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Dateline: Power of the 'Arab Street' - 2001-11-28

Since the events of September 11, people in the West have become more aware of the degree of rage and resentment against the United States in both the Arab and Muslim worlds, or the "street" as it's called. But Middle East analysts say there is a vast range of opinion among citizens of Arab nations concerning the United States, particularly with respect to U.S. foreign policy.

Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it is extremely difficult to accurately gauge public opinion concerning the United States in most Muslim countries because there are no public opinion polls.

"What we have are various levels of anecdotal evidence," he said. "Some people have their taxi driver whom they turn to. More scientific people might have a larger pool that they turn to. But we don't really know for sure. We know that the vast majority of the world's Muslims do not support the political ideals of Osama bin Laden. The vast majority of Muslims do not support the creation of sharia-based states. We know that the vast majority live in states that have governments that work with other states in the international system and that most of them are not participating in a revolution to throw off those governments to create a single caliphate. We know that most Muslims, like most Christians, and most Jews and Buddhists, go to work, they send their kids to school, and they are not creating young Osama bin Ladens. Do they disagree with certain aspects of certain policies? For sure. Do they want to create a vast international revolution to support these ideals? I think no evidence suggests that is the case."

Mary-Jane Deeb, a specialist on the Arab world, says that so-called "Muslim public opinion" is actually quite diverse. She said, "People, as in any other society, their opinions are formed by their families, their social background, class, economic status, political views, whatever, and there's a vast continuum of opinion. People who are well-off, who have jobs, who have a home, who have families, who think about the future of their children, have a quite different viewpoint from people like the followers of bin Laden, who may be a much more desperate type of people. I mean, people in Iraq for example, their viewpoints have been shaped by the events, the confrontation, the war with Iran, the Gulf war. They really had very little control over what was happening in their life."

Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College writes in The New York Times that the so-called Arab "street" is a figment of the imagination that has become a reality. Professor Gerges says that, in an age of satellites and al-Jazeera television coverage, authoritarian governments are no longer able to suppress or control the news. And the views of the man or woman on the street reflect this information explosion.

But Mouafac Harb, Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, a London-based pan-Arab newspaper printed in both the Arab and Western worlds, says there is a lot of confusion about the significance of so-called "Arab street." He said, "This is a term that is widely used nowadays to refer to Arab public opinion. Even when we are writing our articles and want to refer to Arab public opinion, we say the 'Arab Street.'"

Judith Latham: "So, it refers to the man in the street rather than to the media, I assume."

Mouafac Harb: "Actually, it's difficult to pin it down. There's no way in these days to measure Arab public opinion because they don't have the tools whereby we can say, 'This is where most people stand vis-ŕ-vis this issue.' In general, it's widely used, and it's widely misrepresented. Before the Arab nations gained their independence, the term "Arab street" was probably more representative. It was expressed, and people took to the streets to demonstrate their call for independence. In modern Arab history, the "Arab street" if you want to see it in terms of demonstrations has become a tool of governments. Most demonstrations that we see these days whether they are in Sudan, Iraq, or Libya are usually staged by governments. If this is the 'Arab street' that people are talking about, it is not public opinion. But it's how people feel toward certain issues people in universities and the 'buzz' [conversation] in coffee shops."

Judith Latham: "You didn't mention two important Arab countries Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Across the Arab world, how different is the so-called 'Arab street?'"

Mouafac Harb: "It varies from one nation to another, and you have to know the circumstances of every government. Some people in the Gulf are not used to expressing their opinion by demonstrations. However, people in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt are used to expressing their views by demonstrating. In the absence of other means of expressing their views, today people write articles. And you have TV."

Judith Latham: "If you take issues that are important to the man or woman in the street today, you would end up with the issue of the Palestinians, the response to the foreign policy of the United States, and the whole issue of terrorism. On the Arab street, what is the power of public opinion about Palestine and about Israel?"

Mouafac Harb: "The Palestinian issue has been the core issue of the Arab world since 1948. But, are they willing in the rest of the Arab world to take to the street to bring about a change because of the Palestinian issue? I think the term 'Arab street' is over-estimated. Historically, change in the Arab world came from the top. Going back to the Palestinian issue, it's still the main issue that occupies the Arab mind, and it's the main issue that Arab intellectuals write about. But, is it enough to bring about a change in a given country? I don't think so. It is used to express resentment. People have different worries. Some people have anti-government sentiments. Some people suffer from unemployment, economic hardship. But when they want to express their views, they say that it's because of Palestine because they fear retaliation by their governments. Sometimes it's kind of a scapegoat."

Judith Latham: "How potentially dangerous is the 'Arab street' to the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia?"

Mouafac Harb: "I think it is more of a threat in Egypt than in Saudi Arabia because of unemployment, because of economic hardship, and because of the tradition of political violence in Egypt that does not exist in Saudi Arabia."

Judith Latham: "One has the impression that there is a great gulf between Arab governments and their relationship to the United States and the citizens of individual Arab countries and their attitude toward the United States."

Mouafac Harb: "If you look at Egypt and Jordan and some of the friends of the United States in the Arab world, you see the relationship is great between the governments and the United States. However, when it comes to the masses of the people, there is wide resentment towards the United States. People do not hate the United States in the Arab world because of U.S. foreign policy. They hate their governments, and they believe that the United States is supporting their governments. So, by association, they start to hate the United States. I think the United States is not doing enough to distance itself from the wrongdoings of Arab governments. And at the same time, Arab governments are not doing enough to show their people that, if you are friendly with the United States, you will collect a lot of dividends."

Judith Latham: "What is it that the U.S. government and the American media could do improve the relationship, which has badly deteriorated?"

Mouafac Harb: "These days it's so easy for an average Arab who reads English to have access to the American media. You go over the Internet. CNN is available all over the world. So, I would like to see people be more careful in their analysis and less provocative and take into consideration that the message you are broadcasting is not just for local consumption. And, when you are more sensitive to the feelings of the Arab world, you will deny those who want to take advantage of these issues, like Osama bin Laden and some terrorist organizations, to drive a wedge between the American people and the American government and the Arab world."

Judith Latham: "What role does economic stress play in the mood on the street?"

Mouafac Harb: "Some people would argue that the reason for all the Arab misery these days is economic issues not only political issues. In the Arab world right now people blame others for their misery. Arab intellectuals, Arab governments, and some political parties justify their failures by blaming the United States. Since the colonial period, when the British and the French were colonizing the Arab world, there were a lot of conspiracy theories and a lot of plots to overthrow governments. And unfortunately the United States is viewed in the Arab world as the inheritor of these powers."

Lebanese journalist Mouafac Harb is the Washington bureau chief of the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat commenting on "The Power of the Arab Street".