The "Street" and the Politics of Dissent in the Arab World
In the tense weeks between the September 11 attacks and the first US bombing raids over Afghanistan, and continuing until the fall of the Taliban, commentators raised serious concerns about what the Wall Street Journal later called the "irrational Arab street."  If the US attacked a Muslim country, the pundits worried, would the "Arab street" rally behind Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists, endangering other US interests in the region and rendering George W. Bush's "war on terrorism" a troublesome, if not doomed, venture from the outset? As US troops prepared to deploy in Afghanistan, some officials in Washington implored Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to exercise restraint in his campaign to crush the Palestinian uprising by force. Should Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory continue during the US assault on the Taliban, they feared, the simmering rage of the Arab masses might "boil over," leaving the local gendarmes powerless to prevent the furious crowds from harming Americans, trashing US property and threatening the stability of friendly Arab regimes. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) broached the possibility that "every US embassy in the Middle East [would be] burned to the ground." 
Since the war in Afghanistan, and continuing through the major Israeli offensives in the West Bank and the buildup to Bush's war on Iraq, the "Arab street" has become a minor household word in the West, bandied about in the media as both a subject of profound anxiety and an object of withering condescension. The "Arab street," and by extension, the "Muslim street," have become code words that immediately invoke a reified and essentially "abnormal" mindset, as well as a strange place filled with angry people who, whether because they hate us or just don't understand us, must shout imprecations against us. "Arab or other Muslim actions" are described almost exclusively in terms of "mobs, riots, revolts,"  leading to the logical conclusion that "Western standards for measuring public opinion simply don't apply" in the Arab world. At any time, American readers are reminded, protesting Arab masses may shed their unassuming appearance and "suddenly turn into a mob, powerful enough to sweep away governments" -- notably the "moderate" Arab governments who remain loyal allies of the US. 
Worries about the "Arab street" notwithstanding, US forces did move into Afghanistan, US bombs did kill Afghan civilians in the thousands, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only briefly "cooled off" and Bush moved full speed ahead with plans to attack Iraq. But, though numerous protests in the Muslim and Arab worlds did occur, no US embassy was burned to the ground. Nor did the Arab and Muslim masses rally behind bin Laden. Only when Israel invaded the West Bank in the spring of 2002 did ordinary people in the Arab world collectively explode with outrage. The millions of Arab citizens who poured into the streets of Cairo, Amman, Rabat and many other cities to express sympathy with the Palestinians evoked memories of how Arab anti-colonial movements in the post-war period were driven from below. But because the "Arab street" had not erupted at the possible US bombing in Afghanistan during Ramadan, this very real example of latent popular anger in the Arab world was airily dismissed. Abruptly, the image of the "Arab street" shifted from an unpredictable powder keg to a "myth" and a "bluff," somehow kept alive despite the fact that Arab countries were filled with "brainwashed" people trapped in "apathy."  The implication for US policymaking was clear: Arabs do not have the guts to stop an attack on Iraq or any other unpopular US initiative, and therefore the US should express "not sensitivity, but resolution" in the face of remonstrations from Arab allies.  Neither the slogans of the actual demonstrators nor the insistence of Arab governments that they face unbearable pressure from their populations needed to be taken at face value. The Economist declared the "death" of the Arab street, once and for all. It was not long before National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that because the Arab peoples are too weak to demand democracy, the US should intervene to liberate the Arab world from its tyrants. 
A Sense of Place
In the narratives of the Western media, the "Arab street" is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't -- it is either "irrational" and "aggressive" or it is "apathetic" and "dead." There is little chance of its salvation as something Western societies might recognize as familiar. The "Arab street" has become an extension of another infamous concept, the "Arab mind," which also reified the culture and collective conduct of an entire people in a violent abstraction. It is another subject of Orientalist imagination, reminiscent of colonial representation of the "other," which sadly has been internalized by some Arab selves. By no simple oversight, the "Arab street" is seldom regarded as an expression of public opinion and collective sentiment, like its Western counterpart still is, but is perceived primarily as a physical entity, a brute force expressed in riots and mob violence. The "Arab street" matters only in its violent imaginary, when it is poised to imperil interests or disrupt grand strategies. The street that conveys the collective sentiment is a non-issue, because the US can and often does safely ignore it. Such perceptions of the "Arab street" inform Washington's approach in the Middle East -- flouting Arab public opinion with increasingly unequivocal support for Sharon while he proceeds to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, and simultaneously, with determination to wage war on Iraq.
But street politics in general, and the Arab street in particular ,are more complex. Neither street is just a physicality, nor is the Arab street a mere brute force or simply dead. The Arab street is primarily an expression of public sentiment, but one whose modes and means of articulation have gone through significant changes. Street politics is the modern urban theater of contention par excellence. We need only remember the role the "street" has played in such monumental political changes as the French Revolution, nineteenth-century labor movements, anti-colonial struggles, the anti-Vietnam war in the US, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, and perhaps, the current global anti-war movement. The street is the chief locus of politics for ordinary people, those who are structurally absent from positions of power. Simultaneously social and spatial, constant and current, a place of both the familiar and the stranger, the visible and the vocal, the street represents a complex entity wherein sentiments and outlooks are formed, spread and expressed in a unique fashion.
In the Arab world, the street is the physical place where collective dissent is expressed. In the street, one finds not only marginalized elements -- the poor and unemployed -- but also actors with some institutional power like students, workers, women, state employees and shopkeepers. The spatial element in street politics distinguishes it from strikes or sit-ins, because streets are not only where people protest, but also where they extend their protest beyond their immediate circle. A street march not only brings together the invitees, but also involves the "strangers" who might espouse similar, real or imagined, grievances. It is this epidemic potential, and not simply the disruption or uncertainty caused by riots, that threatens the authorities, who exert a pervasive power over public spaces -- with police patrols, traffic regulation, spatial division -- as a result. Students at Cairo University, for example, often stage protest marches inside the campus. However, the moment they decide to come out into the street (where the Israeli embassy is located), riot police are immediately and massively deployed to encircle the demonstrators, push them into a corner away from public view and keep the protest a local event. Indeed, this heavily guarded actual street, now renamed after Muhammad al-Durra, the boy killed in Israeli "crossfire" in the early stages of the second intifada, points to the fact that the metaphorical street is not deserted so much as it is controlled.
Cost of Living
Arab anti-colonial struggles attest to the active history of the Arab street. Popular movements arose in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during the late 1950s after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The unsuccessful tripartite aggression by Britain, France and Israel in October 1956 to reclaim control of the Canal caused an outpouring of popular protests in Arab countries in support of Egypt. Although 1956 was probably the last major pan-Arab solidarity movement until the pro-Palestinian wave of 2002, social protests by workers, artisans, women and students for domestic social development, citizens' rights and political participation have been documented.  Labor movements in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco have carried out strikes or street protests over both bread-and-butter and political issues. Since the 1980s, during the era of IMF-recommended structural adjustment programs, Arab labor unions have tried to resist cancellations of consumer commodity subsidies, price rises, pay cuts and layoffs. Despite no-strike deals and repression of activists, wildcat stoppages have occurred. Fear of popular resistance has often forced governments, such as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, to delay structural adjustment programs or retain certain social policies. 
When traditional social contracts are violated, Arab populations have reacted swiftly. The 1980s saw numerous urban protests over the spiraling cost of living. In August 1983, the Moroccan government reduced consumer subsidies by 20 percent, triggering urban unrest in the north and elsewhere. Similar protests took place in Tunis in 1984, and in Khartoum in 1982 and 1985. In summer 1987, the rival factions in the Lebanese civil war joined hands to stage an extensive street protest against a drop in the value of the Lebanese currency. Algeria was struck by cost-of-living riots in the fall of 1988, and Jordanians staged nationwide protests in 1989, over the plight of Palestinians and economic hardship, forcing the late King Hussein to introduce cautious measures of political liberalization. Lifting subsidies in 1996 provoked a new wave of street protests, leading the king to restrict freedom of expression and assembly.  In Egypt in 1986, low-ranking army officers took to the streets to protest the Mubarak regime's decision to extend military service. The unrest quickly spread to other sectors of society.
While the lower and middle classes formed the core of urban protests, college students often joined in. But student movements have had their own contentious agendas. In Egypt, the 1970s marked the heyday of a student activism dominated by leftist trends. Outraged opposition to the Camp David peace treaty and economic austerity brought thousands of students out into urban streets. Earlier years had seen students organizing conferences, strikes, sit-ins, street marches and producing newspapers for the walls, the "freest of publications."  In 1991, students in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Sudan demonstrated to express anger against both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Since 1986, Palestinian students have been among the most frequent participants in actions of the intifada, often undeterred by the Israeli army's policies of shooting and arresting students or closing down Palestinian universities.
Yet many things have changed drastically for the Arab street since the 1980s. The pace of cost-of-living protests has slowed down, as governments enact structural adjustment programs more slowly and cautiously, deploy safety nets such as social funds (Egypt and Jordan) and allow Islamic NGOs and charities to help out the poor. Indeed, the Arab world enjoys the lowest incidence of extreme poverty in the world's developing regions.  Meanwhile, the discontent of the impoverished middle classes was channeled into the Islamist movements in general, and the politicization of professional syndicates in particular.
On the other hand, the more traditional class-based movements -- notably, peasant organizations, cooperative movements and trade unions -- are in relative decline. As peasants have moved to the city from the countryside, or lost their land to become rural day laborers, the social basis of peasant and cooperative movements has eroded. The weakening of economic populism, closely linked to structural adjustment, has led to the decline of public sector employment, which constituted the core of trade unionism. Through reform, downsizing, privatization and relocation, structural adjustment has undermined the unionized public sector, while new private enterprises linked to international capital remain largely union-free. Although the state bureaucracy remains weighty, its underpaid employees are unorganized, and a large proportion of them survive by taking second or third jobs in the informal sector. Currently, much of the Arab work force is self-employed. Many wage-earners work in small enterprises where paternalistic relations prevail. On average, between one third and one half of the urban work force are involved in the unregulated, unorganized informal sector. While tension between bosses and employees is not uncommon in these establishments, laborers tend to remain more loyal to their bosses than to fellow workers in the shop next door.
Although the explosive growth of NGOs since the 1980s heralded autonomous civic activism, NGOs are premised on the politics of fragmentation. NGOs divide the potential beneficiaries of their activism into small groups, substitute charity for principles of rights and accountability, and foster insider lobbying rather than street politics. It is largely the advocacy NGOs, involved in human rights, women's rights and democratization, not wealth and income gaps, that offer different and new spaces for social mobilization.
As people rely more on informal activities and their loyalties are fragmented, struggles for wages and conditions tend to lose ground to concerns over jobs, informal work conditions and an affordable cost of living, and rapid urbanization increases demands for urban services, shelter, decent housing, health and education. Under such conditions, the Arab grassroots resorts not to politics of collective protest but to the individualistic strategy of "quiet encroachment." Individuals and families strive to acquire basic necessities (land for shelter, urban collective consumption, informal jobs and business opportunities) in a prolonged and unassuming, though illegal, fashion. Instead of organizing a street march to demand electricity, for example, the disenfranchised simply tap into the municipal power grid without authorization. 
Legacy of Islamism
In the Arab world, the political class par excellence remains the educated middle class -- state employees, students, professionals and the intelligentsia -- who mobilized the "street" in the 1950s and 1960s with overarching ideologies of nationalism, Ba'thism, socialism and social justice. Islamism has been the latest of these grand worldviews. With the core support coming from the worse-off middle layers, the Islamist movements succeeded for two decades in activating large numbers of the disenchanted population with cheap Islamization -- moral and cultural purity, affordable charity work and identity politics. However, by the mid-1990s, it became clear that the Islamists could not go very far with more costly Islamization -- establishing an Islamic polity and economy and conducting international relations compatible with the modern national and global citizenry. Islamist rule faced crisis where it was put into practice (as in Iran and Sudan). Elsewhere, violent strategies failed (as in Egypt and Algeria), and thus new visions about the Islamic project developed. The Islamist movements were either repressed or became resigned to revision of their earlier outlooks.
Anti-Islamic sentiment in the West following the September 11 events, and the subsequent "war on terrorism," have undoubtedly reinforced a feeling that Islam is under global attack, reinforcing the languages of religiosity and nativism. Several Islamist parties which, among other things, expressed opposition to US policies scored considerable successes in several national elections. The Justice and Development Party in Morocco doubled its share to 42 seats in September 2002 elections. In October 2002, the Islamist movement came in third in Algerian local elections and the alliance of religious parties in Pakistan won 53 out of 150 parliamentary seats. In November, Islamists won 19 out of the total 40 parliamentary seats in Bahrain, and the Turkish Justice and Development Party captured 66 percent of the legislature. However, these electoral victories point less to a "revival of Islamism"  than to a shift of Islamism from a political project with national concerns into more fragmented languages concerned with personal piety and global, anti-Islamic menace. If anything, we are on the threshold of a post-Islamist turn. 
The Islamist movements undoubtedly changed the Arab states. They rendered the Arab states more religious (as states moved to rob Islamism of its moral authority), more nativist or nationalist (as states moved to assert their Arab authenticity and to disown democracy as a Western construct) and more repressive, since the liquidation of radical Islamists offered states the opportunity to control other forms of dissent. This legacy of the Islamist movements has further complicated the politics of dissent in today's Arab world.
The revival of the "Arab street" in 2002 in solidarity with the Palestinians was truly spectacular. For a short while, states lost their tight control, and publicly vocal opposition groups proliferated, even among the "Westernized" and "apolitical" students of the American University in Cairo. The Palestinian solidarity movement showed that there is more to Arab street politics than Islamism, and spurred the renewal of a political tradition. In January, as the US moved closer to attacking Iraq, one million Yemenis marched in Sanaa, chanting, "Declaration of War Is Terrorism." Over 10,000 protested in Khartoum, thousands in Damascus and Rabat, and hundreds in the Bahraini capital of Manama.  Twenty thousand Christians in Jordan staged a prayer for the people of Iraq, condemning Bush's war.  One thousand Yemeni women demonstrated in the streets to protest the arrest of a Yemeni citizen mistaken for an al-Qaeda member in Germany.  Large and small protest actions against war on Iraq have continued in Egypt and other Arab countries amid massive deployments of police.
However, at least with regard to Palestine, the tremendous rise of the Arab street occurred with the tacit approval of the Arab states. The extremity of Israel's violence during the 2002 invasions brought the politicians closer to the people. Street dissent was directed largely against an outside adversary, and protesters' slogans against their own governments were voiced primarily by the ideological leaders rather than the ordinary participants.  Only in the most recent Cairo rallies have crowds demanded the removal of the 20-year old emergency laws which continue to hamper free public assembly.
Why did the Arab street fail to rise against its own suppression, to demand democracy and justice? While the disenfranchised have resorted to "quiet encroachment," the Arab states have considerably neutralized the political class by promulgating a common discourse based on nationalism, religiosity and anti-Zionism. Entrenched in the "old-fashioned pan-Arab nationalism," and seduced by the language of religiosity and moral politics, the Arab intelligentsia failed to seize the moment to win political concessions from their own authoritarian states. Israel's occupation of Palestine, with material and diplomatic US support, has trapped generations of Arab intelligentsia in a narrow-minded nativism and cultural nationalism from which the authoritarian Arab states largely benefit.  The nativist often dismisses ideas and practices, however noble, that can be described as rooted in alien, usually "Western" cultures, and romanticizes ideas and practices of the "self" even if they are oppressive. Human rights, for example, may simply be discarded as a Western import or a manipulative US ploy.
On the other hand, the Arab governments allow little room for independent dissent. Since 2000, demands for collective protests against the US and Israel have been ignored by the authorities, while unofficial street actions have faced intimidation and assault, with activists being harassed or detained.  On February 15, 2003, the day that over ten million people throughout the world demonstrated against the US war on Iraq, thousands of Egyptian riot police squeezed some 500 demonstrators into a corner separating them from the public.
Neither Irrational Nor Dead
Faced with formidable challenges to expression in the street, Arab activists have developed new means of articulating dissent -- boycott campaigns, cyber-activism and protest art among them. As the Arab states exercise surveillance over the streets, activism is pushed inside the confines of civil institutions -- college campuses, schools, mosques, professional associations and NGOs. Given the lack of a free political climate, professional associations offer venues for political campaigns, to the extent that they often assume the role of political parties where intense competition for leadership prevails. Their headquarters serve as sites for political rallies, meetings, charity work and international solidarity campaigns. Other civil associations, chiefly the new advocacy NGOs, have begun to promote public debates on human rights, democratization, women, children and labor rights. Currently, some 90 to 100 human rights organizations operate in the Arab world, along with hundreds of social service centers, and many more social service organizations that are beginning to employ the language of rights in their work. 
Innovations in mobilization, styles of communication and organizational flexibility are bringing a breath of fresh air to stagnant nationalist politics. The Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada represents one such trend. Set up in October 2000, the Committee brought together representatives from Egypt's various political trends -- leftists, nationalists, Islamists, women's and rights groups. It set up a website, developed a mailing list, initiated charity collections, organized boycotts of American and Israeli products, revived street actions and collected 200,000 signatures on petitions to close down the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The Egyptian Anti-Globalization Group and the National Campaign Against the War on Iraq, as well as the Committee for the Defense of Workers' Rights and some human rights NGOs, adopt similar styles of activism. 
Grassroots charity and boycotts, or product campaigns, have become new mediums of political mobilization. Collecting food and medicine for Palestinians has involved thousands of young volunteers and hundreds of companies and organizations. In April 2002, students at the American University in Cairo gathered thirty 250-ton truckloads of charitable products from factories, companies and homes in the space of four days and nights, bringing them to Palestinians in Gaza. Millions of Arabs and Muslims have joined in boycotting American and Israeli products, including McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, Nike and Coca-Cola. The remarkable success of local products caused Coca-Cola to lose some 20 to 40 percent of its market share in some countries, while fast food companies also lost sales.  The Iranian Zamzam Cola captured a sizable Middle Eastern market, extending to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and several African countries. Within four months, the company exported ten million cans to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states. Some European countries, Denmark and Belgium, began to import Zamzam. Alongside Zamzam, Mecca Cola appeared in Paris to cater to European Arabs and Muslims who boycotted the US beverages. It sold 2.2 million bottles in France within two months. Mecca Cola allocated 10 percent of the revenue to Palestinian children.
Information technology is also increasingly being employed to direct political campaigns. "Small media" has a longer history in the Middle East. The sermons of Islamic preachers like Sheikh Kishk, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Fadlallah and the popular Egyptian televangelist 'Amr Khalid have been disseminated on a massive scale through audio and videocassettes. Followers of 'Amr Khalid, who was banned from preaching in late 2002, could gather over 10,000 signatures in his support via websites. More recently, activists have begun to use e-mails to publicize claims or mobilize for rallies and demonstrations. In February 2003, Egyptian coalitions in solidarity with Palestine and Iraq planned to send one million petitions to the UN and the US and British Embassies via the Internet. Alternative news websites are probably the most important sites through which networks of critical and informed constituencies are formed. Satellite TV is rapidly spreading in the Arab world, bringing alternative information to break the hold of the barren domestic news channels. The skyline of Damascus, bristling with satellite dishes, helps to explain the soullessness of the street newsstands where the ruling party's dailies are displayed.
While cyber-campaigns remain limited to the elite (on average only 2 percent of Arabs have access to personal computers),  the politics of the arts reaches a mass audience. The Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 revived the political legacy of Umm Kulthoum, Fairouz and Morocco's Ahmad Sanoussi. Arab artists, movie stars, painters and especially singers have become oracles of public outrage. In Egypt, major pop stars such as 'Amr Diab, Muhammad Munir and Mustafa Qamar produced best-selling albums that featured exclusively religious and nationalist lyrics. Muhammad Munir's high-priced "Land and Peace, O Prophet of God" sold 100,000 copies in a short period. Other singers, including Ali al-Hajjar, Muhammad Tharwat and Hani Shakir, joined together to produce the religio-nationalistic album "Al-Aqsa, O God," which cornered Arab marketplaces.
Of course, the extent and efficacy of these new spaces of contention remain very modest. Yet the growing tendency of most Arab governments to try to control them -- closing NGOs, banning publications or songs and arresting web designers -- offers a hint of their potential to compensate for the impediments facing the Arab street. As such, street politics is not a virtue, but a necessity and an opportunity, when people are compelled to make themselves heard. Virtue lies not in mass politics, but in civil society, in the institutionalization of interest articulation and in rational dialogue. Yet the street remains the most vital locus for the audible expression of collective grievances, so long as the local regimes or the global powers ignore popularly held views. The Arab street is neither "irrational" nor "dead," but is undergoing a major transformation caused both by old constraints and new opportunities brought about by global restructuring. As a means and mode of expression, the Arab street may be shifting, but the collective grievance that it conveys remains. To ignore it is to do injustice to both moral sensibility and rational conduct of politics.
 See, for example, Reuel Marc Gerecht, "Better to Be Feared Than Loved," The Weekly Standard, April 29, 2002 and "The Myth of the Arab Street," Jerusalem Post, April 11, 2002. Authors sympathetic to Arab protest can have similar takes. See, for example, Ashraf Khalil, "The Arab Couch," Cairo Times, December 26, 2002 and Robert Fisk, "A Million March in London, but Faced with Disaster, the Arabs Are Like Mice," Independent, February 18, 2003.
 See Edmund Burke and Ira Lapidus, eds. Islam, Politics and Social Movements (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990) and Zachary Lockman, ed. Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994).
 On labor struggles, see Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990) and Marsha Pripstein Posusney, Labor and the State in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
 By comparison, the opposition in today's Iran attempts to subvert the hardliners' manipulation of the Palestinian cause to suppress internal dissent, as in the protest chant "Leave Aside Palestine, Let Us Focus on Ourselves" (Felestin-o raha kon, fekri behal-e maa kon).