Arabs Largely Silent on Iran Election and Unrest

CAIRO (AP) - Key Arab nations have kept silent about Iran's
political upheaval, possibly reluctant to antagonize the powerful
nation that sponsors such militant groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.

But there are signs the young and reform-minded have been
inspired by the mass protests that followed the disputed election.

"It makes me feel so jealous," said Abdelmonem Ibrahim, a
young pro-reform Brotherhood activist in Egypt.

The scenes of hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran
provide a stark contrast to Arab countries such as U.S. ally Egypt,
where widespread allegations of election fraud to ensure victory by
ruling parties are greeted with complaints but little action.

Small protests in Egypt by democracy advocates after parliament
and presidential elections in 2005 were quickly silenced by
security forces and never caught on with the broader populace. The
Egyptian reform movement - which combines secular activists with
the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood - has largely been silent
since.

"We are amazed at the organization and the speed with which the
(Iranian) movement has been functioning. In Egypt, you can count
the number of activists on your hand," Ibrahim told the Associated
Press.

One Egyptian blogger, who writes anonymously under the user name
"Louza," posted a picture of a demonstration in Tehran, adding,
"Sigh, will the Arab world follow?"

Iran elections are controlled by the country's ruling clerics,
who can throw out candidates they don't approve of. Still, the
voting has historically been among the most free in the Middle
East, where authoritarian regimes prevail. U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia
holds no elections at all, while some like Syria hold tightly
controlled votes in which the outcome is never in doubt. Lebanon
and Kuwait - which both held parliament elections that saw
unexpected results recently - are among the few exceptions.

"Even though they are run by an authoritarian regime, (Iran)
still allows for a good amount of liberalism and freedom," said
Gamal Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian secular reform activist.

In contrast, he said, activism in Egypt has been "put in a
freezer" because "the regime doesn't allow for the space to
express any sort of opposition."

"I think the new generation of activists will definitely be
inspired by what they see on the Iranian street. What's happening
in Iran isn't happening on Mars," he told AP. "So Egyptian
activists will feel they can replicate it in their own country."

Still, there has not been as much wall-to-wall coverage of the
Iranian uproar in Arab media or Arab activists' blogs as there has
been in the West - for a number of reasons.

Some are not convinced by claims of fraud in the election
results showing a victory for hard-line incumbent Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, who is popular among some in the Arab world for his
tough stance against the United States and Israel. Even among Arab
critics of Ahmadinejad, some don't believe his rival, Mir Hossein
Mousavi, is a true reformer and they note that Iran's unelected
supreme leader holds the real power.

Meanwhile, Arab governments - even ones that are fiercely
critical of Iranian influence in the region - have remained silent,
apparently afraid of angering the powerful Persian nation.

"The Arabs don't want to go out on a limb against the Iranian
government. They don't want to be upfront," said Paul Salem,
director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "It's part
of this pattern of being nice to Iran and encouraging the U.S. or
somebody else to be not nice."

"They are afraid of Iran and don't want to antagonize it
themselves," he added. "The easiest target for Iran are the Gulf
Arabs."

Tehran is a key player in the Middle East and has played a major
role in the divisions splitting the Arab world. It is the main
backer of Hezbollah, Hamas and - according to the U.S. - Shiite
extremists in Iraq. It's also a close ally of Syria.

Its foes - mainly Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia and
Egypt - are deeply worried that Iran is seeking to fuel Islamic
radicalism, empower Shiite minorities in the Arab world and
establish itself as a regional superpower by getting involved in
crises they believe are none of its business, such as the
Israeli-Palestinian crisis and inter-Palestinian fighting.

But at the same time, those countries have been careful not to
annoy Iran and have, at least in public, voiced opposition to any
military strike against it. Their silence today is part of the
pattern they have followed for the past few years, according to
analysts.

Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said Arabs want
"somebody else to fight their battles on their behalf."

"So nobody expressed any position on the Iranian elections
because they think that the Americans and the Europeans will do it
for them," he said. "This is a very negative approach, especially
with regional political issues."

Since Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner on Saturday,
several Arab countries have sent congratulatory telegrams. Others,
however, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, have remained silent.
Saudi officials have said the kingdom does not comment on the
internal affairs of other countries.

Gulf nations - always worried about the biggest military power
in the vital area - may be happy to see Iran tied up in its
domestic affairs. "This is not bad because it weakens the rigid
Iranian approach to the countries around the region," Saudi
analyst Dawood al-Shirian said.

Still, Gulf states do not want to see a violent power struggle
in Iran for "fear of the unrest spilling over," said Mustafa
Alani, a security analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.


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