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Abu Ghraib holds mirror to Arabs

Arabs say that torture goes on around the region, and that the US scandal might encourage leaders to avoid reform.

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More than a month after the US torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the anger of the Arab World runs unabated.

But the view from Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is complicated to say the least. Beneath the official condemnation and occasional anti-American protests is an awareness that torture takes place across the Arab world almost every day, and that it's difficult to condemn the actions of the United States without taking a hard look at what happens closer to home.

And while the US is taking hits over the conduct of its forces inside Iraq, the scandal still pales in the public mind against the backdrop of US support for Israel, the constant source of Arab anger.

Commentators like Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem, a critic of his own and other Arab regimes, say that the impact of the torture scandal has been overblown when set against the historical backdrop of Arab-US relations. The relative level of anger has always ebbed and flowed in response to events, be they strong US support for Israel after the 1967 war or the influence the US was able to exert in the process that led to the 1993 Arab-Israeli peace accords.

"Here in the Middle East, we have these anti-American spasms, but we don't see much buildup,'' says Mr. Kassem. He says that while anger over Abu Ghraib has been a setback, there's nothing that will prevent the US, as the world's only superpower, from regaining what it lost, if and when policies change. No event, he says, has ever been conclusive.

"At least there's a corrective mechanism - very quickly we had top US generals sitting before Congress for all the world to see, knowing full well that they could go to jail if they didn't answer the questions in an honest way," says Kassem.

To be sure, the damage to whatever moral authority the US held in the eyes of Arab citizens shouldn't be ignored, something that Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged in a May commencement address at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, when he referred to the "terrible impact" the use of torture has had on America's image.


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