Down with imperialism!
Voices of Peace Muffled by Rising Mideast Strife
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO, July 13 — A few months ago, representatives of every Lebanese political faction gathered in downtown Beirut to discuss the issues that divided them — including how and when to disarm the Hezbollah militia.
Intent on keeping its weapons, however, Hezbollah has stymied that discussion by crossing into Israel, killing and capturing Israeli soldiers and prompting a fierce Israeli counterattack that has all of Lebanon in a defensive posture.
“It is strange that one man representing a faction of the Shia, Hassan Nasrallah, is holding the whole Lebanese population hostage,” said Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst and critic of Hezbollah, speaking of the Hezbollah leader.
With three Israeli soldiers kidnapped — one now in Gaza and two in Lebanon — and Israel carrying out military reprisals, there is for now less room in the Middle East for moderate voices, voices of peace, according to political analysts, government officials and security officials in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The region’s agenda, as often in the past, is largely being set by militants — with the masses swept along in emotion, anger and vengeance.
“They are happy, very happy,” said Marwan Shahadeh, an Islamist and researcher in Amman, Jordan, speaking about the groups that want to focus on war with Israel.
The same dynamics are true of governments. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel, are facing increasing hostility in the news media and on their own streets, while Iran and Syria, strong opponents of peace with Israel, have seen their credibility on the street increase. Sensing the tension among their people, Egyptian and Jordanian officials have stepped up domestic security efforts. In Egypt officials have moved to rein in the news media and stop street demonstrations. In Jordan, officials have pressed older members of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, to rein in its more militant young members.
“They are in great embarrassment,” Taher al-Masry, a former prime minister of Jordan, said of Jordan and Egypt. “These two countries have signed peace treaties, but having and observing peace with Israel is not the same as letting Israel do what it likes because we have peace with them. I think there is a major burden on both countries to do something. I don’t know what, but something.”
Regional momentum is supporting hard-liners. Newspapers and television commentators have assailed Egypt and Jordan for trying to negotiate a peaceful solution between Hamas and Israel. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who planned to call a referendum on whether to support a two-state solution, has been increasingly silenced. Even the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which had sought to forge a consensus with other Palestinian factions, found itself trumped by its more militant members.
Trying to explain his own impotence, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, told an Egyptian newspaper that he had tried to negotiate a settlement between Hamas and Israel over the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. He said he had worked out a deal — but a third party pressed Hamas to back out.
Mr. Mubarak said he did not want to name the third party, but political analysts here said they believed that it was most likely Iran or Syria.
“Politically active Islamist groups like these kinds of battles because they reap misery for the people who then automatically adhere to extremist groups,” said Aly Salem, an Egyptian playwright who has supported normalizing ties with Israel, but says now that there is no margin even to discuss such ideas.
The crisis directly involves four parties — Hezbollah, Lebanon, Israel and Hamas, but is being driven by multiple and diverging agendas. That has often been the case in Lebanon, which for decades has been a proxy battlefield for foreign forces. Gaza has also been a front for varying agendas, from Iran’s desire to strengthen its regional role, to the exiled faction of Hamas trying to maintain control over its group. Caught in the middle are civilians.
While recent events seem to have served Hezbollah’s interests, there is also a strong feeling that the decision to take that action was guided by Iran’s interests as well. Leaders of the top world powers, including Russia and China, agreed this week to haul Iran back before the United Nations Security Council for what they said appeared to be its unwillingness to negotiate in good faith over efforts to stop its enrichment of uranium.
“They have a lot of interests, strategically, in the kidnapping, in light of their position today, which is very uncomfortable regarding their nuclear capability,” said Jonathan Fighel, a retired Israeli colonel who is a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He said he did not believe that Syria benefited by seeing the crisis escalate. Syria has far less influence with Hezbollah since its forces were withdrawn from Lebanon and is at risk of being attacked by Israel.
Those benefiting most from the bombs and the blood are those groups that want to see the rise of radicalism throughout the region. Even before this crisis, people were increasingly disillusioned with the political process as a means to achieve change, and were increasingly offering support to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections, and the subsequent decision by the West to deny it financial support, had a strong influence on Arab public opinion, with many saying it was hypocritical not to support the duly elected government.
Now those groups, from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Brotherhood, are trying to use the events in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to build support. On its Web site, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt said, “Hezbollah, with its modest military capabilities relative to the capabilities of organized state armies, was able to achieve what several Arab governments did not do while they were satisfied to remain silent about the slaughter of our brothers in Palestine.”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.