The Arab street matters

Arabs are taking the first steps towards translating their sentiments into new actions and policies.

By Rami G. Khouri

BOSTON – Does Arab public opinion matter? Does the “Arab street”, as it is often referred to here in the United States, mean anything in real terms? Should the world pay any attention to the sentiments of ordinary Arab citizens?

I’ve had the opportunity to delve into this question during an extended visit and some academic gatherings in the United States. My conclusion is that we should all pay more attention to Arab public opinion than we have done in the past, because the nature and impact of Arab public opinion are quite different today from what they were in years past. The continuing cycle of internal tensions and regional violence, most evident in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, is due in large part to the fact that large numbers of ordinary citizens make their voices heard and demand change; they no longer accept to acquiesce in policies conducted by non-representative governments or foreign powers.

Several new dimensions of “the Arab street,” or public opinion, are worth noting. The first is simply that a tangible public opinion exists today, in a relatively new public realm in the Arab world that didn’t exist in the past half century.

The end of the Cold War removed the external and regional lids that had kept political life totally suppressed in the Middle East, releasing a wide range of sentiments, identities, and ideologies that now swirl around the region in a robust manner. Now large numbers of Arab citizens who hold assorted political views assert themselves in various ways, including occasional elections of dubious quality, public opinion polls, civil society organizations and other mass movements. Arab society today is rich in the voices of many different groups that assert the political, ideological, religious, cultural, and tribal sentiments of citizens who formerly could only speak in public if they cheered for the great leader and single authorized ideology of their land.

Today, Arab public opinion also has impact especially where governance systems allow for reasonably credible elections. Lebanon and Palestine are two good examples of how groups like Hamas, Hizbullah, and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement can mobilize their supporters and take their share of power. Arab public sentiment is increasingly channeled into organized movements that matter, because they seek to define national policies, rather than merely blowing off steam with government-sanctioned street demonstrations as generally happened in the past.

A third important new element of “the Arab street” is that its popular sentiments increasingly join forces with governments that transcend traditional dividing lines of faith, ideology, or nationality. So we witness Islamist movements like Hamas and Hizbullah clearly connecting with one another, but also we see close working ties among these two groups and the Syrian and Iranian governments. This creates a loose coalition of popular and official forces that transcends Shiite-Sunni, Arab-Iranian, and religious-secular lines that had long been seen as sacred in the Middle East.

Arab public opinion is also fascinating today because its single most powerful force — a still developing combination of Islamism and Arab nationalism — probably reflects the views of a majority of Arab citizens. I say “probably” because the evidence remains erratic, though worth exploring in more depth. If a majority of Arab citizens identifies with a combination of Islamist and Arab nationalist sentiments, and this majority increasingly asserts itself and refuses to remain docile and acquiescent in the unsatisfying prevailing political order, we may only be at the beginning of a period of sustained change, and some turbulence, throughout the Middle East. Those in the world who preach the gospel of democracy, the consent of the governed, and the will of the majority are challenged to come to grips with the emerging reality of a majority of Arabs that no longer remains silent, but demands that its sentiments be acknowledged and its rights be affirmed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this new affirmation of Arab public opinion is its tone of defiance, resistance and self-assertion. Ordinary people, large movements and a few governments in the Middle East no longer politely send protest notes or petitions to the UN, nor cower before foreign or Arab state power.

George W. Bush noted correctly a few years ago that 60 years of American support for Arab autocrats had produced neither stability nor security, and said that such policies needed to be changed in favor of promoting freedom and democracy. Not surprisingly, ordinary Arab citizens are saying the same thing.

In organizing politically and making their views heard, Arabs are taking the first steps towards translating their sentiments into action and policy. The pot of Arab public opinion is slowly percolating to produce something new in this region — contested power, in the form of politics.

— Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.
Source: Middle East Online

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