The Arab street revisited
For a long time, the proverbial ‘Arab street’ – a symbol for public opinion in the Middle East – did not live up to the expectations of Western observers. It was either considered too passive and apathetic, or too irrational and aggressive.
This attitude gave Western powers the excuse to persist with the myth that it was better to support pro-Western dictators than be confronted with – what was considered the only alternative – the chaos of an Islamic revolution. Especially since 9/11, dictatorships in the region have played on the enormous fear of more terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, and increased the belief in Washington and European capitals that they needed such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in the fight against terrorism. In the meantime, the democratic deficit in the Arab world was generally blamed on the inherent anti-democratic nature of Islam and not on the corrupt nature of the regimes kept in power by the West.
The millions of people who took to the streets of Tunis, Tripoli, Benghazi, Cairo, Damascus, Manama and Sanaa in the spring of 2011 showed that the Arab street is much more politicized than many politicians, policy makers and journalists in Europe and the US have wanted to acknowledge. And to the surprise of many inside and outside the region, the people in those streets showed that the call for change definitely came from within.
While policy makers, journalists and academics in Washington, Brussels and other European capitals are doing overtime writing new analyses for the future of the Arab region, it is useful to pause and look at a number of books that were released just before the start of the Arab awakening in 2011. Each of them has the quality of foresight, which is still useful for explaining why millions of people took to the Arab streets to make their voices heard.
Concerns about the political, social and economic situation in the whole Arab region are still legitimate, of course, but these stories so prevalent in Western media and academia do not give the complete picture. There are other stories that need to be told, ones that have somehow never received much traction in Europe and the United States. Neil MacFarquhar tells such a story. He grew up as an expat child in Libya and came back to the region as a correspondent for
The amusing title of this book alludes to the custom of Hezbollah’s media department to send foreign journalists a birthday card. His choice of title shows that modernity and media savvy have not only reached groups the West would like to support, such as young people using Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the real strength of his book is that he introduces the reader to alternative voices, such as the voices of people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait who struggle, at times at great risk to their own lives, to combine their own culture and religion with the temptations and challenges of modern times.
MacFarquhar’s encounter with Fawzia Abu Bakr, a professor of education, shows that rebellion comes at a price. She was one of the 47 women who participated in 1990 in a driving demonstration demanding the lifting of the ban on women driving. To this day, she has been denied promotion.
Of course, this is a major challenge for the European Union and the United States: will they ever heed Edward Said’s warning in his 1978 work
One way to achieve this is to take a closer look at modern Arab media. Whereas MacFarquhar only touches on the role of the media in one chapter on Al-Jazeera, Lawrence Pintak focuses on the role of journalists and the media throughout his 2011 book,
For those who studied Arabic and the Arab world before 1990, Arabic media were not the means for discovering what was happening in the Arab street. They only printed the official party line. They were not allowed to write or talk about rulers, religious issues or sexuality. Successful journalists were literally on the payroll of people close to or inside the regime.
Pintak gives a good overview of how this has changed over the past decade and how Arab journalists have reassessed their own roles. Nowadays, channels such as Al-Jazeera, MBC and Al Arabiya are shaping the views and attitudes of the whole world about the Arab region and its people. They also feed on the enormous hunger of people in the region for real news, who often gather information by collecting bits and pieces of it from TV channels, newspapers and lately blogs, Twitter and other forms of citizen journalism.
Pintak acknowledges TV’s key role as an agent of change, or more specifically as a tool used by the architects of change.
The Arab media has definitely given a voice to the groups Asef Bayat focuses on in his 2010 book,
To Bayat, these concepts encapsulate the powerful mobilization of millions of poor, urban Muslim women and young people, who quietly imposed themselves through sheer presence.
Bayat shows convincingly that it is exactly these groups who have transformed the Arab street into a Political street over the past decades, a change which went unnoticed by many foreign observers until the spring of 2011.
Tarik Sabry underlines the importance of the ordinary in looking at politics in the Arab world in his 2010 book
His book explores what it means to be modern in the Arab world by looking at popular culture in the region and asks whether one can be modern and traditional at the same time. For him the Qasr al-Nil Bridge is a case in point of how people deal with the question of modernity in their daily lives. He describes this bridge leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo as a ‘working class cultural space’ and a ‘symbolic manifestation of the socio-economic and cultural change in Egypt’.
In July 2011, I crossed that bridge with one of the young Egyptian activists. Normality had returned to the bridge and young couples were flirting and enjoying each other’s company and the view of the Nile. But for the activist, the Qasr al-Nil Bridge had changed forever after being part of an important battleground for freedom and dignity when he and his colleagues were fighting the Egyptian regime in the early days of the revolution.
The cover of
Unemployment statistics for the young generation – which are above 25% in the Arab region according to official figures – clearly show that ‘for an average middle class youngster, not having a job means little income, slight chance of having independent accommodation, and low chance of marriage – in sum no meaningful autonomous life’.
The words on their banners and in their YouTube clips during the Arab Spring were clear: they wanted jobs, they wanted to marry and above all they wanted dignity. But all of these normal demands were out of reach because graduates found there were no jobs for them, and widespread corruption enriched the few and excluded many. And remarkably for some, with a few exceptions the vast majority of the millions of demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria did not call for the destruction of the West or Israel, or for the establishment of a new Islamic Caliphate.
Of course, there has to be a more open attitude to the voices in the Arab streets if there is to be genuine change from within. But the major challenge is whether the mentality of people in Arab countries will change in their dealings with each other. Indeed, the wall of fear erected by decades of authoritarian politics may have been torn down by the demonstrations and protests, but there still exists a wall of fear regarding the expression of personal liberties.
Brian Whitaker, a
Vali Nasr is less concerned about these issues in his
This class’s voice will not be shaped as much by religion as by the opportunities they will have to assert their economic rights as entrepreneurs, professionals and consumers. Nasr adheres to the idea that while commerce might not breed secularism, it will encourage moderation.
In the coming months, the world will witness preparations for elections in Tunisia and Egypt. While events in other countries such as Libya and Syria, have not yet led to elections being put on the agenda, these countries are certainly undergoing transformations and transitions. It remains to be seen whether the calls in the Arab streets for dignity, an end to corruption and more jobs will result in sustainable and successful political solutions. One thing is certain: the new leaders in the Arab region, as well as Western policy makers, can no longer ignore the legitimacy of the voices in the Arab street, nor the calls of citizens who want to be heard and taken seriously.