Courting and containing the Arab street: Arab public opinion, the Middle East and U.S. public diplomacy.

AuthorZayani, Mohamed

IN THE AFTERMATH OF SEPTEMBER 11, the Arab street became a subject of renewed interest and increased relevance. With the rise and virulence of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world threatening to undermine the foreign policy of the United States in a region that is vital to its interests, namely the Middle East, American foreign policy makers have sought a better understanding of the nature and dynamics of Arab public opinion. Similarly, within Arab official circles, the challenges associated with an increasingly pronounced Arab public opinion--traditionally a sensitive and elusive subject--has been unsettling. A street that could flare out of control is a destabilizing force. A street which exerts undesired pressures could be a liability. At the same time, a street that could be moved at will and used as a convenient instrument of realpolitik is a double edged-sword. This dual notion of the Arab street as both irrelevant and dangerous points to an amorphous socio-political entity of cultural complexity that conveniently keeps it mired in an unsettling ambiguity. Invoking key moments in contemporary Arab and Middle Eastern history while focusing on more recent events, this paper delves into the complexity of Arab public opinion by exploring how it is perceived. It also looks at three prevailing understandings of the political relevance of the Arab street: (1) The tendency to celebrate it as omnipotent and liberating; (2) The tendency to view it as submissive and therefore largely ineffective; and (3) The tendency to dismiss it altogether as mythical. A discussion of the sociopolitical underpinning of these three views will help eschew a reductive categorization of Arab public opinion, point out its dynamics and highlight its intricacies--namely that Arab public opinion is a real though subtle force to contend with. The paper concludes with a glimpse at new variables which are likely to influence and shape Arab public opinion in the future.


An exploration of the nature and dynamics of Arab public opinion is hardly complete without an examination of the referent itself and a commentary on the history of the name. During the latter part of the twentieth century, the terminology used to describe public opinion in the Arab world has changed significantly. The most current term during the (post)-independence era was the "Arab masses." Soon enough, this term--which has the Marxist connotation of class struggle and class politics--gave way to the term "Arab street." (1) The latter brings to mind both the popular anti-colonial sentiments of the 1950s and nationalist ideologies--most prominently pan-Arabism--of the 1960s. Historically, the notion of the Arab street as a cohesive body of public opinion resonated strongly in the era of the revolutionary Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser who commended a huge and sincere popular following and whose political rhetoric and emotional speeches electrified and inspired the masses. (2) During the heyday of Nasser, the term "Arab street," as Gordon Robinson points out, became synonymous with mass public opinion: "The huge crowds Nasser could summon, seemingly at will, provided a source of popular legitimacy and a convenient justification for policies that drew foreign criticism but which Nasser and other Arab leaders did not wish to change." (3) The outpouring of popular protests in support of Egypt and the rise of popular movements in the Levant and Iraq in the aftermath of the 1956 tripartite aggression on Egypt to reclaim the nationalized Suez Canal further transformed Nasser from a president of Egypt to a leader of Arab nationalism capable of arousing the Arab streets in defiance of the West. (4) Facilitating this phenomenal influence is the Voice of the Arabs, a massively popular Cairo-based radio station which--although eventually it turned out to be "a weapon wielded by the Nasser regime rather than a genuinely collective voice" (5)--served Nasser well, beaming anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist rhetoric throughout the Arab world and captivating, if not galvanizing, Arab audiences.

With the Arabs' humiliating military debacle against Israel in 1967, the death of Nasser in 1970, and his successor's peace treaty with Israel in 1979, pan-Arabism went into a state of relative decline. (6) Gradually, pan-Arabism started to recede, giving way to a new era marked by "the phenomenon of 'Islamic politics'" (7) which came to be seen as a bulwark against both radical Arab nationalism and secular communism in the region. This kind of Islamic political revival gained ground and was consolidated by the emergence of two socio-political developments tightly connected with an ideologically-anchored religious order emanating from two brands of Islam (one Sunni, the other Shiite) which made an already fluid state of affairs in the region all the more complex. The former is the ascendancy of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia as a leading conservative oil monarchy and a regional power with considerable clout, positioning itself as the defender of conservative morals through the enforcement of strict Islamic norms while occupying a place of privilege in Muslim ritual and history. (8) The latter is the establishment of a clerically dominated Islamic republic in yet another key player in Middle East politics, Iran, which threatened to "take away the seat of Islam from its traditional place in Arabia, making Persia the new Islamic center of gravity." (9) The Iranian revolution was, in many ways, a unique event in recent Middle Eastern history. In the late 1970's, the same anti-Western sentiment of the previous decade reigned in the brazen streets of Iran. Implacable in the minds of many Arabs and Muslims are the popular upheavals and anti-establishment demonstrations during the Islamic revolution in Iran (10) which brought a direct challenge to many Arab governments. (11) The powerful images of jubilant Iranians in the streets of Tehran celebrating the fall of the pro-American regime of the entrenched Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and cheering the captivating and triumphant homecoming of the exiled Ayatolah Ruhollah Khomeini from Paris at Teheran's airport in 1979 evinced the power that the masses can possess in the Arab and Muslim world, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. (12)

Whether it be Khomeini's theorcratic Iran or Nasser's nationalist Egypt, it is hard to ignore the vulgar connotation in the denomination "Arab street." For Dale F. Eickelman and Armando Salvatore, the use of the term street "imputes passivity or a propensity to easy manipulation and implies a lack of formal or informal leadership." (13) Embedded in such a terminology is a demonization of the Arab masses as an ominous urban crowd (14) that can generate much-feared protests. In fact, the term "Arab street" speaks of a mob mentality. It suggests dangerous masses awaiting to rise up in anger and spill into the streets in response to a particular event or in a violent popular reaction against a particular incident. Such loose socio-political terminology contains within its fold the idea of a reactive, violent and largely irrational public--a dormant human volcano, so to speak, which may erupt at any time. If anything, the undefined and indefinable nature of the street makes it an amorphous entity that is devoid of any sense of order. For Augustus Norton, "not only does the term imply a formless mass of people swayed by the sentiments of the moment and manipulated by autocrats, a modern parallel to "the mob" in revolutionary France or 'the crowd' in nineteenth-century England, but also few nuances of opinion and no need to stratify points of view by class, gender, age or regional or occupational distinctions." (15)

In the West in particular, the Arab street is often invoked as a threatening entity or a brute force. Commenting on the changing nature of activism of the Arab street, for instance, George Tenet writes: "In many places in the Arab world, average citizens are becoming increasingly restive and getting louder. Recent events show that the right catalyst--such as the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian violence--can move people to act." (16) Likewise, David Hoffman compares it to a "time bomb of popular discontent" or better yet a "tinderbox." (17) Overall, as David Pollock points out, the name "evokes exotic images of mystery, mobs, and mullahs; it sounds vaguely subterranean, if not sinister; and it is most often regarded in the West with a peculiar mixture of fascination, dismissal and fear." (18) For Asef Bayat, the demonization of the Arab street gained ground precisely because the subjects of such a portrayal bought into their constructed image as the "other." (19) The Arab street, Asef argues, is a concept which sinks well as a subject of Orientalism that Arabs themselves have internalized:

The "Arab street" has become an extension of another infamous concept, the "Arab mind," which also reified the culture and collective conduct of an entire people in a violent abstraction. It is another subject of Orientalist imagination, reminiscent of colonial representation of the "other," which sadly has been internalized by some Arab selves. By no simple oversight, the "Arab street" is seldom regarded as an expression of public opinion and collective sentiment, like its Western counterpart still is, but is perceived primarily as a physical entity, a brute force expressed in riots and mob violence. The "Arab street" matters only in its violent imaginary, when it is poised to imperil interests or disrupt grand strategies. (20) In such a perspective, the Arab masses are often dehumanized in ways which make them particularly threatening.

In recent years, the terms "Arab masses" and "Arab street" started to give way to the more inclusive term "Arab public opinion." In the latter formulation, the Arab street plays a role in the formation of the Arab public...

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