The protesters inside the compound of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo shouted: "Allah, Allah, Allah, Hasan Nasrallah." There were fewer than 500, but they were vocal. They denounced "the pathetic stance taken by all Arab leaders" and shouted slogans against Egypt's President Mubarak, the Saudi king Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz al-Saud and King Abdullah bin al-Hussein II of Jordan. "Together with the resistance of Lebanon and Palestine!" they declared.
When I arrived at al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious mosques of Sunni Islam, I found it, and the entire neighbourhood, under siege. Ranks of riot police surrounded the entrance. Armed officers of the Central Security Forces vetted everyone entering. Inside, posters announced that protests were forbidden. A large number of worshippers seemed to be plain-clothed policemen or state security agents. They made their presence felt by using walkie-talkies the size of small bricks. One worshipper pointed out that the mosque was full of hired thugs. Their job was to follow individual protesters and beat them up. "The security forces are determined not to have a repeat of last Friday," he said.
Since the beginning of the Lebanon crisis, worshippers have been demonstrating peacefully every Friday at al-Azhar. The previous Friday, more than 8,000 people had taken part. The protesters were not just the usual suspects. Members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were joined by Kifaya (Movement for Change), the Nasserist Party and the Socialist Labour Party, along with other groups. As they tried to leave the mosque, they were set upon by hired thugs who, reported the semi-official al-Ahram weekly, attacked people with sticks and batons, trapping them inside the mosque. Later, there were running battles on the streets of Cairo.
At the Friday sermon I attended, the imam began by hoping these incidents would not recur. He then talked about the Battle of Badr. It was fought in 624, when the Prophet Muhammad and his 300 ill-equipped followers faced a mighty enemy army of 950. It was a decisive battle. The imam's message was clear: Israel may be a regional titan, but Muslim resistance can be victorious if fortitude is shown.
The demonstration erupted seconds after the prayer concluded and took the security forces by surprise. As they moved to encircle the crowd, a group of women emerged from their designated area of the mosque. "Allah, Allah, Allah, Hasan Nasrallah," they chanted, taunting the security forces and drawing attention from the main demonstration. With the police in two minds, the demonstration continued for about 20 minutes. Eventually, flags and leaflets were confisca ted and a couple of the leaders arrested. Then the worshippers were allowed to leave, one by one.
I must admit that I was impressed. The pro-test was disciplined, meticulously planned, and cunningly executed. In contrast, the heavy-handedness of state security was appalling. You could hardly walk more than a hundred metres in Cairo without meeting a roadblock. All criticism of the US and Israel is forbidden here. And recently Mubarak had to intervene per sonally in the case of a schoolgirl who had failed an exam for writing an essay on why it was legitimate to hate America. The problem, she was told, was not her analysis - but the topic itself.
Suppression has not muted criticism of the authoritarian regimes of the so-called moderate Arab states: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Even the official Egyptian press is critical of the "inadequate" and "inept" response to the attacks on Lebanon. Egyptian diplomats now speak openly of siding with Hezbollah. Foreign-policy experts are suggesting that Egypt's diplomatic relations with Israel cannot continue in the face of the growing public disquiet.
By clearly siding with the United States and Israel, the regimes in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman have signed their own death warrants. Wherever I went in Cairo, I found growing admiration for Hezbollah. A music concert turned into songs of praise for the "Lebanese resistance".
A conference held to commemorate the 23 July 1952 revolution, and the nationalisat ion of the Suez Canal in 1956, turned into a show of solidarity. "Hasan Nasrallah, along with his few fighters, revived the Nasserist experience as they managed to hit the inside of Israel," said Diaa al-Din Daowd, head of the Nasserist Party.
This is exactly what Israel's war on terror has achieved. It has brought together arch-enemies, such as the secularist Nasserists, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Shia Hezbollah. With all this realigning of popular opinion and parties, surely the days of autocratic, pro-western Arab states are numbered.