Subverting ‘the Arab street’


Whenever I open an Arabic newspaper these days, I am accosted by columns written by neo-liberals expressing much worry about the “primacy” of the question of Palestine in Arab politics. The columnists insist that it is to the detriment of Arab nationalism, the Arab regimes, and “the Arab Street”, that Palestine remains central. While Arab nationalism as an organised political force has ceased to exist as a political project except in the hopes of believers, Arab regimes who might have paid lip service to it as the quintessential “Arab Cause”, no longer even do so except as parody.

Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the military defeat of the PLO, even that organisation, or its mere truncated shadow, the Palestinian Authority no longer believes the Palestinian cause is primary. As far as the PA is concerned, two of the three central elements of the “cause”, namely, the millions of Palestinians living in forced exile or the over one- million Palestinian Israelis who live under Israeli institutionalised racism are no longer part of the cause. If for the Arab regimes, making peace with Israel and submitting to America’s will is what has been primary all along, for the PA, it is obtaining political power for the corrupt Oslo elite and a mere semblance of rights to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians that remains primary. In today’s Arab world, apart from the Palestinians themselves, it is only in “the Arab street” that their cause lives on.

While pontificating about “the Arab street”, few of the commentators bother to even define it. It is not workers and professional unions, women’s organisations, business associations, members of opposition political parties (legal and outlawed), men and women of letters, artists, students and faculty, government and private sector employees, the unemployed, and all kinds of people drawn from rural and urban backgrounds that are spoken of, but rather some amorphous entity known as “The Arab Street”.

As the last and only bastion where the cause of an oppressed people remains primary, “the Arab street” has become the major target of subversion. It is not only the United States and its propaganda outlets (to which Radio Sawa was added last year and a new Arabic–speaking television station will be added this year) that is targeting it, but also the neo-liberal Arab intellectuals who aim to throw the Palestinian cause in the dustbin of history in the interest of making subservience to America and Israel the primary cause for “the Arab street” to espouse — just as it has been for the Arab regimes.

The neo-liberals’ resentment of the Palestinian people and the primacy of their cause for “the Arab street” is not a new phenomenon. It has been espoused by a number of Arab regimes and political currents since the 1960s. All the neo- liberal Arab intellectuals are currently doing is mobilise this resentment across the Arab world with the aim of dislodging the Palestinian cause once and for all. If some Arab nationalists and Islamists believe America is responsible for all the ills of the Arab world, neo-liberal Arab intellectuals believe that the primacy of the Palestinian cause is the main reason for all these ills. Thus, the idea is to mobilise resentment of the Palestinian people and rid the Arab world of the Palestinians in preparation for a long-awaited Arab embrace of America and Israel, otherwise known as “modernity and politics”. In an article in Al-Hayat which he co- authored, Hazim Saghiyyah, the most prominent of the neo- liberals, has recently labelled what he calls “the Arabist ideology” in reference to Arab nationalism, as “pre-political”. He often laments that the Arab world is yet to reach modernity!

It all started when the PLO threatened the Jordanian regime in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The excesses of the PLO, whose leadership was as unrepresentative of the Palestinian people as the rest of the Arab regimes are of theirs, were blamed on the Palestinian people. This created much resentment against Palestinians in “the Jordanian street”, which refused to blame the Jordanian government for its excesses. Those committed to a Maronite-dominated Lebanon blamed the Palestinian people for the mess that Maronite sectarianism created in that country and for PLO excesses there. When the Arab world rebuffed Sadat’s Egypt after his embrace of Israel and America, many in “the Egyptian street” blamed the Palestinian people and resented them for the Arab reaction. Many more blamed them for Nasser’s policies and wars; many Egyptians still do. When PLO- Amal fighting broke out in Lebanon, anti-PLO resentment again targeted the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as the culprit. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, it was Palestinians who were hated, accused of collaboration and expelled. Some Palestinians (and Kuwaitis) did collaborate, some joined the Kuwaiti resistance, and most stayed home; but the choice of the culprit was made and all Palestinians had to make amends.

Now that America has invaded Iraq, work is underway to convince Iraqis that the tens of thousands of Palestinians in Iraq are collaborators with the regime and are responsible for the oppression of Iraqis. This has led some Iraqis to evict Palestinians living in Iraq from their homes and to call for their deportation. Such accusations are levelled when millions of Iraqis, like the Palestinians living among them, had little choice but to collaborate in their daily living with many aspects of Ba’athist rule. Members of the Iraqi opposition spoke openly of their resentment that the Palestinians have allegedly been made primary when the Iraqis should have been, and fostered much hatred against the Palestinians and their cause among Iraqi exiles. The Palestinians, especially in the occupied territories, thirsty for any Arab regime that would espouse their cause against a collaborating Palestinian Authority and a savage occupation, hailed Saddam whenever he addressed them with florid rhetoric about liberation — rhetoric that cost him little but cost them much. This was propagated by the Iraqi opposition as evidence of collaboration with Saddam. This is tantamount to accusing those Iraqis who look to the United States to liberate them from Saddam as collaborators with US wars which killed millions across the globe since World War II. As for actual collaboration, major members of the Iraqi opposition like Ahmad Chalabi, and insignificant ones, like Kanan Makiyya, have been conspiring with the Israelis while on visits to Tel Aviv, and with the Zionist lobby in the US, for the last decade. Indeed, many in the Iraqi opposition worked for and/or made money off Saddam in their previous incarnations. This is aside from their collaboration with the US in its invasion of their country. That, however, is acceptable collaboration.

The attacks on the Palestinian people by segments of the Arab street since the 1960s were not spontaneous popular manifestations of resentment, rather the result of organised propaganda by the ruling political currents aided by major errors and excesses committed by an incompetent Palestinian leadership. It is the theme of this organised propaganda that has been picked up by neo-liberal Arab intellectuals for the purpose of disseminating it across “the Arab street”, now that the time may be ripe.

The neo-liberal diagnosis is as follows: the commitment to Palestine on the part of the Arab regimes and Arab nationalism have kept the Arab world under dictatorial rule, retarded its sought after modernisation and development, and caused extremist political currents to emerge and dominate it. Absent Palestine, one presumes, the Arab world today would have been a copy of Western Europe in development terms and in liberal democracy, and its political current would be liberal-artistic pacifism. It remains unclear if Palestine is also responsible for why most countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa remained undemocratic for much of the last half century, and many, like Arab countries, remain so to this day.

While few would disagree that Arab rulers and political movements have used the Palestinian cause to justify any number of excesses ranging from internal repression and dictatorial rule to refusal to engage local populations in their daily struggle, the neo-liberal analysis confuses how rendering something primary rhetorically is quite different from making it primary in policy. The irony is that the neo- liberals refuse to believe much of what the Arab regimes and Arab politicians say except for their alleged commitment to the primacy of the Palestinian cause in Arab politics. The primacy of the Palestinian cause in Arab politics, however, came about as part and parcel of the primacy of decolonisation more generally in post-war Arab politics. Once Algeria was liberated, Palestine remained the only major Arab country subject to colonisation (although Aden and other small Gulf states remained so till the early 1970s). Arab regimes had to respond to an existing situation not of their own making, but which they successfully undid, starting with Bourguiba and ending with Arafat.

The neo-liberals however are not convinced. Arab nationalism may be dead as an organised political force, but its rhetoric continues to dominate, and that is what makes Palestine primary. But if that is the case, then, as Arab regimes are not committed to the pan-Arab nationalist project, it cannot be that the Palestine cause is what causes them to be undemocratic and “retards” their march toward modernity, no matter how much they claim it as the reason. As for Islamists, their major call is to create “Islamic states” and not to liberate Palestine, although they may call for the latter as an added benefit. As for “the Arab street”, it has never let the Palestinian cause take precedence over its daily living. When bread prices go up, the Arab street rises from Tunis to Cairo to Amman. When the US invades Iraq, “the Arab street” demonstrates from Rabat to Bahrain. From women’s rights to union activism and much more, “the Arab street” rises to the occasion whenever it can and is not faced with police rifles. When then has the Palestinian cause prevented “the Arab street” from attending to its own daily issues? How does the solidarity that “the Arab street” shows in its demonstrations detract from its march to a US-sponsored modernity?

As the arguments of the Arab neo-liberals founder on themselves, what becomes apparent is not that “the Arab street” is the victim of some elaborate “pre-political” rhetoric sold to it by an “anti-modern” Arab nationalism or its manipulative dictatorial regimes, but rather that it is the Arab neo-liberals who are naéve consumers of a “modern and political” rhetoric that is produced in the US and Israel and which they fail to question. As their strategy continues unabated, one need not be a prophet to predict which Arab people will soon be told that the Palestinians are responsible for their misery!

“The Arab street”, however, has never been so gullible. When Radio Sawa aired, contrary to American efforts and those of its Lebanese Director Muwaffaq Harb, it became, despite itself, a mechanism for sharing Arab culture. As for the chatter about the Palestinians’ political irrelevance that Radio Sawa sought to deploy, it has simply reminded the Arab world of the Palestinians’ suffering in the shadow of the Intifada. The Jordanians, Lebanese Maronites and Shi’ites, and the Kuwaitis who had once forsaken the Palestinians have all demonstrated in solidarity with them during their recent tragedies. The Iraqis, their exile opposition and its local minions notwithstanding, will also prove more resilient in the face of such hateful rhetoric. American propaganda and the neo- liberals’ columns might be marketable among the few; it seems, however, that “the Arab street” across the board will remain resistant to such suspect merchandise.

The writer is assistant professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.