to demonstrate their solidarity with their Arab brethren -- a strategy that could help deflect the kind of criticism of pro-U.S. sympathies that was in evidence at a weekend emergency summit of the Arab League. That meeting, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheik, failed to produce any dramatic initiative to resolve the crisis surrounding Iraq.

Regional specialists stressed three points:

* The depth of public opposition in these countries to Bush administration plans to invade Iraq is far greater than the size of recent protests implied. It is also greater than the strain of anti-U.S. feeling that ran through much of the Arab world before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"It's no longer just fringe elements that oppose the United States," said Fawaz Gerges, a respected Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College. "Now opposition is across the entire social spectrum."

* The protests have followed government calculations that controlled demonstrations would ease rather than heighten the rift between official support for the United States and increasingly anti-American public sentiments.

* The level of government control over freedom of expression in Arab nations allied with the United States merely adds to the skeptical reaction -- especially among young Arabs -- to U.S. contentions that plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein are motivated in part by the need to foster democracy in Iraq.

"This inconsistency, this double standard, just deepens a cynicism that is already evident about American intentions there," Gerges said.

The largest of the protests occurred Thursday in Cairo, where a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 gathered in the city's main sports stadium, chanted "Down with America!" and denounced plans to attack Iraq. In the following days, similar, albeit smaller, protests were held in Bahrain and Yemen. Egypt is an important ally of the United States and one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, while Bahrain's capital, Manama, is the home port of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Yemeni authorities have cooperated extensively with the U.S. in the war on terrorism.

On Sunday, there were demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world, with a crowd of more than 50,000 in Morocco taking to the streets of Casablanca.

But in the capitals of Arab nations friendly to the United States, the care taken in stage-managing the protests is a better measure of opposition to the government than is the size of the protests themselves, analysts said.

Cairo, they said, was one example.

Although leftist groups and members of the Islamist party Muslim Brotherhood used the large demonstration to denounce the United States, the event was the unofficial brainchild of President Hosni Mubarak's government. Witnesses said civil servants arranged the busing of protesters from outlying areas, state employees handed out T-shirts and flags to the demonstrators, and the government-controlled media gave the event saturation coverage.

At earlier, far smaller but unauthorized protests in the city, security forces far outnumbered demonstrators. Analysts believe that one such gathering, held on the same day last month that millions of antiwar protesters took to the streets of European and other Western capitals, was so small it actually embarrassed the government, prompting it to organize last week's event.

In Manama, the capital of Bahrain, more than 4,000 demonstrators marched from prayers at Al Rummana mosque Friday to the local U.N. headquarters to denounce the war threat against Iraq and to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bahrain. But the government facilitated the demonstrations, diverting traffic from the march route and deploying hundreds of security forces to ensure order. Newspapers indirectly controlled by the government have reported on such protests but tended to cast the events as peace rallies rather than challenges to official policy.

Like other Persian Gulf emirates, Bahrain has a ruling family that holds the controlling power, and although government spokesman Sheik Mohammed ibn Isa Khalifa described Friday's public outpouring of opposition to a war as evidence of his fellow citizens' newly bestowed freedom of expression, he conceded that the popular push for ousting U.S. forces from Bahrain was unlikely to achieve its goal.

"The government has taken its position, and it won't change it," said Jassim Ridha, an activist with the largest Shiite opposition group, Wefaq. He noted that the leadership appoints half the seats in parliament and that the Cabinet remains dominated by members of the royal family.

There have been no demonstrations in Kuwait, where a public subjected to a brutal seven-month occupation by Hussein's forces 12 years ago tends to back the government's pro-U.S. stance. Still, as Britain and the U.S. have massed troops in the country over the last few months, extremist elements there have killed two Americans and wounded two more in two separate armed attacks. A deranged policeman also shot and wounded two American soldiers in November.

There also have been no public protests in Qatar, where the American military commander of forces deployed in the gulf, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, has located his forward headquarters.

And although there has been no public expression of dissent reported in Saudi Arabia -- another important U.S. ally -- tensions are said to be especially high in the archconservative country.

So too, apparently, are sensitivities to criticism from Arab neighbors about U.S. forces on its soil.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah flew into a rage at Saturday's Arab League summit after being accused by Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi of "striking an alliance with the devil."

The failure of the summit to produce any meaningful new proposal to resolve the Iraq crisis is likely to further diminish the standing of many Arab governments in the eyes of their people -- especially since that failure came on the same day that the parliament of another predominantly Muslim country, Turkey, voted to refuse an American request to use the country as a gathering point for a possible U.S.-led attack.

Late Sunday, the broader implications of the Turkish lawmakers' vote remained unclear, although some observers speculated it could trigger new grass-roots pressure from opponents of U.S. plans, who could cite the move as proof that it is possible for an ally of the United States to refuse help on the Iraq issue.


Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Manama contributed to this report.

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