Arab governments have resigned themselves to the inevitability of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq and are looking ahead with jitters to the aftermath of war. There is no consensus on what war will bring or how to deal with the forces it could unleash.
The uncertainly has left the 22 members of the Arab League more divided than usual and as collectively impotent as ever. The United States, having obtained military access to bases in Persian Gulf states, has largely turned a deaf ear to the Arab agenda.
"America is going to war in an estranged relationship with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the anchors of the Arab world," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies here. "Can you imagine a crisis of this magnitude, and we have not seen the American secretary of State in Cairo?"
The first response to the start of war is likely to be demonstrations in many Arab capitals. "Obviously, the sight of foreign armies on Arabian soil won't be viewed favorably," said a Western official in Qatar.
But if the war proves swift and Iraqis welcome the Americans for liberating them from the nightmarish grip of a brutal, unpopular regime, the protests will quickly diminish, security analysts believe.
"I don't see how there can be anything but a violent street reaction to the war, and I suspect American and British interests everywhere will be vulnerable," said Fouad Allam, a retired general who served three Egyptian presidents as chief of state security, a position similar to the head of the FBI. "I don't think the protesters' goal is violence and sabotage, but riots have a herd mentality, and that mentality can be savage."
A double ring of police officers equipped with riot-control gear surrounded several hundred peaceful demonstrators last weekend outside the gates of Cairo University. Across the street was a former KFC restaurant that was trashed a year ago in riots over Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank. The fast-food restaurant is now Egyptian-owned and renamed Momen -- the Believer. Business is booming.
The demonstrators had a large agenda. They were against war, the United States and Israel, as well as the corruption, lack of freedom and sagging economy at home. They were for political reform in Egypt, Arab unity, Palestine and the Iraqi people.
"That doesn't include solidarity with Saddam Hussein," said Kamal Khalil, a leftist activist just freed from two weeks in jail. "He is the most vicious ruler in the region, an embarrassment to all Arabs."
But the fact that demonstrators in Cairo and elsewhere have broadened their antiwar platform to include demands for reform in countries that view democracy as a privilege, not a right, makes presidents, kings and emirs nervous.
If war in Iraq spawns democratic reform, as the Bush administration envisions, many of these rulers might quickly be history. Free elections might well bring Islamists to power in Egypt and the radical Hamas movement to power in the Palestinian territories. Jordan could end up in Palestinian hands.
Nicholas Veliotes, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, calls the notion of a peaceful, democratic Iraq being a model for regional reform "ideological romanticism." Most Arab leaders agree. They fear that war could spread instability throughout the Middle East, increase fundamentalism and terrorism, shake the foundations of fragile economies and undercut the credibility of their most important foreign partnership -- with the United States -- for years to come.
"If you ask me what will happen in the aftermath of war, I'd have to tell you I have no idea," said Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef. "There are too many variables. And if you don't know what will happen, you can't plan. The Kurds, Iran, Turkey, violence, terrorism, the international order -- how can you know the response? You just have to wait for events to unfold."
Only one thing is certain, Youssef said: that without a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- which the Clinton administration came tantalizingly close to achieving -- there will be no peace, no meaningful political reform, no decline in radicalization in the Middle East. Yet Arabs view the "road map" for peace, including Palestinian statehood, that President Bush spoke of Friday as a vague formula tossed out for reasons of expediency, not conviction.
"Our position is that President Bush's statement was a positive step in the right direction," said Nabil Osman, the spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "But tangible deeds, not words, are the benchmark where the credibility of this offer will be judged. On the Arab street, there is a lot of skepticism. People are asking, 'Why did he finally come up with this at this particular moment after being disengaged for so long?' "
The thought of a pending war -- less than a decade after the Oslo peace accords appeared to be ending Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed, Arab economies were showing healthy growth and the name Osama bin Laden was largely unknown -- has cast a pall over the Arab world and many of its millions of citizens. They have lost faith in the United States and confidence in themselves, and question whether anything in the roiling, violent, fragile Middle East is ever going to change, political analysts say.
"War would be a shock to the whole region, " said Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center. "But that shock could push us toward raising the level of discourse, toward examining our internal problems.
"We need to start being self-critical and stop blaming others for everything. We need to stop dividing the world into us and them. In this transitional period, we might not enjoy stability, but in the end, the change would be change for the good."