Courting and Containing the Arab Street: Arab Public Opinion, the Middle East and U.S. Public Diplomacy

By Zayani, Mohamed | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Courting and Containing the Arab Street: Arab Public Opinion, the Middle East and U.S. Public Diplomacy


Zayani, Mohamed, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


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.

THE RISE AND TRANSFORMATION OF THE ARAB STREET

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. …

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