By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 4, 2009
BAGHDAD, Jan. 3 -- "War on Gaza" was the description the satellite channel al-Jazeera gave for the Israeli ground invasion that began Saturday, a culmination of eight days of bombing that have killed hundreds of Palestinians in the crowded seaside strip. But across the Arab world, the struggle was as noteworthy for what was becoming a war at home.
From Egypt to Saudi Arabia, longtime leaders of the Arab world, the attacks illustrated a yawning divide between the policies of rulers and the sentiments of those they rule. Although the Palestinian cause is cherished on the street, the region's leaders are viewed as paying only lip service to it.
The gulf between the two is not uncommon in a region that remains, with few exceptions, authoritarian.
But exacerbating the tension is an issue that, although half a century old, remains at the heart of Arab politics: Palestine and its symbolism here.
The intersection of the issue's resonance with official Egyptian and Saudi criticism of Hamas has created a conflict in policy and sentiment as pronounced as perhaps at any time in modern Arab history.
Protests have erupted across the Arab world, with especially large gatherings Friday. More were convened Saturday in Europe. The Middle East was dominated by laments at the seeming impotence of Arab governments. Al-Jazeera reported that Moroccan demonstrators Saturday condemned "the cowardice" of Arab rulers. At a protest in Beirut, the ire was directed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"O great people of Egypt," they chanted, "replace Mubarak with a donkey."
"The Arab-Israeli conflict has witnessed instances during which Arab regimes have collaborated with the Israeli state," Khaled Saghiyeh wrote last week in a column in al-Akhbar, a Lebanese opposition newspaper. "But the interests of the Israeli and Arab regimes are perhaps meeting today like they never have before."
The governments have their own reasons for criticizing Hamas, which the region's populations effectively see as support for Israel's attacks. Egypt and Saudi Arabia perceive Hamas as an ally of Iran, whose influence they fear in the region. Both were similarly reserved during Israel's war in 2006 against Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement supported by Iran.
Egypt, in particular, fears Hamas's influence on its border along the Sinai Peninsula. Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981, and through Mubarak's tenure, his government has deemed Islamic activism, in its various incarnations, as the government's greatest threat. That has included insurgents who waged a low-grade war in southern Egypt in the 1990s and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, which renounced violence a generation ago.
Egyptian officials have remained steadfast in their criticism of Hamas. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, blamed the group in the past week for offering Israel "the opportunity on a golden platter" by firing rockets that broke a tenuous cease-fire.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's meeting with Mubarak and Aboul Gheit two days before the attacks began may offer some of the most indelible images from the conflict. Egypt also has been criticized for not opening its border crossing with Gaza.
Al-Akhbar used the term "the mummy" to describe Mubarak in another column.
"Does the mummy have a heart and veins where blood circulates? Otherwise how can we explain the insistence of this pharaoh to keep Rafah closed in front of a brotherly nation facing the ugliest massacres?" wrote Elie Shalhoub in a column Thursday.
Even in Iraq, beset by its own conflicts, the Palestinian issue echoed in sermons Friday.
"It is a shameful stance that Arab countries have," Nadhim Khalil declared in a sermon in Thuluyah, a conservative Sunni town north of Baghdad.
The disconnect between policy and sentiment has become a feature of Arab politics, especially in recent years, as U.S. influence has dominated a region long contested during the Cold War. But some analysts say the divide today has threatened the very legitimacy of governments that, in public at least, offered support for Palestinian rights as a staple of policy. Egypt once deemed itself at the forefront of that conflict.
"That's the real story," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut.
"This gap, which has always been there, is greater than ever. I think we're in the middle of something new," he said. "This polarization -- where you have regimes perceived as getting closer to American and Israeli interests at the expense of very clear Arab and Muslim rallying points. They're acting oddly against their own interests. They're misreading the pulse of the people, the extent of the anger among most Arabs."