International

Streetlife

When was the last time you heard some glib pundit employing the phrase “The Arab Street”? Asks Christopher Hitchens before briefly surveying the changing political landscape in the Arab world.

Other Muslim streets are even more problematic for those who lazily assume that the jihadists are the voice of the unheard. The populations of Bosnia and Kosovo—populations that actually did have to confront anti-Muslim violence on a large scale—are generally hostile to Bin-Ladenism. Nobody has ever used the term “Iranian street,” at least in print or on broadcast news, if only because everyone knows that Iranian opinion, as registered during the mock elections or voiced to visiting hacks, is strongly against the reigning theocracy.

This doesn’t entitle those of us in the regime-change camp to claim the “street” either. It simply means that those who once annexed the term have been forced to drop it, and for a good reason. The struggle for public opinion in the region is a continuing one and cannot be determined in advance, least of all by pseudo-populists who grant the violent Islamists their first premise.

My emphasis in bold. Because that really is the central issue in any discussion of the process that may now be underway in the Middle East. Just as there is no guaranteed resistance to democracy, nor is there anything inevitable about liberation spreading.

One of the additional reasons for supporting the overthrow of the fascist regime in Baghdad was that it may spark a series of changes elsewhere. There were good reasons of course to support liberating Iraq without such a ‘bonus element’ but many in the regime-change camp, particularly those from a neo-conservative outlook, did believe that breaking the grip of terror and dictatorship in Iraq could act as some sort of catalyst for change elsewhere.

This view has been widely misrepresented as a belief in the ‘domino effect’, even though leading neo-cons like Paul Wolfowitz are on record as explicitly rejecting such a notion.

Of Iraq, Wolfowitz said: The future is creating a country in the heart of the Arab world that has an independent judiciary, that respects minority rights, that respects the rights of women, that observes democratic practices.

“That’s going to have an influence. It’s not a domino effect — that’s an absurd comparison. But it will have a broad influence in the Middle East in the way I believe Japan had a great influence on East Asia, and subsequently Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong had a broad influence on China.

Is it just a coincidence that we have the cosmetic attempts at reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, containing perhaps the seeds of further change, coming so soon after Saddam’s dictatorship fell? Would the recent assassination in Beirut have lead to anti-Ba’athist demonstrations in the absence of a fallen Ba’athist regime in Baghdad?

Again we cannot be certain. What we can probably be fairly sure of is that the racist notion that Arabs are not interested in democracy, or consider it to be a hostile ‘western import’, was given the purple finger by the Iraqi electorate. Likewise the idea that democracy is incompatible with a society of majority Muslim faith, one of many reactionary ideas that the Islamists share with the psuedo-left in the West, was treated with derision by voters in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

We can also be fairly confident that the defeat of those two myths has been of great encouragement to progressives in the Arab world. The appearance of permanency, of regimes across the region that appeared to be entrenched, has been removed.

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