Middle East

Middle East

The Abused Arab Street

Demonstration in Damascus
Demonstrators carry a Palestinian flag, photos of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and placards bearing anti-Israel slogans through the streets of Damascus, April 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The “Arab street” deserves pity. Some people are treating it like a joke, while others are lamenting its imminent death. First it was just the Arabs, now the whole world is saying it. Two years ago, after the Intifada erupted, many Arab capitals saw demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and against their slaughterers. But their size was limited, and after only a few months the streets were empty of solidarity with the Intifada.

Following the Israeli sweep through the West Bank last April, the “Arab street” was reawakened in some Arab capitals, albeit on a smaller scale. It quickly retreated, and the rising American threat to launch a military invasion of Iraq didn’t change anything. This has caused frustration among Arab politicians and intellectuals, some of whom have accused the Arab people of weakness.

Now this negative view of the “Arab street” has gone global. A few weeks ago The Economist wrote about what it considered to be the death of the Arab street. Then the Daily Telegraph had a harsh article by Gerald Butt titled “The Americans Protest Against Striking Iraq While the Arabs are Silent” [headline translated from the Arabic] in which he compared the antiwar protests in many American cities to the protests that didn’t happen in Arab cities. His conclusion was that “the Arabs have become deadened and look at events with disinterest,” and he expected that Arab reaction to an attack on Iraq would be no more than a few dozen protesters dancing around, burning the American and Israeli flags.

The Western media aren’t the only ones singing about the demise of the “Arab street” or dismissing it as irrelevant. Condoleezza Rice, the American national security advisor, took the same line in a recent interview with the Financial Times. She judged that the Arab peoples are too weak to ask for democracy, meaning the task of liberating Arab and Islamic countries from tyranny must fall to Washington.

While all of this talk reflects a clear reality, it’s only true up to a point, and then only superficially. It would be foolish to parrot these analyses without answering the question: Why did this happen, and how?

The Arab street was not so weak several decades ago. There were popular movements in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, movements that transformed Gamal Abdel-Nasser from a president of Egypt to a leader of Arab nationalism in the mid-1950s.

As former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wrote in his book In Search of Identity, it was as if the people were waiting for Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956 to crown their decades-old struggles against British and French imperialism and to turn Nasser into a “mythical hero.” Even in Arab countries aligned against Nasser, the Egyptian president’s popularity on the streets forced rulers to support the nationalization of the Suez Canal and to state publicly that Egypt was acting within its rights.

The Tripartite Aggression [the Arab name for the Suez War. On Oct. 29, 1956, Britain, France, and Israel launched an unsuccessful military bid to reclaim control of the canal. The United States was invited, but declined, to join —WPR.] was a response to the nationalization of the canal. In turn, it further elevated the importance of the “Arab street.” Huge crowds came into the streets in at least six Arab countries, as protesters condemned the aggression and demanded support for Egypt. The popular support was so strong that it forced the government of Iraqi leader Nuri Said to take practical measures in support of Nasser, such as cutting diplomatic links with France and cutting Britain out of the Baghdad Pact [a 1955 mutual cooperation agreement between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom].

This was the last period when the Arab street was effective and played a real part in the affairs of the wider Arab nation. There was popular activity in only a few countries after that, such as the popular support Syrians showed for a union with Egypt in 1958, and in Jordan, when the street forced King Hussein to end his differences with Nasser and fly to Cairo to sign a mutual-defense pact on the eve of the 1967 war.

Since the 1950s, the dominant thinking of the Arab regimes has been that there is no place for the people or the street in the struggle against imperialism, in accordance with the old axiom, “No voice rises above the sound of the battle.” Generations have been brought up on this slogan in Arab countries where the freedom to express oneself, to organize, to strike, and to protest have all been seized. The “Arab street” can’t protest even if the aim is to support the governments against the Israeli enemy or to stand up to pressure from foreign powers. The most important characteristic of the good citizen today is that he keeps out of politics. The “Arab street” has been exposed to various degrees of repression. This has given birth to a fear that still grips people, destroys their moral spirit, and pushes them to practice self-censorship. In this way, nationalism and democracy have become two separate issues. The first has become the monopoly of the state, while the second has been abrogated. The result has been the end of the street’s role in politics, the destruction of its nationalist awareness, and the destruction of its democratic impulses.

On national issues, instinctive feelings have, to some degree, made up for the absence of national consciousness. That’s what happened in Egypt after the 1967 defeat [at the hands of Israel and the United States], when limited segments of the population (university students, for example) kept the Arab nationalist movement alive until 1973. But the size of this popular movement remained limited, and its effect more limited still, in contrast to the period of national struggle for independence.

What of democracy? A gradually dimming awareness of what the word even means among Arabs has helped keep it off the agenda. It’s no coincidence that there has not been even one demonstration on Arab streets in the last three decades to demand freedom, while there have been many limited demonstrations in the same period over Palestine, and some slightly bigger ones over rises in the price of bread.

In the absence of democracy, social institutions, organizations, and professional syndicates have become adjuncts to governments that monopolize political activity and allow only a small part of society to participate, and then only under surveillance.

In Arab countries, we no longer have independent labor unions such as those that cut off oil supplies in 1956 by refusing to unload the ships of enemy countries at some ports. The unions—once free and independent—are now subjugated to state directives. One could well say the same about all the various sectors of society that collectively form what’s referred to as the “Arab street.” And so the “Arab street” lost its freedom, its ability to take part in the issues facing the nation, and the vitality it had during the fight for national independence.

But the odd thing is that some of those who now are accusing it of weakness are the same people who supported robbing it of the freedoms that allowed it to be more effective in the past. In fact, some of them were officials in the governments of the day, but they have never criticized themselves or reviewed their own behavior. Then, as now, their position remains a prisoner of the slogan, “no voice rises above the sound of the battle.” Now they are refusing any discussion of responsibility for the despotic government in Iraq, or the catastrophe staring it in the face, arguing that to do so would be to justify the expected American attack.

The same applies to others who, while they occupied executive posts in Arab regimes, put restrictions on the “Arab street” and destroyed the role of the people in politics, yet who now demand that the masses mobilize and perform “a decisive role in confronting the challenge of the American and Zionist aggression by releasing the force of popular pressure.” Still they call on the “Arab street” to come together in “popular protests and marches all over the Arab world,” as the final statement of an [Oct. 10] emergency session of the Arab National Conference said.

Dozens of participants in this conference occupied ministerial positions in regimes that had actively prevented protests and marches in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Still they demand that the “Arab street”—comprised of people who have been inculcated with a fear of words like “protest”—should demonstrate. Their calls are as frustrating as the attitudes of those who currently deride and underestimate the “Arab street.” Neither position will change a reality made inviolable over the decades, a reality that can be changed only if we honestly reappraise what has happened to our countries without recourse to intellectual biases and ideological tastes. Until that is possible, the “Arab street” will remain the object of abuse.

The author is the deputy director of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.