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February 02, 2003

Has Saddam Lost the Arab Street ?

This piece in The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin suggests that Saddam is losing support among Arabs. And poor Edward Said is "astonished."
Expectations that the Arab street will rise up in protest against an American war in Iraq are informed by three considerations. First, anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high in the Arab world (along with much of the non-Arab world). Second, most observers make explicit or implicit comparisons to the first Gulf War, when mass demonstrations erupted in many Arab countries. Even in Mauritania, on the political and cultural fringe of the Arab world, some 20,000 demonstrators marched on the American and French Embassies in January 1991. Hospitals throughout the Arab world delivered children with names like "Scud Hussein," while street vendors sold out of mass-produced desk ornaments, lapel pins, and wristwatches bearing the Iraqi leader's likeness. Third, pundits point to (relatively) large-scale anti-Israeli demonstrations that have erupted around the Arab world during the current Palestinian uprising against Israel as evidence that a raucous "Arab street" will not passively accept an American war in the Middle East.

An uninitiated observer of Arab politics might be tempted to conclude from Mubarak's bold warning that the Egyptian people are seething with outrage about the prospect of a US march into Baghdad. On the contrary, while demonstrations in support of the Palestinian uprising against Israel have drawn tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets, efforts to organize mass anti-war demonstrations have been a dismal failure. "The Arab Street is apathetic on the issue of Iraq," says Hisham Qassem, editor-in-chief of the English language daily Cairo Times.5 "Egyptians main sympathy is with the Palestinians," explains Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, "Iraq is a marginal issue for them."6

The same is true, to varying degrees, throughout the Arab world. "In stark contrast to the widespread demonstrations that came out in many Western cities to protest US plans for war on Iraq, the Arab street has on the whole been mute and indifferent," observed Jordanian journalist Muna Shuqair, with a hint of disgust.7 Columbia University Professor Edward Said, one of the leading Arab intellectuals in the United States, expressed astonishment at this phenomenon. "It is impossible to believe," he wrote in a recent article. "How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance? Has the Arab will completely dissolved?" [more]