Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A turning point

In Sunni Egypt a Shia leader has won the support and admiration of many. Amira Howeidy on the Egyptian passion for Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah

Click to view caption
Lebanese citizens surveying the damage caused by an Israeli airstrike on Hizbullah-stronghold Dahyieh

A few hours after Hizbullah's Katyusha rockets fell on Haifa, Israel's third largest city, three young Cairenes standing in front of a grocery shop in the Mediterranean resort of Marina were keen to make their views known.

"He said he was going to bomb Haifa, so he did," one of them said eagerly, in a voice loud enough for passers-by to hear. "Nasrallah is a man of his word, God protect him," said his companion.

Across the same street, in a seafood shop, the TV was switched to Al-Jazeera station, and the shop's staff were glued to the screen.

"What the hell does Israel think it's doing destroying Lebanon like this?" the shop's accountant told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Nasrallah did the right thing and we should all fight Israel, that's what we need to do, nothing else, fight to get our rights back."

As Egyptians follow the developments in the war on Lebanon with shock, it is the figure of Hizbullah's secretary-general, 46-year-old Al-Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, that seems to stand out, analysed, scrutinised and admired. Suddenly Egyptians have found a hero.

This admiration has variously manifested itself since 12 July, the first day of the confrontation when the Hizbullah resistance group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack. The operation, dubbed 'Truthful Promise' -- after Nasrallah's vow earlier this year that Hizbullah would work towards securing the release of the 10,000 Arab prisoners detained in Israel -- was carried out with the aim of exchanging the two soldiers.

On Saturday evening the presenter of the popular Al-Qahira Al-Youm show on the satellite TV channel Orbit read two of the hundreds of text messages viewers had sent to the programme. One read, simply, that "Nasrallah ragel min dahr ragel " (Nasrallah is a true man).

On the same evening, as a group of activists, intellectuals, journalists and academics were marking the death of Ahmed Abdallah, the leading leftist activist and intellectual who passed away last month, Nasrallah became a proxy attendee of the gathering when novelist Radwa Ashour read out a message addressed to the "the high commander of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon".

The cable, signed by academics, judges, journalists, artists, students, lawyers and engineers, told Nasrallah he has "supporters and family who see that your resistance guards this nation's rights, spirit and dignity".

"You restored the nation's confidence," it added. "Israel is built on the fear others have for it. You broke that fear."

Despite the cruelty of the confrontation, the message continued, it is wise; rather than being an adventure it is "a noble quest for self-defence in the face of a vicious Imperialist project." Loud applause echoed across the hall from the left-wing audience.

On my MSN messenger list at least half a dozen contacts have changed their display names to "Nasrallah" or their regular display photo to one of the Hizbullah leader.

It is not only activists that have been circulating text messages reading "Nasrallah ragel gada3 " (Nasrallah is a brave man), "Nasrallah should come and lead Kifaya" (the Egyptian movement for change) and even "Nasrallah for Egyptian president" over the past week. Similarly popular are verbatim extracts from his three speeches since the beginning of the confrontation, which are speedily making their way across Egypt's e- mail accounts.

These are speeches, says socialist activist Wael Khalil, that "should be taught, analysed and discussed for their eloquence and political savvy".

In his first speech, in which he set conditions for releasing the hostages -- indirect negotiations with Israel and prisoner exchange -- Nasrallah refused to engage in any "philosophical" legal or political debates on Hizbullah's right to undertake such action. "No international community, no government, no negotiations, nothing will bring back our prisoners except this. It is our natural right. If anybody has another way, please show us the way."

Nasrallah's second speech, on 14 July, followed Israel's escalation of its assault against Lebanon and official Arab condemnation of Hizbullah, lambasted by Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Egyptian officials as "adventurers" who had "miscalculated".

"We are adventurous," snapped back the Hizbullah leader. "Adventures have brought us nothing but pride, freedom and honour," he said in reference to Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000. Declaring an "open war", he concluded his speech by announcing Hizbullah's destruction of an Israeli warship that was bombing Beirut and the resistance's decision to retaliate by bombing "Haifa and what is beyond Haifa".

Haifa was bombed. And in Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, many found reasons to celebrate.

Says Samar Farid, a 26-year-old MBA student: "I've never believed in this fake peace, not once, but played along because there was nothing we could do about it. Israel is strong because the US supports it blindly. Now I know from Nasrallah that we can resist."

Khaled Taha, 29, (not his real name), a left- leaning Egyptian correspondent for a Western newspaper, sums it up as follows: "Hizbullah under Nasrallah is the only Arab organisation that liberated land occupied by Israel through a brave and honourable war and not by humiliating negotiations that led nowhere."

At last, says Khalil, "the resistance is led by an admirable person, someone you can trust, and that's the reason for Nasrallah's credibility, unlike other Arab leaders."

For the first time since his death in 1970, the iconic figure of Egypt's revolutionary president Gamal Abdel-Nasser has found a strong competitor, in the impressive persona of Nasrallah.

The Hizbullah leader, said Khalil, is illustrating what the oft-spoken term "popular war" really means.

"He's got the guts for a long-term war," he said. "No other Arab leader has had the guts for that, not even Nasser."

The occupation of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948 was followed by defeat after Arab defeat, as ever more Arab land was annexed. Even as "peace" agreements were forged there was always a massive gap between the governments that signed them and the people they supposedly represented. The assassination of Egypt's president Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 at the hands of high-ranking military officers after he signed the Camp David treaty with Israel surprised few. Nor can it be that surprising that, according to a Zoghby Institute poll, the strongest anti-US sentiments in the Arab world are found in Egypt.

But Khalil has "reservations" about this historical vendetta.

"We don't need to go back to history to figure out the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel kills, occupies lands, builds settlements, builds walls and destroys. It never stopped."

Strangely enough, Nasrallah's appeal seems most evident within leftist circles that, from an ideological viewpoint, should not be smitten with a turbaned religious Shia.

Left-leaning novelist and academic Radwa Ashour, who describes herself as an admirer of Nasrallah, offers an explanation. It takes in Nasrallah's victory in South Lebanon six years ago, and his success in transforming the image of Lebanon's Shia from a poor and weak group to a powerful, organised one. Then there is the "fascinating speed with which he managed to move from being a leader of one organisation among many to becoming a prominent nationalist figure in Lebanon and now the most credible Arab leader in the Arab world."

Nasrallah and his group, argues Ashour, are doing something extremely important. "They are sending a message to Arabs, Muslims and Third World peoples that victory is possible. His message is one of confidence, which is crucial in popular struggles."

And it is this, she says, that is a turning point in the Arab Israeli conflict.

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