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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Arab world losing tolerance for indifferent leaders

When people feel there is no justice in the world and no legitimate outlet for their justified frustration, things tend to boil over. And that's what happened at a huge anti-Israel, pro-Hamas demonstration in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a.

More than 30,000 people crammed into the main Yemeni soccer stadium on Sunday to express their solidarity with the suffering masses in Gaza. The day before Yemenis had been glued to their television screens watching the scenes of suffering that followed Israeli air strikes. Dead bodies in the streets, dismembered body parts strewn everywhere, the cries of the wounded and the grieving -- scenes Western viewers were only allowed to witness in part.

The people of Sana'a displayed amazing solidarity and love for their Muslim brethren, dressed up in Hamas green and waving the Islamic movement's emblematic flags. Pictures of the assassinated former Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al Rantisi were everywhere. The crowd chanted anti-Israel slogans and supported the right of Gazans to resist the Israeli occupation.

Up until then it was an impressive, lively, yet in its way, quite predictable demonstration. Then something strange happened. As the establishment figures started to make their speeches from the podium, the crowd grew restless. I could hear mumblings of discontent among those around me. One man said he was sick and tired of pointless words of condemnation from Arab leaders. He wanted to see action against Israel, action that would help the Gazans in a practical way, action that would hurt Israel and force it to think twice before shedding Palestinian blood again.

These sentiments soon spread around the enormous stadium and before long the speakers' voices were being drowned out amid pro-Islam, pro-Hamas, pro-jihad slogans.

Then men dressed up as Hamas resistance fighters, clad in bandanas, face masks and carrying fake rockets on their shoulders, jumped over the security fences and headed toward the pitch. At first the police brandished their weapons and prepared the water canon. But when the crowd began to hiss and throw projectiles at them, they backed off. Soon, thousands started to summersault the barriers and made for the pitch, in defiance of the authorities' prohibitions.

Their slogans and chants soon turned toward the Arab leaders who they blamed, almost as much as Israel, for the plight of the people of Gaza. Top of the list was Egypt, which many feel gave Israel the green light to attack Hamas a few days ago. More anger was reserved for Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the secular Palestinian Fatah faction, who has made it clear that he would like to wrest control of Gaza from the elected Hamas government. Those Arab governments like Jordan and Mauritania, who are on friendly diplomatic terms with Israel, came in for yet more criticism. And last but not least, anger was directed toward the wealthy Arab governments, like Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf littoral countries, which could potentially do so much to resolve the Palestinian issue, but do little or nothing.

Just as things threatened to get very nasty, Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zandani, Yemen's most prominent Islamic scholar, calmed the crowd by urging them to retake their seats in the stand. Most people listened to him and respected his authority -- the only person among the establishment figures they seemed to instinctively obey. And eventually the crowd's anger abated -- for the moment at least.

What happened in Yemen's soccer stadium on Sunday seemed to be a microcosm of what is going on in the Arab and wider Muslim world. Mirrored in pro-Palestinian demonstrations from Casablanca to Jakarta.

The disconnect between a humiliated and suffering people and their elite, pro-Western rulers was easy for all to see. Ordinary people are tired of the Muslim world's disunity and feebleness in the face of American and Israeli dominance. They know that the Muslim world has become a laughing stock to many in the West -- a byword for poverty, backwardness and weakness. A region whose plentiful resources the West can exploit precisely because of that disunity and lack of strong leadership.

Ordinary people have had enough of the humiliation, enough of the impunity that the West and Israel seem to enjoy. They want all that to stop, they want their pride and self-respect back. And they know that their pro-western leaders are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Palestinians fleeing Israeli air strikes near the Gaza border town of Rafah have been met with gunfire from Egyptian police forces.