Robert Fisk: A million march in London but, faced with disaster, the Arabs are like mice
[The Independent, UK - 18 February 2003]:
Could anything be more pathetic than the Arab demonstration against war? A million Britons marched in London, more than half a million Spaniards in Madrid; 200,000 in Paris and New York. And Cairo? Well, just 600 Egyptians turned up in their capital to protest at America's forthcoming invasion of brotherly Iraq - surrounded by 3,000 security police. By way of contrast - brave contrast - 2,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv against the war.
What on earth is it with the Arabs? Of all people, they - and they alone - are likely to suffer in this American invasion of their homeland. They - and they alone - have the will and the ability to understand that this US military adventure is intended - as Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, frankly declared last week - to change the map of the Middle East.
Yet, faced with catastrophe, the Arabs are like mice. Their leaders may agree with their people - but they will not let their people say so.
President Mubarak of Egypt has made it all too clear there is little he can do to rein in President Bush. King Abdullah of Jordan has said there is almost "nothing" the Arabs can do to avert war. Which means Arabs ask, more and more, what their leaders are for. The presidents and kings of the Arab world agree with their people, it seems, but do not wish them to express the views they themselves hold.
It's one thing for Mr Mubarak to criticise the United States - quite another for Egyptians to do so. What on earth, one wonders, did the 3,000 Egyptian security police think as they surrounded their protesting brothers and sisters?
True, 200,000 Syrians protested against the war in Damascus. But no one protests in Syria unless they are in accord with their government, which means that this particular "popular" protest was arranged by the Arab Socialist Baath Party of Syria. But at least the Syrians did not carry, as their neighbours in Beirut did, portraits of Saddam Hussein. For in Arab capital cities, there is a special problem. Repeatedly, Arab opposition to war is trammelled up with Arab support for the Iraqi dictator.
In Cairo two weeks ago, pictures of the Iraqi leader detracted from anti-war protests. In Beirut on Saturday, men who had fought each other in Lebanon's 15-year civil war came together to oppose America's invasion of Iraq, but were then demeaned by far greater numbers of Lebanese who supported Saddam Hussein and carried pictures of the wretched man to prove it.
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla army, castigated the Arabs for their "silence" and urged them to "re-evaluate" their attitude towards Europe following the protests against war - this, remember, from the man who leads an organisation whose satellite groups once held dozens of Westerners hostage in Lebanon during the 1980s.
Sayed Nasrallah also deplored the fact that "the greatest Muslim demonstration in history" - the gathering of two million Muslim pilgrims at Mecca for the Haj - had not used the slogan "Death to America" or "No to War". Nasrallah also accused "certain" Arab regimes of "supporting the war or approving of it in secret". And, of course, we all know who they are.