April 6, 2007 7:20 pm

Arab street warms to showman Ahmadi-Nejad

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On the dusty streets of Cairo, once considered the most important capital in the Arab world, Egyptians mulled over the recent performance of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, with most concluding he deserved a thumbs-up.

The Iranian president’s eye-catching showmanship as he announced the release of the 15 British sailors and marines seems to have generated admiration laced with a hint of frustration – why couldn’t Arab leaders be like him and stand up to the west?

The fact that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is the leader of a Persian, predominantly Shia nation, seemed not to matter. “I consider Ahmadi-Nejad a leader of the Arab people. He has the confidence. It upsets me that we don’t have such a leader,” says Mohamed Ali, a 20-year-old student.

As Sunni Arab leaders voice concerns about sectarian tensions they say are fuelled by Iran and its interference in Iraq and Lebanon and watch Tehran’s nuclear programme with suspicion, other, ordinary Arabs see Mr Ahmadi-Nejad as a breath of fresh air.

The feelings are compounded by the perception that moderate Sunni states, such as US allies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, simply follow Washington’s bidding, analysts say.

Abdullah Alshayji, a professor of international relations and head of the US studies unit at Kuwait University, says the Iranian leader strikes a balance that resonates in the Arab world: candid and outspoken in his criticism of the west and Israel, while appearing as a humble man of the people.

“We see that this could really give credence to Iran, that they are standing up to the two dominant powers in the region, America and Britain,” Mr Alshayji says. “What we see is Iran gaining the hearts and minds by standing up to the major powers, so it is likely the masses in the Arab street, or maybe the Muslim street, look at Iran as the only country that can play head to head with the these powers, while the axis of moderation cannot be counted on.”

Still, others say Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s and Iran’s image in the Arab world have been hurt by the continuing violence in Iraq and the recent street clashes in Lebanon – both countries where Iran backs Shia movements.

A recent poll of five Arab countries by the Zogby Institute and the Arab American Institute found most of those surveyed had a negative perception of Iran’s role in Iraq. “Iran’s image in the Arab world is the lowest ever,” says Mustafa Alani, security analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

In Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates more than 70 per cent of those questioned felt Iran’s role in its neighbour was negative, while 66 per cent and 69 per cent of those surveyed in Egypt and Lebanon respectively agreed.

Iran’s growing influence in the region has also triggered reactions among the governments of Sunni states. Recent announcements by Egypt, Jordan and the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council that they would look at developing nuclear technology were deemed in part to be a message directed at Tehran.

Saudi Arabia has also become conspicuously more active in the region, hosting last week’s Arab League summit after initially giving up its turn to hold the meeting. Riyadh has also recently brokered a deal on a Palestinian unity government, another area where Sunni states complain of Iranian interference.

Mr Alshayji says that Iran’s decision to “embrace” the Palestinian issue and support Hamas proved to be a major embarrassment to Sunni leaders.

“Iran has played very smart politics and very showmanship politics, and has been able to gain a lot of support in the Arab street,” says Prof Alshayji.

“The ironic thing is that this serves their hegemonic ambitions, but this is something the Arab masses do not see ... They judge with their hearts and not with their minds.”

Back in Cairo, Ashraf al-Loughi, a 43-year-old carpenter, describes Mr Ahmadi-Nejad as a “decent, moderate, man who didn’t want any problems”.

“He released the British sailors. Any other Arab leader would have kept them and it would have been understandable since they were spies. But he had the decency to send them home,” Mr Loughi says.

However, a lawyer overhearing the conversation felt compelled to interrupt. “How do you know? You haven’t lived under this [Iranian] regime,” the lawyer said.

Additional reporting by Waleed Marzouk

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