The amorphous Arab Street
By Justin Martin
Western pundits and journalists are fond of talking about the “Arab Street” as a gauge of Middle Eastern public opinion. They may write, for example, that a given political directive “will only worsen attitudes toward the United States on the Arab Street,” or that “discontent with America’s policies is festering on the Arab Street.” As a term in American journalism, “Arab Street” has come to represent the place where Arabs gather to collectively examine Western policies. Such statements, though, contain a palpable trace of ethnocentrism, as Arabs are conceptualized as a cohesive amalgam in the public sphere, waiting on crowded sidewalks for political trial balloons to float in from the West to be passed around the square, evaluated and prodded. The truth, however, is that life on the so-called Arab Street is not as Pavlovian as this stimulus-response model suggests. Certainly, there is discontentment among many citizens of the Arab-Muslim world, but the reasons for such unrest are many and often have nothing to do with the United States.
Consider this past June, when Egyptian newspapers gave front-page and above-the-fold attention to a comment President Bush made about jailed Egyptian political dissident Ayman Nour. Delivering a speech in Prague, Bush criticized the administration of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for the protracted detention of Nour, one of Egypt’s most popular dissidents. Reactions to Bush’s statement on Arab streets—at least those of Cairo—were less than fulsome.
There are a few possible reasons for this, the first of which is that open support for Nour and his release can earn Egyptians the honor of being his next cellmate. Another reason for the indifference is that Egyptians don’t really expect the U.S. government to precipitate Nour’s release. One of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid next to Israel, Egypt has suffered from less-than-forthright leaders who have been propped up by American largesse for decades.
But intimidation and cynicism aside, the main reason Bush’s criticism didn’t elicit emphatic responses on Cairo’s streets and from its rooftops is because there are a multitude of concerns for Egypt’s Arabs other than those involving Western policy statements.
And so the talk in Cairo’s cafes the day after Bush’s speech was similar to that of any other day. As I sat writing and drinking cups of viscous Arabic coffee, I could hear Egyptians discussing the same problems they always do: the heat of summer, Cairo’s intractable traffic woes, and the raakid—stagnant—nature of the Egyptian pound. Even on Talaat Harb Street—the busiest and most famous street in Egypt and probably the Arab world—cafes were awash with Cairenes and their usual chatter.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on the Arab Street, which shares many characteristics with streets in other parts of the world. It’s a place where people meet for meals, to re-caffeinate, to go to work or to shop. Arabs on these streets are not impressed or incensed that I am American, and they rarely talk to me about the politics of Western governments. They ask me instead about my work and my family, not because they are disinterested in politics, but because these are the kinds of things that they worry about most of the time and assume I do as well.
It seems proper to admit, though, that Western observers are slightly on to something in recognizing the Arab Street as a very public forum where deals are made and broken, and where Arabs meet to talk at length about whatever concerns and interests them. Indeed, today I had coffee at Café Riche, a storied restaurant in Cairo where famed Egyptian President Gamal Abd-Ah Nasser is rumored to have planned his coup in the early 1950s.
Anyone who has traveled to Amman, Jerusalem or Cairo knows that the Arab Street is in fact a place where collective decisions are made.
But the topics of these decisions are usually unrelated to anything having to do with the United States. We American writers and commentators are wrong when we assume that opposition to Western politics dominates these discussions. The Arab Street is much more protean and far less predictable than that.
(Justin Martin is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Visit his blog, “The Arab Free Press,” at http://jdmartin1980.wordpress.com Copyr.ight Arab Writers Group, http://www.ArabWritersGroup.com )