Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
Published: July 28, 2006
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 group’s 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, Hezbollah’s 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
“new Middle East” 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, “The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the
most potent issue in this part of the world.”
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 “for the victims of
Israeli aggression.” 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
“If the peace option is rejected due to the Israeli arrogance,” it said,
“then 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
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 1960’s, 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
Egypt’s 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.
“People are praying for him as they walk in the street, because we were made
to feel oppressed, weak and handicapped,” Mr. Negm said in an interview. “I
asked the man who sweeps the street under my building what he thought, and
he said: ‘Uncle Ahmed, he has awakened the dead man inside me! May God make
him triumphant!’ ”
In Lebanon, Rasha Salti, a freelance writer, summarized the sense that Sheik
Nasrallah differed from other Arab leaders.
“Since the war broke out, Hassan Nasrallah has displayed a persona, and
public behavior also, to the exact opposite of Arab heads of states,” she
wrote in an e-mail message posted on many blogs.
In comparison, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 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 “new Middle East.” 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
A cartoon by Emad Hajjaj in Jordan labeled “The New Middle East” showed an
Israeli tank sitting on a broken apartment house in the shape of the Arab
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 Hezbollah’s rising stock more than the sudden
appearance of a tape from the Qaeda leadership attempting to grab some of
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.
“It is an advantage that Iraq is near Palestine,” he said. “Muslims 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. “Everyone will be asking, ‘Where is Al Qaeda now?’ ” said Adel al-Toraifi,
a Saudi columnist and expert on Sunni extremists.
Mr. Rabbani of the International Crisis Group said Hezbollah’s 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
“Public 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?” Mr. Rabbani said. “In
comparison with the small embattled guerrilla movement, the Arab states seem
to be standing idly by twiddling their thumbs.”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo for this article, and Suha
Maayeh from Amman, Jordan.