Mon, Aug 07, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Egyptians see problems mirrored in Lebanon

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CAIRO

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers hold up Lebanon-Palestine flags that read ``We are All with the Resistance'' at a rally attended by hundreds of anti-Israel and US demonstrators at the Lawyers' Union in downtown Cairo yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

The scene has become routine: Day and night, in small, run-down teahouses all over this teeming city, men sit quietly smoking harsh tobacco from water pipes with their eyes glued to television news from Lebanon.

And around the city, there is a similar reaction: despair.

Not despair over Lebanon -- that provokes anger. The hopelessness has begun to boil over as Egyptians see their own country's problems in the mirror of Lebanon. They are feeling the powerlessness of living under an autocratic system, and confronting the poverty and corruption of their Third World economy.

"As an Egyptian, there is nothing I can personally do," said Sayed Abdul Aziz, a hospital security guard staring up at the Egyptian news as it showed a Lebanese child, bandaged with his legs blown off. "We have so many pressures here in our daily lives. I have to make a living, that's my first concern when I wake up. Everything is expensive. It's harder to make a living."

For decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict provided presidents, kings, emirs and dictators of the region with a safety valve for public frustration. Middle Eastern leaders were all too willing to allow their people to rant against Israel and champion the Palestinian cause, rather than focus on domestic politics or economic concerns.

Despair

That valve no longer appears to be working in Egypt. The anger against Israel remains, but now is melding with fury, and despair, over the many domestic problems for which Egyptians blame their own government. The war has encouraged many Egyptians to focus their anger inward, rather than outward, according to political analysts, political advocates and ordinary people on the street.

After an Israeli strike last Sunday collapsed a building in Qana, killing 29 civilians, most of them children, Egyptians took to the streets of downtown Cairo in a protest that demonstrated the trajectory of emotion.

"Long live your struggle, Lebanon," the crowds chanted. "Oh Beloved Hezbollah, strike, strike Tel Aviv," they chanted.

"Down, down with Mubarak," they chanted, referring to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

"Where is the ferry owner?" Kamal Khalil called out, referring to the owner of the ferry that sank on its way to the Sinai from Saudi Arabia in February, killing more than 1,000 people.

Many people have accused the government of letting the ferry owner flee the country because he was wealthy and a member of the upper house of Egypt's parliament.

"The regular man on the street is beginning to connect everything together," according to Khalil, the director of the Center for Socialist Studies in Cairo.

"The regime impairing his livelihood is the same regime that is oppressing his freedom and the same regime that is colluding with Zionism and American hegemony," he said.

U-turn

As the pressure mounts at home, the government has begun to retool its stance toward the conflict.

While Egyptian officials initially criticized Hezbollah for the cross-border raid that sparked the crisis -- a position they still hold -- its leaders have been far more outspoken in condemning Israel and calling for a ceasefire.

"Cairo Makes a U-Turn," read a recent headline in the semiofficial English-language newspaper al Ahram Weekly.

Those aligned with the government say Mubarak has stepped up his verbal attacks on Israel, not because of the domestic pressure but because he shared the people's anger. But even people close to the governing National Democratic Party acknowledge that Lebanon has deepened the rumbles of disgust with the government.

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