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Last Updated:  Saturday, 22 March, 2003, 17:08 GMT
Analysis: Arab world faces turmoil

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online, Amman

Three days into the US-led military campaign against Iraq, Arab governments must be praying for the fall of Saddam Hussein's leadership as quickly as possible.

Protest against the war in Syria
Syrian women gather in protest at the war

The "Arab street", derided in recent years as politically inert and powerless, appears to be showing signs of life.

Cairo, Sanaa in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott have all witnessed clashes of varying decrees of seriousness between riot police and citizens enraged by what the US is doing in Iraq.

In many cases, the fury against the Americans is mixed with discontent about their own governments and anger about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The close ties that many Arab countries have with Washington are a particular embarrassment, as the US wages what most Arabs perceive as an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq.

In Jordan for example, the cry is for US troops to leave the kingdom.

Many Egyptians, meanwhile, are concerned about the economy, the slow pace of democratisation and the heavy-handed emergency legislation which restricts freedoms in a wide range of social and political spheres.

New forums for debate

Some observers think the possibility of the Arab street being a major factor in the current situation stems from the increasing ease of popular access to information.

Egyptian human rights activist Hafez Abu Sa'ada said: "Before we only had national television stations, where 15 minutes of news were about meetings held by the president.

"Now you have al-Jazeera and al-Arabia satellite news, as well as the internet where you can find political speeches you couldn't see before and chat rooms where people exchange ideas and tell jokes about their political leaders." she said.

Jordanians protest at the war
Demonstrators vent their anger in Jordan
"But still the police use harsh treatment of people which creates fear in their hearts, so they are reluctant to go out onto the streets because they know they will get arrested."

The al-Jazeera effect may well be being felt right now - as audiences watch developments live in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, as well as reports of their own protests, something unthinkable in the pre-satellite days of Arab broadcasting.

We have already seen shocking pictures of civilians gunned down by the security services in Yemen on Friday, something which could galvanise people to further protest.

Problems ahead

But so far there has been no footage of significant civilian casualties as a result of American bombing, which - if it comes - could considerably escalate tensions and manifestations of popular discontent.

So Arab governments have a predicament on their hands - one which can only apparently can be solved by a quick, relatively bloodless war, plus firm steps to keep order on the streets.

After that, another predicament looms - Washington's much-vaunted imposition of democracy in post-Saddam Iraq, which American officials apparently expect will spread freedom through the rest of the region.

It may not happen, but if it does the Americans may not be that happy with the results if people in the Arab world are really allowed to freely choose their own leaders and destinies.


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