A Telling Anti-U.S. Protest on a Day of Many
Cars were burned, police shot tear gas at crowds and protesters threw rocks in antiwar rallies around the world Friday. But it was a peaceful, well-organized demonstration in Egypt that illustrated just how roiled this region has become since the American-led invasion of Iraq.
The Muslim Brotherhood is banned as a political organization here, its leaders routinely harassed and thrown in prison, yet the government joined forces with the group to organize and run an antiwar protest in the center of the city.
“We’d like to tell Mr. Bush we are very grateful,” said Mohammed Suliman, 30, an engineer and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who attended the demonstration. “For 70 years the Muslim Brotherhood has been saying that America and the Jews are our enemies. Only a few people believed us. But now the message has reached everyone.”
The organization is a nonviolent group that seeks to transform Egypt into an Islamic republic, a goal at odds with that of President Hosni Mubarak and his party. But it is also the best-organized opposition in the country -- perhaps the only true political opposition here -- and the government turns to it in extreme cases to help release public pressure.
The war in Iraq has also generated more aggressive outbursts around the world. A dozen cars were burned at a Ford dealership in Rome on Friday, protesters in India torched American flags and an effigy of President Bush, and an Islamic militia threw rocks at the British Embassy in Tehran. Half a million protesters clogged the Syrian capital, Damascus, for three hours this week.
In the Muslim world, Friday is a day of prayer and in many cases an opportunity for religious leaders to vent their political views. The call ringing from many mosques Friday was virtually a call to arms -- a plea for Muslims to unite, to fight the American invaders, to defend the Iraqis.
“There is a foreign occupation now attacking the Arabs. The Arab nation is being humiliated,” said the prayer leader at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, Jordan, where demonstrators clashed with police in the afternoon. “We are not religious enough. God warned us of the enemy.”
Worshipers bowed their heads as the words echoed outside the mosque, and riot police watched from nearby buses.
“If we unite as Arabs,” the prayer leader said, “we will win this war.”
The chanting crowds and street banners also revealed the nature of the anger, anxiety and frustration felt by many Arabs. America is no longer hated for its support of Israel, but for being just like Israel -- an oppressor and an occupier, in the Arab view.
“Good-by Arabs, Bush has started with Iraq,” read one banner here, reflecting the widespread view that Washington plans to invade and occupy many other countries.
“We are all one nation against American-Zionist aggression,” read a sign printed by the Doctors Syndicate, a professional organization with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Amman, a woman’s voice rose over the crowd as she cried, “I hope Saddam wins!”
“Americans think Arabs are animals, they think we don’t think or know anything,” said antique dealer Mohammed Sinawe, 42. “But this is injustice.”
It is certainly too soon to tell who was right, the Arab communities that feared an American invasion of Iraq would empower extremists, undermine the stability of local governments and breed new terrorists, or the American policymakers who hoped that war would lead to a more stable, more democratic region.
It is also too soon to tell if the public anger will fade.
But as the war grinds on, as reports of civilian deaths mount, as Arab readers are inundated with headlines like this one Thursday from Egypt’s second-largest newspaper, Al Akhbar -- “A Total War of Genocide Against Iraqis” -- the indicators point to the more ominous outcome.
Government officials throughout the Arab world had warned that once war began, they would have to take steps contrary to America’s best interests if they were to maintain domestic stability.
In Egypt, that means joining hands with the Muslim Brotherhood.
After Friday prayers a week ago, angry worshipers took to the streets in the medieval section of Cairo, storming outside Al Azhar University, regarded as the center of Islamic learning for the Muslim world. Police, security forces and plainclothes agents battled with protesters. The crowds were hit by water cannons. Cars were set ablaze. The riots were considered the largest in Egypt in recent memory.
On Friday, police, plainclothes security and even “karate teams” -- undercover agents sent into unruly crowds to beat up protesters -- were present. But the government had a new weapon providing crowd control. A cordon of men with black headbands -- members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- stood at the gates to Al Azhar Mosque, the heart of the university. When the thousands of protesters marched into the streets, they pushed and shoved and locked arms to keep people in line.
“We are all Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mahmoud Mohammed, 20, as he helped with crowd control. “We want to express our solidarity with the Palestinians and the Iraqis. The Muslim Brothers are the organizers of this march.”
Maamoun Hodeiby, the leader of the organization, was treated as a dignitary and wore a gold sash across his chest. Police brought him a chair, while a young man in a military uniform ran to fetch him a bottle of water.
President Bush “did not only unite Egypt, he united the whole world,” said Hodeiby, as a member of the Egyptian parliament shaded him from the sun with a poster. “The only ones who joined with Bush are the government, not the people of the world. George Bush has shamed America.”
Hodeiby fanned the flames of anxiety.
“We all know this is just an introduction of things to come,” he said. “The war will come to Syria, to Iran, definitely to Egypt. This is an aggression on all of us.”
Hodeiby was asked how it was that his illegal group was, as he said, working closely with state security agencies to organize the march.
“It’s not appropriate to discuss that,” he said, though he was clearly delighted to be able to take a leadership role in helping the public vent its anger and frustration. “This is an expression of the feelings of the Egyptian people.”
Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Amman, Azadeh Moaveni in Tehran and Alissa J. Rubin in Damascus contributed to this report.