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Growing Shiite Power Worries Arab Leaders

Syria joined Jordan in appealing for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. The escalating violence has divided the Arab world, opening a rift between the rulers and the ruled. Although some Arab leaders have been unusually critical of Hezbollah, Lebanon's militant Islamist group is gaining popularity on what's known as the Arab Street.

In Damascus, where the government is a strong backer of Hezbollah, a recent demonstration in the streets had emotions running high. But demonstrations in Damascus are carefully controlled; security police cleared demonstrators from the streets within an hour.

Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is considered a nationalist hero not just in Syria, but across the Arab world. Therefore, Nasrallah's challenge to Israel is also a challenge to the region's rulers. Conservative Arab leaders are on the defensive, criticizing Israel's forceful response in Lebanon and publicly criticizing Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia has been the most outspoken -- charging that Hezbollah has engaged in adventurism through its incursion into Israel and capture of two Israeli soldiers.

"When you hear terms like adventurism…," says Middle East analyst Roger Hardy, "This is strong language. I think it reflects the extent of their [Saudis'] alarm at the current crisis in the Middle East."

For the Saudis and the Arab world's Sunni Muslim leaders, the current crisis is part of a larger concern. Sunni Muslims have been the traditional ruling class in the Middle East for generations.

For the Saudi rulers, Hezbollah represents the growing power of Shiite Muslims, says Gary Sick, professor Middle East politics.

"I believe this grows out of a burgeoning fear from the Saudis, but also from the Jordanians and the Egyptians," says Sick, "that there is a Shia threat emerging in the Middle East."

Even before the crisis in Lebanon, Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Mubarek publicly expressed fears of the growing Shiite power in Iraq -- that also has ties to predominantly Shiite Iran.

The rising profile of Hezbollah adds one more element to their discomfort at a time when the region's leaders see the growing appeal of political Islam; Hezbollah is a Shiite group that has successfully competed in Lebanese elections. It has won places in Parliament and seats in the country's cabinet.

Hezbollah is an Islamist party with nationalist appeal, says Gary Sick.

"This is a new player in the region," Sick says. "It is a Shia player. It's an Islamist. And it's basically making decisions that are affecting everybody else in the region and they're having no role in it. They resent it. And they are really willing to stand at odds with their own people if necessary, in order to try to quell this."

Hezbollah's standing in the region has risen steadily in the past week, and anger at the force of Israel's response is growing, too. The crisis is spilling across the region as the exodus from Lebanon continues. For example, the Syrian government organized a blood drive for their wounded neighbors. Jordan's largest cell-phone company is donating free time to call families under fire. Events in Lebanon and Gaza are the main topic for Arab bloggers who publish graphic pictures of the dead and injured.

The Arab Street is speaking with genuine emotion, says analyst Roger Hardy.

"They are rooting for Hamas, which happens to be a Sunni Muslim group; and they are also rooting for Hezbollah, which happens to be a Shiite group," says Hardy.

What those two groups have in common, says Hardy, "is that they are fighting Israel at a time when the Arab rulers and the Arab governments are seen to be doing nothing, are seen to be impotent in the face of the Israeli challenge. That's how it's seen on the Arab Street."

With no cease-fire in sight -- and the prospect of at least another week of war -- Arab leaders are braced for the 24-hour-a-day image of the destruction of an Arab nation. Jordan's king was the first to call for a cease-fire. Egypt's foreign minister made the same call in a news conference in Washington. Syria has joined the call, too.

Arab leaders know a truce now could be interpreted as a significant victory for Hezbollah. But a continuation of the war will only widen the gulf between traditional rulers and the ruled.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.