A 2003 Forecast of Doom and Gloom

In a recent poll, readers of London-based Al Quds Al Arabi decided the Man of the Year for 2002 was -- believe it or not -- George W. Bush.

With nearly 80 percent of the vote, President Bush was obviously on the minds of many Arabs last year, and, judging by Arabic media predictions for 2003, his importance will continue for the next 12 months.

But this is no popularity contest. The Arab obsession with Bush stems from a pessimistic belief that American military action is imminent, and that it will dictate the fate of the Middle East -- negatively, most say.

In Arabic newspapers from Europe to Saudi Arabia, commentators are fearfully describing the New Year as a time of great instability. With "peace ever distant and security scarce," comments the Saudi Arabia's centrist Ukaz, "evil now controls the good and might makes right." The pan-Arab Al Quds Al Arabi envisions the "American empire and her constant storms of chaos raging across the globe, with the Middle East as the main battlefield."

Most newspapers believe an American war on Iraq is inevitable. Commentators argue that nothing Iraq or the United Nations can do will deter the plans of the Bush administration, and few see a positive outcome from any invasion. "No one can convince the United States not to attack Iraq," writes the Ukaz. "If there is military action," adds Egypt's mass circulation newspaper Al Ahram, "it will be followed by regional chaos and will empower the extremists who are currently fighting with the United States and Arab governments." Al Ahram speculates anxiously that, "if the United States wins in Iraq, it may use the same military tactics to rearrange other Arab regimes."

Two other concerns chase each other through the newspapers' predictions, both linked closely with American policy: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the international war on terrorism. Predicting the victory of the right-wing hawkish Likud party in the upcoming Israeli elections, the pan-Arab Saudi Al Sharq Al Awsat despairs of a peaceful end to the conflict. Painting a gloomier picture, Al Ahram suggests a war on Iraq could prompt Israel to expel Palestinians en masse and launch a wide-ranging attack on Syria or the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah, unless the United States can control the Israeli government -- a prospect deemed unlikely.

The war on terrorism evokes resentment and fear throughout the newspapers. Many commentators feel helpless in the face of a new Western distrust of Islam and Arabic culture, and worry that negative stereotyping will lead to a Muslim backlash. "Arabs are in defensive position due to the actions of a few fanatics who have discredited Islam and Arab society," complains Al Sharq Al Awsat. The United States has reverted to the Cold War super-power mentality, making Islam the new enemy, concludes Al Ahram. "Israeli and American military actions will cause tensions to rise in Muslim capitals," it states, "which will divide the world, but create a new movement in the Arab world built on hatred for America."

Al Hayat Al Jadeeda lays partial blame on the Arab governments who have yielded so easily to the demands of the United States and yet ignore the needs of their own people. "Arab cities are sinking in mud as the stupid people celebrate the New Year. I am ashamed," a journalist concludes.

A lone commentator in Al Sharq Al Awsat fights against hopeless despair, urging Arabs not to "submit to resigned pessimism." "In 2002, Arabs had an important role in deflating the Iraqi confrontation ... and developing new roadmaps for Middle East peace, and intensified efforts could pay off in 2003," he argues.

On the whole, however, the Arabic media is mired in gloom and despair, certain that soon their countries will be a battlefield and their culture under permanent attack. "This is the beginning of the end," predicts Ukaz.

PNS Contributor Elizabeth Price (priceawartani@yahoo.com) is a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area with extensive Middle East experience.

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