Will it be a strike against Iran by the U.S. and or Israel? Will there be political upheaval in Egypt after Mubarak's reign? And will Israel invade Lebanon or Gaza? These are some of the questions that can be heard on the streets of Cairo, Amman, and Beirut.
2010 is far from over, yet we have witnessed a series of close encounters in the Middle East that created major tensions and pushed everyone to the edge: a war on the Yemeni Saudi border, rapid deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon over the cutting of a tree, and the looming prospect of an attack on Iran to mention a few. But what's really troubling is how fast attitudes have changed towards President Obama from a year ago; specifically in the period after newly-elected Barack Obama delivered his "New Beginning" speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds from a podium at the University of Cairo in Egypt.
Just yesterday, on Thursday, August 5, a poll released by the Brookings Institute in conjunction with Zogby International revealed a substantial change in the assessment of President Obama, both as President of the United States and of Obama personally. According to the poll, early in the Obama Administration, in April and May 2009, 51% of the respondents in six Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates) expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East. In the 2010 poll, only 16% were hopeful, while a majority -- 63% -- were discouraged.
The poll's results show another dramatic shift in public opinion on Iran's potential nuclear weapons status. While the results vary from country to country, the weighted average across the six countries is telling: in 2009, only 29% of those polled said that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be "positive" for the Middle East; in 2010, 57% of those polled indicate that such an outcome would be "positive" for the Middle East.
So what's wrong with earlier assessments that Arab countries were "freaked out" by a nuclear Iran?
Unfortunately the US government, and to a larger extent western reporters, have been spoon-fed this information by intelligence apparatuses of certain despotic Arab regimes. No one bothered to ask the average person on the street this question.
Although the poll was conducted before Obama's recent confirmation of the end of all combat operations in Iraq by the end of August, Arabs believe that the troubles of Iraq are far from being over. July has been a very deadly month in Iraq.
Recently, Saddam Hussein's former deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, has accused the US president of "leaving Iraq to the wolves."
Last but not least: "Palestine is still the issue" to borrow from John Pilger's title. The poll leaves little doubt that the major decline in Obama's popularity has a lot to do with the disappointment in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Arabs have lost hope that President Obama will be able to deliver on his promises.
I've been in and out of the Middle East five times this year, and if tension could be described as a cloud, you'd need a knife to cut through the one created by recent political events in the region. Everyone seems edgy and expecting war. President Obama must act fast to bring back some of the magic he had early on in the region with his messages of "hope" and "change." Now he needs to deliver on real promises before it is too late.