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Arabs stay low-key as Iranians protest

Many fear Iran and don't want to antagonize it. But the young are likely to be inspired by the activism.

CAIRO, Egypt - Key Arab nations have kept silent about Iran's political upheaval, possibly reluctant to antagonize the powerful nation sponsoring such extremist groups as Hezbollah and Hamas. But there are signs the young and reform-minded in those nations are inspired by mass protests over the disputed election.

The scenes of hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran are a stark contrast to Arab countries such as U.S. ally Egypt, where widespread allegations of fraud during elections to ensure ruling-party victories are greeted with complaints by many in the public but little action.

Small protests in Egypt by democracy advocates after 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.

"It makes me feel so jealous," Abdelmonem Ibrahim, a young pro-reform Brotherhood activist, said of Iran's protests. "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."

Iranian elections are controlled by the country's ruling clerics, who can throw out candidates they don't like. 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, while Syria holds tightly controlled votes in which the outcome is never in doubt. Lebanon and Kuwait, which held parliament elections 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."

However, he said, "the new generation of activists will definitely be inspired by what they see on the Iranian street."

There hasn't been as much coverage of the Iranian uproar in Arab media or Arab activists' blogs as there has been in the West, for several 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 that rival Mir Hossein Mousavi is a true reformer.

Arab governments, even ones usually critical of Iranian influence in the region, have remained silent, apparently afraid of angering the powerful Persian nation.

'They are afraid'

"The Arabs don't want to go out on a limb against the Iranian government," 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."

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 the extremist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and, according to the U.S., Shiite extremists in Iraq. It is also a close ally of Syria, ties that have given it strong leverage in the region.

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. Gulf nations may be happy to see Iran tied up on domestic affairs, since it weakens its approach regionally, analyst Dawood al-Shirian said. Still, they don't want to see a violent power struggle in Iran for "fear of the unrest spilling over."