Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

July 28, 2006
Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah

DAMASCUS, Syria, July 27 ‹ At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab 
governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly 
provoking a war, providing what the United States and Israel took as a wink and 
a nod to continue the fight.

Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the 
vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion 
across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the 
Shiite group¹s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a 
change in official statements.

The Saudi royal family and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who were initially more 
worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah¹s main sponsor, are 
scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.

An outpouring of newspaper columns, cartoons, blogs and public poetry readings 
have showered praise on Hezbollah while attacking the United States and 
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trumpeting American plans for a ³new 
Middle East² that they say has led only to violence and repression.

Even Al Qaeda, run by violent Sunni Muslim extremists normally hostile to all 
Shiites, has gotten into the act, with its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, 
releasing a taped message saying that through its fighting in Iraq, his 
organization was also trying to liberate Palestine.

Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst in Amman, Jordan, with the 
International Crisis Group, said, ³The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the most 
potent issue in this part of the world.²

Distinctive changes in tone are audible throughout the Sunni world. This week, 
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt emphasized his attempts to arrange a cease-fire
to protect all sects in Lebanon, while the Jordanian king announced that his 
country was dispatching medical teams ³for the victims of Israeli aggression.² 
Both countries have peace treaties with Israel.

The Saudi royal court has issued a dire warning that its 2002 peace plan ‹ 
offering Israel full recognition by all Arab states in exchange for returning to
the borders that predated the 1967 Arab-Israeli war ‹ could well perish.

³If the peace option is rejected due to the Israeli arrogance,² it said, ³then 
only the war option remains, and no one knows the repercussions befalling the 
region, including wars and conflict that will spare no one, including those 
whose military power is now tempting them to play with fire.²

The Saudis were putting the West on notice that they would not exert pressure on
anyone in the Arab world until Washington did something to halt the destruction 
of Lebanon, Saudi commentators said.

American officials say that while the Arab leaders need to take a harder line 
publicly for domestic political reasons, what matters more is what they tell the
United States in private, which the Americans still see as a wink and a nod.

There are evident concerns among Arab governments that a victory for Hezbollah ‹
and it has already achieved something of a victory by holding out this long ‹ 
would further nourish the Islamist tide engulfing the region and challenge their
authority. Hence their first priority is to cool simmering public opinion.

But perhaps not since President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt made his emotional 
outpourings about Arab unity in the 1960¹s, before the Arab defeat in the 1967 
war, has the public been so electrified by a confrontation with Israel, played 
out repeatedly on satellite television stations with horrific images from 
Lebanon of wounded children and distraught women fleeing their homes.

Egypt¹s opposition press has had a field day comparing Sheik Nasrallah to 
Nasser, while demonstrators waved pictures of both.

An editorial in the weekly Al Dustur by Ibrahim Issa, who faces a lengthy jail 
sentence for his previous criticism of President Mubarak, compared current Arab 
leaders to the medieval princes who let the Crusaders chip away at Muslim lands 
until they controlled them all.

After attending an intellectual rally in Cairo for Lebanon, the Egyptian poet 
Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote a column describing how he had watched a companion buy 20
posters of Sheik Nasrallah.

³People are praying for him as they walk in the street, because we were made to 
feel oppressed, weak and handicapped,² Mr. Negm said in an interview. ³I asked 
the man who sweeps the street under my building what he thought, and he said: 
ŒUncle Ahmed, he has awakened the dead man inside me! May God make him 
triumphant!¹ ²

In Lebanon, Rasha Salti, a freelance writer, summarized the sense that Sheik 
Nasrallah differed from other Arab leaders.

³Since the war broke out, Hassan Nasrallah has displayed a persona, and public 
behavior also, to the exact opposite of Arab heads of states,² she wrote in an 
e-mail message posted on many blogs.

In comparison, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice¹s brief visit to the region 
sparked widespread criticism of her cold demeanor and her choice of words, 
particularly a statement that the bloodshed represented the birth pangs of a 
³new Middle East.² That catchphrase was much used by Shimon Peres, the veteran 
Israeli leader who was a principal negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which 
ultimately failed to lead to the Palestinian state they envisaged.

A cartoon by Emad Hajjaj in Jordan labeled ³The New Middle East² showed an 
Israeli tank sitting on a broken apartment house in the shape of the Arab world.

Fawaz al-Trabalsi, a columnist in the Lebanese daily As Safir, suggested that 
the real new thing in the Middle East was the ability of one group to challenge 
Israeli militarily.

Perhaps nothing underscored Hezbollah¹s rising stock more than the sudden 
appearance of a tape from the Qaeda leadership attempting to grab some of the 

Al Jazeera satellite television broadcast a tape from Mr. Zawahri (za-WAH-ri). 
Large panels behind him showed a picture of the exploding World Trade Center as 
well as portraits of two Egyptian Qaeda members, Muhammad Atef, a Qaeda 
commander who was killed by an American airstrike in Afghanistan, and Mohamed 
Atta, the lead hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001. He described the two as fighters for 
the Palestinians.

Mr. Zawahri tried to argue that the fight against American forces in Iraq 
paralleled what Hezbollah was doing, though he did not mention the organization 
by name.

³It is an advantage that Iraq is near Palestine,² he said. ³Muslims should 
support its holy warriors until an Islamic emirate dedicated to jihad is 
established there, which could then transfer the jihad to the borders of 

Mr. Zawahri also adopted some of the language of Hezbollah and Shiite Muslims in
general. That was rather ironic, since previously in Iraq, Al Qaeda has labeled 
Shiites Muslim as infidels and claimed responsibility for some of the bloodier 
assaults on Shiite neighborhoods there.

But by taking on Israel, Hezbollah had instantly eclipsed Al Qaeda, analysts 
said. ³Everyone will be asking, ŒWhere is Al Qaeda now?¹ ² said Adel al-Toraifi,
a Saudi columnist and expert on Sunni extremists.

Mr. Rabbani of the International Crisis Group said Hezbollah¹s ability to 
withstand the Israeli assault and to continue to lob missiles well into Israel 
exposed the weaknesses of Arab governments with far greater resources than 

³Public opinion says that if they are getting more on the battlefield than you 
are at the negotiating table, and you have so many more means at your disposal, 
then what the hell are you doing?² Mr. Rabbani said. ³In comparison with the 
small embattled guerrilla movement, the Arab states seem to be standing idly by 
twiddling their thumbs.²

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo for this article, and Suha 
Maayeh from Amman, Jordan.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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