CAIRO, Egypt, AP -The “new Middle East” being born out of the warfare in Lebanon may be one where Islamic extremists are even stronger and reformists are isolated amid widespread skepticism over U.S. promises of democracy, activists in the Arab world warn.
The United States has painted Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah as a necessary offensive against militants blocking democratic change in the region. During a Mideast tour, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the fighting the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
That phrase has since been derided even by U.S. allies, who say the bloodshed only fuels radicalism.
“We would like to return to the old Middle East, because we don’t see anything in the new Middle East apart from more problems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose country is a strong backer of anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah politicians in Lebanon, told reporters.
The Lebanon conflict has sparked a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, with frequent protests in moderate states like Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. The anger — also focused at Arab governments — threatens to boost the appeal of Islamic fundamentalists, many warn.
The bloodshed has also given American calls for democracy a bad name and has left activists disillusioned.
“Everyone wants a new Middle East, one that is blessed by democracy, freedoms and peace,” Ammar Kurrabi, a human rights leader in Damascus, said Wednesday.
“But this doesn’t seem to fit with the international community, which has lined up behind Israel, which wants domination and occupation and only uses slogans of democracy,” said Kurrabi of the National Council of Human Rights.
Al-Qaida has not missed the opportunity to step in. Its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued two videotapes since the fighting began July 12 — one widening the terror network’s call for holy war against the United States, the other announcing a new al-Qaida branch in Egypt.
The videos may be mainly propaganda rather than show a real threat from al-Qaida, said Yasser el-Sirri, an Egyptian fundamentalist living in exile in London.
But they show Osama bin Laden’s network is ready to take advantage and try to inspire “those who condemn the Americans, the Israelis and the Arab regimes,” he said.
Even if Israel succeeds in reining in the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, the devastation it has wreaked could radicalize Lebanon’s Shiite community.
Lebanon could become “fertile soil for real terrorists … and give birth to a Shiite (Abu Musab) al-Zarqawi,” said Amr el-Choubaki, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups. Al-Zarqawi, the slain leader Sunni of al-Qaida in Iraq, was responsible for some of that country’s bloodiest suicide bombings.
“The Americans are shooting themselves in the foot,” Abdel Moneim Said, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, based in Cairo, said. “The only beneficiaries of the ongoing conflict are the fundamentalists.”
Democratic reformers, meanwhile, have been knocked even further off their agenda. The democracy movements in Egypt and other countries were already struggling as their governments rolled back on promises of change.
In Egypt, parliament elections last year were marred by widespread violence and fraud allegations, and President Hosni Mubarak’s government arrested dozens of reformers during a wave of protests last spring.
Syria also saw arrests of activists, and worries have heightened among the strong reform movement in Bahrain over new laws restricting demonstrations.
Now the Lebanon war marks “an additional stage” in the problems for reformers, said Bahey el-Din Hassan, an Egyptian human rights activist.
Egypt’s secular Kifaya movement, which in 2005 led a wave of demonstrations against Mubarak, is now joining the more powerful Muslim Brotherhood in near daily protests against the United States and Israel over the Lebanon war.
The United States, while working for a cease-fire, has said a halt to fighting can only come when it is guaranteed Hezbollah has been reined in. The Israeli offensive was sparked when guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid.
President Bush has said the crisis is part of “a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror.”
But across the Middle East, most feel the United States just wants to let Israel keep fighting, while more Lebanese civilians die.
“The lack of any hope in the near future provides an atmosphere for the spread of al-Qaida ideas, which raises the slogan (that) violence is the solution,” said Fahmy Haweidi, a prominent Egyptian Islamic thinker.