CAIRO — There is no better place to take the pulse of Arab and Muslim sentiment than Cairo, pioneer or hub of the two great movements that have swept the region in recent times: the pan-Arab secular nationalism of which President Gamal Nasser was the champion and the “political Islam” that came into its own with Nasserism’s failure and decline.

Today, from air-conditioned think tanks on the banks of the Nile to the sweltering alleyways of the splendid but dilapidated medieval city, there is an overwhelming preoccupation with the two things that seem most fateful for the future: the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and U.S. plans for possible war on Iraq.

“(Osama) bin Laden may have lost a lot of his appeal,” said Dia Rashwan, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism, “but that doesn’t mean the U.S. isn’t hated; it is, more than ever, and more now from an Arab than an Islamic standpoint.”

In a workshop in the City of the Dead, Muhammad Ahmad carries on the ancient glass-blowing craft of his forefathers.

“What makes you think that bin Laden really did it?” he asks, giving voice to a still widespread popular suspicion. “Bush is just using him to put us down. The future is dark.”

Indeed, much darker, for most Arabs, than might have appeared in the immediate aftermath of that apocalyptic atrocity because, one year on, the consequences seem clearer to them. It is a momentous double crisis, an external and an internal one, of which they are almost everywhere taking cognizance.

The two are inextricably intertwined and long maturing. Bin Laden, in fact, brought both to a head. As they see it, America’s post-9/11 “war on terror” now boils down to an assault on themselves. For in the Bush universe of good vs. evil, it is essentially they, with Iran thrown in, who are the evil ones.

In the collision to come, the Arabs risk further massive blows to all those ideals and aspirations — independence, dignity, the unity and collective purpose of the greater Arab “nation” — which, after centuries of foreign conquest and control, the pan-Arabism of Nasser so triumphantly, if defectively, embodied. They risk reversion to quasicolonial subjugation of old.

Internally, they are dismally ill-equipped to meet the external challenge, racked as they are by all manner of social, economic, cultural and institutional sicknesses. These, the U.S. says, are the very conditions that brought about “bin Ladenism.” Few Arab opinion-makers would dispute it, or doubt their societies’ desperate need for far-reaching reforms that usher in democracy, human rights and accountability.

There is no more compelling measure of that than the United Nations’ newly released Arab Human Development Report. It describes a Third World region that has fallen behind all others, including sub-Saharan Africa, in most of the main indexes of progress and development.

A prime cause of this backwardness, say the report’s exclusively Arab authors, is that the peoples of the region are the world’s least free, with the lowest levels of popular participation in government.

“Those who wonder why Afghanistan became a lure for some young Arabs and Muslims,” wrote Jordanian columnist Yasser Abu-Hilala, “need only read this report, which explains the phenomenon of alienation in our societies and shows how those who feel they have no stake in them can turn to violence.”

Yet most Arab regimes have ignored this damning verdict on themselves. “The fact is,” said Nader Fergany, the report’s Egyptian lead author, “that governments that were repressive in the first place have in the past year become more so. They have not learned the lesson of Sept. 11 — but neither has the U.S.”

In what measure are foreigners, or Arabs themselves, responsible for their condition? Bin Laden has greatly sharpened that perennial Arab debate. As far as the West is concerned, its sins are deemed to have begun with the European carve-up of the region after World War I and the creation of Israel. These betrayals and humiliations continued with U.S.-led support of repressive, corrupt or reactionary regimes enlisted as bulwarks against communism or accomplices in the quest for an unjust, and therefore impossible, settlement of the Palestine conflict.

“For us,” said Muhammad Said, an al-Ahram newspaper columnist, “the West always preferred control to democracy. Now, 90 percent of the problem flows from the Arab-Israel conflict, that continuous reminder of our colonized past.”

Never, in Arab eyes, has the U.S. acted so blatantly, so subserviently, in favor of its Israeli protege and, for domestic reasons, the triple alliance of the Jewish lobby, neoconservative ideologues and the Christian fundamentalist right, which take little or no stock of rights or wrongs on the ground.

For Makram Muhammad Ahmad, editor of al-Musawar and confidant of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, this amounts to a sickness liable to be at least as catastrophic as the Arabs’ own.

“It’s terrible that a weak and ignorant man like (U.S. President George W.) Bush can be used this way — you might expect it from Third World countries, but from the world’s only superpower!?”

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Arabs say, the U.S. — with its talk of a Palestine state — seemed to have learned something. It began to distance itself from those cumulative Western policies of which bin Ladenism was the ultimate evil fruit.

“Palestine is not only crucial in itself,” said Muhammad Sid-Ahmad, another al-Ahram commentator. “It is symbolic of U.S. intentions everywhere. Through Palestine, you can now see that the U.S. just doesn’t care to look for root causes. It has adopted the Israeli definition of terror, and that shapes its policies for the whole region.”

These policies are now so detested, the argument continues, that they have raised the potential threat to U.S. interests to unprecedented levels. To retain its Middle East dominance, it must invest resources commensurate with the threat. The U.S. can no longer rely on friendly proxies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, for they themselves will be undermined by their connivance with it. Nor can it rely on the mere “containment” of enemies such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

So the Arab world, says Said, now risks being “subjected to direct or indirect colonialism.” And the very “backwardness of the Arab order makes the pursuit of such imperial designs possible.”

Such neocolonialism involves “regime change” by force on those the U.S. deems beyond the pale — the imposing of reforms in broad areas of public policy, from school curricula to their position on Palestine, on those who, for the time being at least, remain within it.

Of the two explicit candidates for “regime change,” Iraq now has priority over Palestine. Indeed, it has now clearly emerged as the key arena where the decisive battle between good and evil will be joined.

The idea, says Said, is to “terminate” the Palestine question by war at the expense of the Arabs as a national group. With the overthrow of Hussein, the U.S. hopes to make this richly endowed, pivotal country the linchpin of a whole new pro-American geopolitical order. Witnessing such an overwhelming demonstration of U.S. will and power, other regimes would either have to bend to U.S. purposes or suffer the same fate.

There is a wall of almost universal Arab hostility to a U.S. assault on Iraq. But there is also a single very telling breach in it. However fractious, opportunist or incompetent that at least some of the exiled, U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition may be, they cannot be dismissed as unrepresentative of the Iraqi people, who — unlike other Arabs — suffer directly beneath Hussein’s monstrous tyranny. It is an embarrassing moral dilemma.

Doubtless, if Arabs really believed that in removing Hussein the U.S. were genuinely bent on promoting a democratic order in his place, they would be more ready to join the Iraqi opposition in tolerating it at least. But they don’t. They point out that even if the expected campaign does, in principle, incorporate some reformist good intentions, so did those earlier Western subjugations of the region from whose consequences they suffer till today.

They will see it primarily as an act of external aggression aimed not just at Iraq, but in effect at the whole Arab world. And what will make it supremely intolerable is that it will be done largely on behalf of an enemy, Israel, whose acquisition of a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction seems to be as permissible as theirs or Iran’s is abominable.

Their fear is not only that Israel will become — with the possible exception of Britain — the only country to join a U.S. onslaught, but that Israeli President Ariel Sharon will exploit it to kill two birds with one stone. He will combine the completion of the Israeli “war on terror” — which since 9/11 he has insinuated into the larger American one — with another great breakthrough in Zionism’s still unfinished grand design, the second mass expulsion of Palestinians, an event that much of the Israeli right has long dreamed of.

Destroying Hussein, although nothing as simple as destroying the Taliban, may be one thing; managing what comes after could be another. For most Arabs, the overall unprecedentedly pro-Israeli conditions in which the U.S. embarked on such an enterprise would seem to all but guarantee its failure — and consequent success of sorts for bin Laden.

The price of failure, in so strategic, complex and volatile a region would make the postwar falterings in Afghanistan pale into insignificance, as it would vastly exacerbate both the Arabs’ internal crisis and its external one — bin Laden-type consequences. But the Arabs might not be the only ones to pay the price.

“The U.S. may be preparing a big surprise for the region,” warns Lebanese commentator Saad Mehio, “but the Middle East may be preparing an equally big one for the Americans. At any rate, no one should forget that it has been the most renowned source of surprises through the ages.”

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