The Mood on the Arab Street
June 2, 2002
References: Two earlier letters from Professor X on the Middle East:
After Israel's Campaign: Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus
One of the most noteworthy features of the Arab world is the unusual volatility of public opinion: volatility, but without much variability. The populace of any Western nation tends to express its inner fluctuations by shifting views on a wide range of issues, as reflected in the opinion polls to which our politicians are often accused of being held hostage. Public opinion in Arab countries, less politically free to explore a range of options on any given issue, expresses its fluctuations by raising and lowering the level of intensity in its (often predictable) opinions.
It has taken me several years in Egypt to learn this lesson: that a mood of grim outrage on the streets of Cairo is not necessarily much to worry about. In any Western country, a chanting mob of students surrounded by riot police armed with lethal weaponry would be fateful news indeed: the prelude to either a revolution or a massacre. But nations in this part of the world are better able to absorb such phenomena; in a strange sense, I have even come to see that they can represent a healthy release.
What leads me to these thoughts is the recollection of how scared I was to live in Egypt in early April, and how unfrightening it has once again become.
The mood of Cairo unleashed by Israel's campaign in the West Bank was the most frightening I have seen during my time here. Here as elsewhere, the university campuses were the incubator for most of the anti-Israeli rage. The new and disturbing element was the closer-than-ever fusion of Israel with America in the posters and slogans of the militants.
In one sense, America as a target of Arab anger is very old news. But during my time here there always seemed to be something a bit hollow about it. The hatred for Israel was always visceral, expressed with tensed muscles and facial expressions appropriate for the launching of invasions. When talk turned to America, there always seemed to me to be something unconvincing about it. It often sounded like bluster, and those expressing it would soon return to their American movies and fast food and speak English warmly to Westerners encountered on the street.
In early April, I thought I was sensing a new element of darkness in the things being said about America here. The linking of America and Israel began to sound like it was coming from the heart, and not from some theatrical display. The growing boycott of American consumer products began to horrify me, not because of any minimal economic impact that might occur, but because the emotional overtones of the boycott seemed to be pushing America slowly toward that zone of Pure Evil to which Sharon's Israel is already consigned throughout much of the Arab world.
Was it only a mirage, or was I sensing something real but intermittently suppressed? I don't know the answer to this question. But I do know that the dark rage against America that I sensed in early April has vanished, and Cairo is back to "business as usual." Despite a shaky economy and growing public dismay over President Mubarak's rumored grooming of his son Gamal as his successor, Egypt once again feels like a plausible American ally. The storm has passed for now. And the Mubarak government has weathered it with only one dead student protester: certainly a tragedy for that student and his family, but far from the nation-shaking upheaval that seemed possible only six weeks ago.
The only "moral" I am able to draw from the passing of the crisis is that, when America and its allies undertake military actions unpopular in the Arab world, speed seems to be of the essence. Once Sharon had ordered his limited pullout from the West Bank, the protests quickly began to dissipate. It was not the Gulf War, but rather the protracted sanctions regime since the war, that has earned America the (largely slanderous) reputation of the great killer of Iraqi babies. What prevented Afghanistan from becoming a major American public relations problem in the Arab world was simply the rapid pace of the victory. There are still occasional tirades here about the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but they tend to sound formulaic, and are rarely picked up and developed by others.
On the whole, Arab governments seem easily able to withstand brief surges of violent emotion from their peopleŠ this is precisely what their police forces are designed to control, and they are willing to use these forces in ways that would make some Western governments squeamish. But Arab governments may be more vulnerable to any seeping, long-term corrosion of public support.
In late April I returned to Beirut, a city of vastly underrated beauty. Beirut is so shockingly Western in many ways that one would expect it to be a more comfortable political environment for Americans than an obviously Third World city such as Cairo. This is not the case, of course. With surprising unanimity, the Lebanese people (of all religions) speak negatively of American foreign policy. The consumer boycotts in Lebanon seem far more advanced and better organized than those elsewhere in the region: across the street from the gorgeous campus of the American University of Beirut, a lonely Dunkin' Donuts outlet already has the look of a store nearing bankruptcy.
And yet, even as politically charged a place as Beirut seems less absorbed in current events than America, whose wounds are both more recent and more rare in its history. In the circles in which I travel, I am not the only American who spends much of his time obsessed with the various ominous fluctuations of the post-9/11 landscape. The Lebanese seem to grant themselves the right not to think about it too much. Perhaps they have earned that right. I asked my regular Beirut taxi driver, Khaled, whether Lebanon would still be a safe tourist environment for Americans in the event of a second Gulf War. His response was perhaps typical of the Lebanese attitude: "Bush is fool, Saddam is fool... Why are you worried about next year? In Lebanon, we think about tomorrow."
But the trip did include one disturbing conversation with a Lebanese citizen, this time with a Maronite Christian. These conversations always begin in the same way, and for precisely the same reason: as an American who has a deep fascination with Islamic culture and history, and who also has great sympathy for the idea of a Palestinian state, I must trigger the same sorts of odors as a kind of person with whom I have nothing in common at allŠ the type of America-bashing American who blames U.S. corporations and redneck militaristic stupidity for every least evil on the planet. This inevitably means that I am treated to any number of wild anti-American diatribes from people who assume that I am on board with their entire program, rather than simply in agreement with their notion that Arab culture is badly misunderstood in the West.
My normal tactic is simply to let them rant. It's enlightening to hear the full range of colorful extravagance that can be found in the public opinion of the Middle East; under normal circumstances, there is little to gain by sticking up for American policy amidst ten angry people who despise it. But my Lebanese acquaintance (we had been well on the way to becoming friends), managed to push things too far. Our conversation in a restaurant almost ended violently when he claimed that 9/11 was a CIA plot designed to assist Israel. I was perfectly happy dismissing this theory with a wave of the hand. But he started pressing the point, explaining his theory in ways that began to make me ill, and finally it was his wife who noticed that my voice was becoming louder and louder as I told her husband to stop talking. The conversation ended, and was never resumed. It can safely be concluded that the war on terrorism will find few supporters in Lebanon.
This same trip included a visit to Syria. There is less to be said about Syria, simply because it is a more difficult place to meet people than is a free-wheeling society like Lebanon.
What I did notice in Damascus was an even more vociferous boycott of American consumer goods than in Lebanon. In front of the Umayyad Mosque one hot afternoon, I stopped at a vendor's stand for a glass fresh-squeezed orange juice. As he pressed out the juice, I read an Arabic/English poster mounted beneath his box of fruit: "Every American dollar we deal with today is a bullet in the head of an Arab brother tomorrow. Boycott U.S. products!"
I would like to make a final remark in defense of the American media, which for all its faults would never stoop to the level of amateurish manipulation that I saw last week in an Egyptian newspaper.
The Egyptian Gazette is a mediocre English-language daily that largely reflects the official government line. Many of its stories make me laugh, but none have ever made me angry. Until now. First, an unsurprising headline caught my eye: "American Writer Says Israel Behind September 11 Attacks." This didn't bother me at all, and actually provided a good 30 seconds of amusement as I tried to guess who the writer in question could be. The outrage came when I read the opening half-sentence, which deserves no comment:
"Noted U.S. author David Duke..."
No explanation. No attempt to contextualize who this man is and where he stands in the American political discourse.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is the fact there is a level of human existence on which none of it matters. Even among those Egyptians who despise my government, there are many who would gladly jump into a river to save my life. There are shared handshakes, cigarettes, and personal confidences. There are moments of the sort of religious tolerance that is possible only among those who take religion seriously. And there are friendships that can probably withstand even the worst of what the coming yeas may have to offer.
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