Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 March 2007
Issue No. 837
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

The silent Arab majority

The potential is there, momentum having been built. All that is necessary for change in key Arab states now is a trigger, writes Ayman El-Amir*

If there is such a thing as a silent Arab majority it has not shown itself in full strength recently. This is not for lack of common grievance or interest in national, regional or global problems affecting it; indeed, there have been signs of separate or collective reactions to events. But sporadic reactions have not gathered the requisite momentum or critical mass to trigger radical change. The hushed Arab majority that has been harshly suppressed for decades is watching and waiting. It has not spoken yet, but it will.

It is difficult to lump together all silent Arab constituencies into one mass that shares the same pains and aspirations. During the 20th century, colonialism represented a common agony and a national challenge that unified a mosaic of Arab countries that claimed a common religion, language and heritage but no unified political vision of the future. They saw a common national cause and launched a mutually reinforcing struggle until colonial rule was thrown out. Today, the agonies and aspirations of the silent majority in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan, as examples, is fundamentally different from those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai. The first category is yearning for change that would turn a new leaf in the history of their countries and for fundamental human rights that other nations acquired 300 years ago. The second category is contentedly silent because it has stakes in the perpetuity of the petrodollars-based economy in the present and future. Both categories share a genuine sense of alarm at Israeli dehumanisation of the Palestinian people in their own homeland, but there is an ever- widening divergence in political, economic and social perspectives in other regards.

It was late US President Richard Nixon that popularised the term "silent majority" in a nationwide address in November 1969, at the peak of the Vietnam War. He was tapping a non- activist constituency in the conservative US mid-west and south that unwarily supplied the best of its young men to the grinding war machine, only to receive them back in body bags -- a flash reminder of Iraq today. Under the beguiling banner of patriotism, that US silent majority responded enthusiastically by giving Nixon a landslide victory and second presidential term in 1972. The same silent majority forced him out of office two years later when it discovered that he had lied to the nation about the extent of his involvement in breaking into the election campaign offices of the rival Democratic Party at the Watergate building in Washington, DC.

The silent Arab majority is markedly different in that, in most Arab countries, it has no way of expressing its will freely. It shuns the ballot box because its members suspect that the elections or referenda in which they are invited to participate will be rigged anyway -- a political anomaly they have lived with for decades. Peaceful protest is usually confronted with overwhelming police brutality. Activist movements are perennially kept off-balance by a programmed agenda of arrests and detention. This majority silently suffers the indignities of poverty, disease, repression and the denial of fundamental human rights and freedoms in the name of state security. The endless meetings and discussions of its leaders in the name of the national interest, or to tackle grave political crises, are as irrelevant to it as the actions they may choose to agree or disagree on. The silent Arab majority has more fear than respect for the ruthlessness of the unbridled powers of its ruling barons. Yet the ruling barons fear the wrath of the silent majority in turn. It is the deadlock of decades, which has recently been complicated by the introduction of extraordinary measures in the name of the global fight against terrorism.

There were times when the silent majority showed its mettle in historic circumstances. It provided critical support for military coups that sought political change in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan and Libya; it rejected military defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 and retaliated in 1973; and it renounced the invasion of Iraq and Lebanon. It is a few steps ahead of its leaders in rejecting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Despite the differences in fortunes and political systems, the silent Arab majority of both categories claim a few common traits, including a sense of common culture, pride in a glorious past, and an individuality that rejects hegemony, especially of a foreign hue conceived in Washington or London.

By all indications, both factions of the silent Arab majority have a problem with their leaders. Leaders of both country-categories want perpetuity in power, mostly for reasons that are not wholesome. They introduce new legislations, make constitutional amendments, order more draconian police measures and suppress human rights. They authorise cardboard political parties, stir diversionary political debates and religious controversies and initiate false reforms -- seemingly for the sole purpose of retaining power or bequeathing it after their demise. Needless to say, power is not only seductive but is equally addictive. In serious democracies leaders get in and out of power with the ultimate reward of having served their nations honestly and to the best of their abilities. In make-believe democracies leaders never give up power willingly. It could be that, in addition to the lure of power, they have committed so many serious offences that they cannot afford to have another regime unveil them if a genuine rotation of power takes hold. This is probably why some Arab leaders have reacted angrily to the decision of the military junta in Mauritania, one of the world's least developed countries, to relinquish power and return it to the people to choose their own leader in a free and fair election -- a dangerous precedent by all standards of Arab political doctrine.

The silent Arab majority is not an issue on the agenda of the forthcoming Arab summit meeting. However, its presence in the high-rise business offices as well as in the slums and squatters' quarters of Arab capitals can hardly be missed. Like magma under the crust of the earth, it is torrid, turbulent, calmly surging and waiting for an opening to break out.

Two conditions need to materialise for the silent Arab majority to come violently to the surface: full momentum and a trigger. A sense of humiliation among Arabs -- whether because of the US invasion, occupation and destruction of Iraq, or Israel's liquidation campaign against the Palestinian people, or the tightening grip of indigenous dictatorships -- is boiling over. Both the US and Israel are rubbing it into Arab eyes, creating necessary momentum. The trigger does not need to be an earth-shaking event; but could be something as unpredictable as a food riot or small town religious tensions, or civil war breaking out in Lebanon. The trigger is just the match that lights the fuse. Then the silent Arab majority will come to the fore.

Last week, two protests took place, one in Cairo and another in Budapest. The Cairo gathering was organised by the Kifaya opposition movement to protest the government's proposed constitutional amendments. It drew close to 300 people and at the end of the protest -- which was peaceful -- 33 people were arrested. In Budapest, 100,000 Hungarians gathered in angry protest against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany who is accused of lying about his government's economic performance in the past two years. Some 36 protesters were arrested after violent clashes with the police. The two protests in Cairo and Budapest have no qualitative difference, only two different political environments that illustrate the status of two silent majorities: one is active, the other in abeyance.

* The writer is former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.

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