Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Of politics and dissent

Asef Bayat* deconstructs the Arab street

Click to view caption
the anti-war rally in Tahrir Square that shook the nation one day after the invasion of Iraq began;
30,000 anti-war protestors at the Sports Stadium in Alexandria in the first week of April;
pro-Palestine demonstrations at Al-Azhar in February 1998;
Cairo University comes out in support of the Intifada
protests in downtown Cairo in 2001;
No to war and violence in Iraq and Israel

In the tense weeks between the 11 September attacks and the first US bombing raids over Afghanistan, and continuing until the fall of the Taliban, commentators raised serious concerns about what the Wall Street Journal later called the "irrational Arab street". If the US attacked a Muslim country, the pundits worried, would the "Arab street" rally behind Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists, endangering other US interests in the region and rendering George W Bush's "war on terrorism" a troublesome, if not doomed, venture from the outset? As US troops prepared to deploy in Afghanistan, some officials in Washington implored Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to exercise restraint in his campaign to crush the Palestinian uprising by force. Should Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory continue during the US assault on the Taliban, they feared, the simmering rage of the Arab masses might "boil over", leaving the local gendarmes powerless to prevent the madding crowds from harming Americans, trashing US property and threatening the stability of friendly Arab regimes. Senator Joseph Biden broached the possibility that "every US embassy in the Middle East [would be] burned to the ground".

Since the war in Afghanistan, and continuing through the major Israeli offensives in the West Bank and the buildup to Bush's war on Iraq, the "Arab street" has become a minor household word in the West, bandied about in the media as both a subject of profound anxiety and an object of withering condescension. The "Arab street", and by extension, the "Muslim street", have become code words that immediately invoke a reified and essentially "abnormal" mindset, as well as a strange place filled with angry people who, whether because they hate us or just don't understand us, must shout imprecations against us. "Arab or other Muslim action" are described almost exclusively in terms of "mobs, riots, revolts", leading to the logical conclusion that "Western standards for measuring public opinion simply don't apply" in the Arab world. At any time, American readers are reminded, protesting Arab masses may shed their unassuming appearance and "suddenly turn into a mob, powerful enough to sweep away governments" -- notably the "moderate" Arab governments who remain loyal allies of the US.

Worries about the "Arab street" notwithstanding, US forces did move into Afghanistan, US bombs did kill Afghan civilians in the thousands, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only briefly "cooled off" and Bush moved full speed ahead with plans to attack Iraq. But, though numerous protests in the Muslim and Arab worlds did occur, no US embassy was burned to the ground. Nor did the Arab and Muslim masses rally behind Bin Laden. Only when Israel invaded the West Bank in the spring of 2002 did ordinary people in the Arab world collectively explode with outrage. The millions of Arab citizens who poured into the streets of Cairo, Amman, Rabat and many other cities to express sympathy with the Palestinians evoked memories of how Arab anti-colonial movements in the post-war period were driven from below. But because the "Arab street" had not erupted at the possible US bombing in Afghanistan during Ramadan, this very real example of latent popular anger in the Arab world was airily dismissed. Abruptly, the image of the "Arab street" shifted from an unpredictable powder keg to a "myth" and a "bluff", somehow kept alive despite the fact that Arab countries were filled with "brainwashed" people trapped in "apathy". The implication for US policymaking was clear: Arabs do not have the guts to stop an attack on Iraq or any other unpopular US initiative, and therefore the US should express "not sensitivity, but resolution" in the face of remonstrations from Arab allies. Neither the slogans of the actual demonstrators nor the insistence of Arab governments that they faced unbearable pressure from their populations needed to be taken at face value. The Economist declared the "death" of the Arab street, once and for all. It was not long before National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that because the Arab peoples are too weak to demand democracy, the US should intervene to liberate the Arab world from its tyrants.

In the narratives of the Western media, the "Arab street" is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't -- it is either "irrational" and "aggressive" or it is "apathetic" and "dead". There is little chance of its salvation as something Western societies might recognise as familiar. The "Arab street" has become an extension of 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 internalised 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. The street that conveys the collective sentiment is considered as a non-issue, because the US can and often does safely ignore it. Such perceptions of the "Arab street" inform Washington's approach in the Middle East -- flouting Arab public opinion with increasingly unequivocal support for Sharon while he proceeds to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, and simultaneously, the determination to wage war on Iraq.

But street politics in general and the Arab street in particular are more complex. Neither street is just a physicality, nor the Arab street mere brute force or simply dead. The Arab street is primarily an expression of public sentiment, but one whose modes and means of articulation have gone through significant changes. Street politics signifies the modern urban theater of contention par excellence. We need only to remember the role the "street" has played in such monumental political changes as the French Revolution, nineteenth- century labour movements, anti- colonial struggles, the anti- Vietnam war in the US, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, and perhaps, the current global anti-war movement. The street is the chief locus of politics for ordinary people, those who are structurally absent from the centres of institutional power. Simultaneously social and spatial, constant and current, a place of both the familiar and the stranger, the visible and the vocal, the street represents a complex entity wherein sentiments and outlooks are formed, spread and expressed in a remarkably unique fashion.

The street is the physical place where collective dissent may be both expressed and produced. In the street, one finds not only marginalised elements -- the poor and unemployed -- but also actors with some institutional power like students, workers, women, state employees and shopkeepers. The spatial element in street politics distinguishes it from strikes or sit-ins, because streets are not only where people protest, but also where they extend their protest beyond their immediate circle. A street march not only brings together the "invitees", but also involves the "strangers" who might espouse similar, real or imagined, grievances. It is this epidemic potential, and not simply the disruption or uncertainty caused by riots, that threatens the authorities, who exert a pervasive power over public spaces -- with police patrols, traffic regulation, spatial division -- as a result. The police tactic of encircling demonstrators in a corner is devised to subvert the potential of extension of sentiments to the passersby. Protests are to be kept as localised, rather than general, events.

How does the Arab world fair in terms of street politics? Arab anti-colonial struggles attest to the active history of the Arab street. Popular movements arose in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during the late 1950s after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The unsuccessful tripartite aggression by Britain, France and Israel in October 1956 to reclaim control of the Canal caused an outpouring of popular protests in Arab countries in support of Egypt. Although 1956 was probably the last major pan-Arab solidarity movement until the pro-Palestinian wave of 2002, social protests by workers, artisans, women and students for domestic social development, citizens' rights and political participation have been documented. Labour movements in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco have carried out strikes or street protests over both bread-and- butter and political issues. Since the 1980s, during the era of IMF-recommended structural adjustment programmes, Arab labour unions have tried to resist cancellations of consumer commodity subsidies, price rises, pay cuts and layoffs. Despite no-strike deals and repression of activists, wildcat stoppages have occurred. Fear of popular resistance has often forced governments, such as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco to delay structural adjustment programmes or retain certain social policies.

When traditional social contracts are violated, Arab populations have reacted swiftly. The 1980s saw numerous urban protests over the spiraling cost of living. In August 1983, the Moroccan government reduced consumer subsidies by 20 per cent, triggering urban unrest in the north and elsewhere. Similar protests took place in Tunis in 1984, and in Khartoum in 1982 and 1985. In summer 1987, the rival factions in the Lebanese civil war joined hands to stage an extensive street protest against a drop in the value of the Lebanese currency. Algeria was struck by cost-of-living riots in the fall of 1988, and Jordanians staged nationwide protests in 1989, over the plight of Palestinians and economic hardship, forcing the late King Hussein to introduce cautious measures of political liberalisation. Lifting subsidies in 1996 provoked a new wave of street protests, leading the king to restrict freedom of expression and assembly.

While the lower and middle classes formed at the core of urban protests, college students often joined in. But student movements have had their own contentious agendas. In Egypt, the 1970s marked the heyday of a student activism dominated by leftist trends. Outraged opposition to the Camp David peace treaty and economic austerity brought thousands of students out into urban streets. Earlier years had seen students organising conferences, strikes, sit-ins, street marches and producing newspapers for the walls, the "freest of publications". In 1991, students in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Sudan demonstrated to express anger against both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Since 1986, Palestinian students have been among the most frequent participants in actions of the Intifada, often undeterred by the Israeli army's policies of shooting and arresting students or closing down Palestinian universities.

Yet many things have changed drastically for the Arab street since the 1980s. The pace of cost-of-living protests has slowed down, as governments enact structural adjustment programmes more slowly and cautiously, deploy safety nets such as social funds (Egypt and Jordan) and allow Islamic NGOs and charities to help out the poor. Indeed, the Arab world enjoys the lowest incidence of extreme poverty in the world's developing regions. Meanwhile, the discontent of the impoverished middle classes was channelled into the Islamist movements in general, and the politicisation of professional syndicates in particular.

On the other hand, the more traditional class-based movements -- notably, peasant organisations, cooperative movements and trade unions -- are in relative decline. As peasants have moved to the city from the countryside, or lost their land to become rural day labourers, the social basis of peasant and cooperative movements has eroded. The weakening of economic populism, closely linked to structural adjustment, has led to the decline of public sector employment, which constituted the core of trade unionism. Through reform, downsizing, privatisation and relocation, structural adjustment has undermined the unionised public sector, while new private enterprises linked to international capital remain largely union-free. Although the state bureaucracy remains weighty, its underpaid employees are unorganised, and a large proportion of them survive by taking second or third jobs in the informal sector. Currently, much of the Arab work force is self- employed. Many wage-earners work in small enterprises where paternalistic relations prevail. On average, between one third and one half of the urban work force are involved in the unregulated, unorganised informal sector. While tension between bosses and employees is not uncommon in these establishments, labourers tend to remain more loyal to their bosses than to fellow workers in the shop next door.

Although the explosive growth of NGOs since the 1980s heralded autonomous civic activism, NGOs are premised on the politics of fragmentation. NGOs divide the potential beneficiaries of their activism into small groups, substitute charity for principles of rights and accountability, and foster insider lobbying rather than street politics. It is largely the advocacy NGOs, involved in human rights, women's rights and democratisation, not wealth and income gaps, that offer different and new spaces for social mobilisation.

As people rely more on the informal activities and their loyalties are fragmented, struggles for wages and conditions tend to lose ground to concerns over jobs, informal work conditions and an affordable cost of living, and rapid urbanisation increases demands for urban services, shelter, decent housing, health and education. Under such situations, the Arab grassroots resorts not to politics of collective protest but to the individualistic strategy of "quiet encroachment". Individuals and families strive to acquire basic necessities (land for shelter, urban collective consumption, informal jobs and business opportunity) in a prolonged and unassuming, though illegal, fashion. Instead of organising a street march to demand electricity, the disenfranchised simply tap into the municipal power grid without authorisation.

Thus, in the Arab world, the political class par excellence remains the educated middle class -- state employees, students, professionals and the intelligentsia -- who mobilised the "street" in the 1950s and 1960s often with overarching ideologies of nationalism, Ba'athism, socialism and social justice. Islamism has been the last of these grand worldviews. With the core support coming from the worse-off middle layers, the Islamist movements succeeded for two decades in activating large numbers of the disenchanted population with "cheap Islamisation" -- moral and cultural purity, affordable charity work and identity politics. However, by the mid-1990s, it became clear that the Islamists could not go very far with more costly Islamisation -- establishing an Islamic polity and economy and conducting international relations compatible with the modern national and global citizenry. Islamist rule faced crisis where it was put into practice (as in Iran and Sudan). Elsewhere, violent strategies failed (as in Egypt and Algeria), and thus new visions about the Islamic project developed. The Islamist movements were either repressed or became resigned to revision of their earlier outlooks.

Anti-Islamic sentiment in the West following the 11 September events, and the subsequent "war on terrorism", have undoubtedly reinforced a feeling that Islam is under global attack, reinforcing the languages of religiosity and nativism. Several Islamist parties which expressed, among other things, opposition to US policies scored considerable successes in nationwide elections. The Justice and Development Party in Morocco doubled its share to 42 seats in September 2002 elections. In October 2002, the Islamist movement came in third in Algerian local elections and the alliance of religious parties in Pakistan won 53 out of 150 parliamentary seats. In November, Islamists won 19 out of the total 40 parliamentary seats in Bahrain, and Turkish Justice and Development Party captured 66 per cent of the legislature. However, these electoral victories point less to a "revival of Islamism" than to a shift of Islamism as a political project with national concerns into more fragmented languages concerned with personal piety and global, anti- Islamic menace. If anything, we are on the threshold of a post-Islamist turn.

Whatever their merit, a major legacy of the Islamist movements was to change the Arab states. They rendered the Arab states more religious (as states moved to rob Islamism of its moral authority), more nativist or nationalist (as states moved to assert their Arab authenticity and to disown democracy as a Western construct) and more repressive, since the liquidation of radical Islamists offered states the opportunity to control other forms of dissent. This legacy of the Islamist movements has further complicated the politics of dissent in today's Arab world.

The revival of the "Arab street" in 2002 in solidarity with the Palestinians was truly spectacular. For a short while, states lost their tight control, and publicly vocal opposition groups proliferated, even among the "Westernised" and "apolitical" students of the American University in Cairo. The Palestinian solidarity movement showed that there is more to Arab street politics than Islamism, and spurred the renewal of a political tradition. As the US moved closer to attacking Iraq in January, one million Yemenis marched in Sanaa, chanting, "Declaration of War Is Terrorism". Over 10,000 protested in Khartoum, thousands in Damascus and Rabat, and hundreds in the Bahraini capital of Manama. Twenty thousand Christians in Jordan staged a prayer for the people of Iraq, condemning Bush's war. One thousand Yemeni women demonstrated in the streets to protest the arrest of a Yemeni citizen mistaken for an Al-Qa'eda member in Germany. Large and small protest actions against war on Iraq continued in Egypt and other Arab countries amid massive deployments of police. Since the US and UK invasion of Iraq, street protests throughout the Arab world have assumed a new momentum.

However, most of these demonstrations have occurred with the tacit but reluctant approval of the Arab states. The extremity of Israel's violence during the 2002 invasions and later invasion of US forces into Iraq brought the politicians and people in a common nationalist sentiments. In addition, street dissent has been directed largely against an outside adversary, and protesters' slogans against their own governments were voiced primarily by some ideological leaders rather than the ordinary participants. Only in the most recent Cairo rallies have some demonstrators demanded the removal of the 20-year old emergency laws which continue to hamper free public assembly.

Why has the Arab street failed to rise against its own suppression, to demand democracy and justice? While the disenfranchised have resorted to "quiet encroachment", the Arab states have considerably neutralised the political class by promulgating a common discourse based on nationalism, religiosity and anti-Zionism. Entrenched in the "old-fashioned pan-Arab nationalism", and seduced by the language of religiosity and moral politics, the Arab intelligentsia failed to seize the moment to win political concessions from their own authoritarian states. Israel's occupation of Palestine, with material and diplomatic US support, has trapped generations of Arab intelligentsia in a narrow-minded nativism and cultural nationalism from which the authoritarian Arab states largely benefit. The nativist often dismisses ideas and practices, however noble, that can be described as rooted in alien, usually "Western" cultures, and romanticises ideas and practices of the "self" even if they are oppressive. Human rights, for example, may simply be discarded as a Western import or a manipulative US ploy.

On the other hand, the Arab governments allow little room for independent dissent. Since 2000, demands for collective protests against the US and Israel have been ignored by the authorities, while unofficial street actions have faced intimidation and assault, with activists being harassed or detained. On 15 February 2003, on the day that over 10 million people throughout the world demonstrated against the US war on Iraq, thousands of Egyptian riot police squeezed some 500 demonstrators into a corner separating them from the public.

Faced formidable challenges to expression in the street, Arab activists are developing new means of articulating dissent -- boycott campaign, cyber- activism and protest are among them. As the Arab states exercise surveillance over the streets, activism is pushed inside the confines of civil institutions -- college campuses, schools, mosques, professional associations and NGOs. Given the lack of a free political climate, professional associations offer venues for political campaigns, to the extent that they often assume the role of political parties where intense competition for leadership prevails. Their headquarters serve as sites for political rallies, meetings, charity work and international solidarity campaigns. Other civil associations, chiefly the new advocacy NGOs, have begun to promote public debates on human rights, democratisation, women, children and labour rights. Currently some 90 to 100 human rights organisations operate in the Arab world, along with hundreds of social service centres, and many more social service organisations that are beginning to employ the language of rights in their work.

Innovations in mobilisation, style of communication, frame and organisational flexibility are bringing a breath of fresh air to stagnant nationalist politics. The Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada represents one such trend. Set up in October 2000, the Committee brought together representatives from Egypt's various political trends -- leftists, nationalists, Islamists, women's and rights groups. It set up a Web site, developed a mailing list, initiated charity collections, organised boycotts of American and Israeli products, revived street actions and collected 200,000 signatures on petitions to close down the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The Egyptian Anti-Globalisation Group and the National Campaign Against the War on Iraq, as well as Committee for the Defence of Workers' Rights and some human rights NGOs, adopt similar styles of activism.

Grassroots charity and boycotts, or "product campaigns", have become new mediums of political mobilisation. Collecting food and medicine for Palestinians has involved thousands of young volunteers and hundreds of companies and organisations. In April 2002, students at the American University in Cairo gathered 30 truckloads of charitable products from factories, companies and homes in the space of four days and nights, bringing them to Palestinians in Gaza. Millions of Arabs and Muslims have joined in boycotting American and Israeli products, including McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, Nike and Coca-Cola. The remarkable success of local products caused Coca-Cola to lose some 20 to 40 per cent of its market share in some countries, while fast food companies also lost sales. The Iranian Zamzam Cola captured a sizable Middle Eastern market, extending to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and several African countries. Within four months, the company exported 10 million cans to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states. Some European countries, Denmark and Belgium, began to import Zamzam. Alongside Zamzam, Mecca Cola appeared in Paris to cater to European Arabs and Muslims who boycotted the US beverages. It sold 2.2 million bottles in France within two months. Mecca Cola allocated 10 per cent of the revenue to Palestinian children.

Information technology is also increasingly being employed to direct political campaign. "Small media" has longer history in the Middle East. The sermons of Islamic preachers like Sheikh Kishk, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Fadlallah as well as the popular Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled have been disseminated on massive scales through audio and videocassettes. Followers of Amr Khaled, who was banned from preaching in late 2002, could gather over 10,000 signatures in his support via Web sites. More recently, activists have begun to use e-mails and fax-texts to publicise claims or mobilise for rallies and demonstrations. In February 2003, Egyptian coalition in solidarity with Palestine and Iraq planned to send one million petitions to the UN and the US and British embassies via Internet. Alternative news Web sites are probably the most important sites through which networks of critical and informed constituencies are formed. Satellite TV is rapidly spreading in the Arab world, bringing alternative information to break the hold of the barren domestic news channels. The skyline of Damascus, bristling with satellite dishes, helps to explain the soullessness of the street newsstands where the ruling party's dailies are displayed.

While cyber-campaigns remain limited to the elite (on average only two per cent of Arabs have access to personal computers), the politics of the arts reaches a mass audience. The Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 revived the political legacy of Umm Kulthoum, Fairouz and Morocco's Ahmad Sanoussi. Arab artists, movie stars, painters and especially singers have become oracles of public outrage. In Egypt, major pop stars such as Amr Diab, Mohamed Munir and Mustafa Qamar produced best-selling albums that featured exclusively religious and nationalist lyrics. Mohamed Munir's high-priced "Land and Peace, O Prophet of God" sold 100,000 copies in a short period. Other singers, including Ali El-Hajjar, Mohamed Tharwat and Hani Shaker, joined together to produce the religio-nationalistic album "Al-Aqsa, O God" which cornered Arab marketplaces.

Of course, the extent and efficacy of these new spaces of contention remain very modest. Yet the growing tendency of most Arab governments to try to control them -- closing NGOs, banning publications or songs and arresting Web designers -- offers a hint of their potential to compensate for the impediments facing the Arab street. As such, street politics is not a virtue, but a necessity and an opportunity, when people are compelled to make themselves heard. Virtue lies not in mass politics, but in civil society, in the institutionalisation of interest articulation and in rational dialogue. Yet the street remains the most vital locus for the audible expression of collective grievances, so long as the local regimes or the global powers ignore popularly held views. The Arab street is neither "irrational" nor "dead", but is undergoing a major transformation caused both by old constraints and new opportunities brought about by global restructuring. As a means and mode of expression, the Arab street may be shifting, but the collective grievance that it conveys remains. To ignore it is to do injustice to both moral sensibility and rational conduct of politics.

* The writer is professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. This article is a slightly revised version from the one published in the Middle East Report, No. 226, Spring 2003.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 634 Front Page
Egypt | Region | IRAQ | BAGHDAD | Economy | Opinion | Letters | Features | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map