COLUMN-Getting away from the 'Arab Street'

Mon Nov 19, 2012 5:51pm EST

By John Lloyd

Nov 19 (Reuters) - The Tunisian Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdesslem, visited Gaza last week to give a speech. Abdesslem, who spent many years in exile studying international relations at the University of Westminster in London, is an intellectual with little adult experience of the rougher side of the Middle East.

His speech condemned Israel, of course, while not mentioning that the Gazans had launched many rockets over the past few days - a few of them, for the first time, hitting the major centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As foreign policy intellectuals do, he sought to put events into a geopolitical framework. He pointed to what he believes is the underlying truth of the time: "Israel should understand," he said, "that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river."

In the two pioneer countries of the Arab Spring, Islamists have been elected as the major political force, and provide the government. As Rami G. Khouri pointed out in his column in Lebanon's Daily Star, these new governments "more accurately reflect the sentiments of their citizens vis-à-vis the Palestine issue which will increase the political pressure on Israel." Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi and Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki are Islamists, with (especially in the first case) a well-documented detestation of the Jewish state. They are constrained to be cautious, but their decision to send high-level emissaries to Gaza - more are scheduled to go - gives the Hamas government there both a shield and an encouragement. Were an Egyptian killed in a bombing raid, the resulting outrage could mean, writes Eric Trager in The Atlantic, a breaking of Egyptian diplomatic relations with Israel, even a renunciation of the peace treaty. The "Arab Street" would be roused.

The "Arab Street" is a phrase still much used in news bulletins everywhere: yet a conversation in London this past week made me question its usefulness. Olivier Roy is one of the world's most feted observers of the Middle East, a habitué of the most prestigious foreign policy centers and an advisor to French governments. In a talk at the European Council on Foreign Relations, he presented a view of the Arab world that went beyond the crudely assumed predictability of Arab Street militancy. Instead he talked about a series of movements in Arab societies that do not immediately inspire optimism, but give some hope of better.

He questioned the view that sees the major movement in these societies as that of Islamization. If this were the case, he asked, why were the revolts of 2011 led by secularists - with the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and others so lagging in their response? "The first demonstrators didn't want power," Roy said. "They wanted elections. They wanted democracy of some sort."

The Islamists, not secular liberals, were the winners: yet the governments they formed were, he said, deeply uncertain about how to rule. The leaders of Egypt and Tunisia tended to fall back on the belief that "the answer is Islam" to all problems: but that formula is a mantra for opposition, not for government. The Spring brought forth no charismatic figure, no Gamal Abdul Nasser, with a vision of a united Arab nation: the Arab young show no interest in such millennial visions.

Instead, Roy believes that the young peoples' worlds are formed by a steadily increasing tension between modernity and transition, family and the wider world, community and individualism. This is widely attested: in a recent piece of close reporting, Wendell Steavenson writes of a democratic hero, Hend Badawi, a 23-year-old graduate, whose protests in Cairo's Tahrir square in December last year were interrupted by a group of soldiers who beat her, dragging her away while groping her breasts. In a military hospital with wounds, bruises and broken fingers, she confronted the military "ruler," Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, touring with an accompanying camera crew, and shouted that "you are the thugs: you've beaten and ruined us!" Moved to a civilian hospital, she did a longer protest to a video camera, which was consumed by many thousands on the Internet.

She wasn't a hero to her family, though. Returning home, she found it hostile: her father blamed her for the violence she suffered because she went to Tahrir Square; she was locked for a time in her room; her brother assaulted her. She was unbowed. Her detestation for the Mubarak regime and the military that had supported it remained. But she also remains a Muslim woman, and seeks some kind of settlement between the various parts of her experience.

That may become harder. The new, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired government has expressed disapproval of the limited freedoms for women introduced by Suzanne Mubarak, the former president's wife.

If women's rights remain contested, so does press freedom. In a report forthcoming from the Reuters Institute, the Westminster University expert on Middle Eastern media Naomi Sakr writes that "the ceiling for free speech was actually lower after the uprising than before it," and notes that Western institutes which supported free speech and paid for seminars and conferences on the theme have been barred from continuing. But she also reminds us that one of the qualities of journalists everywhere is their irrepressibility: she quotes the NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who covered the Tahrir Square demonstrations for Al Jazeera English, as testifying to the "new energy injected in Egyptian media."

Olivier Roy believes that the governments are also caught in webs of contradiction - benefitting from democratic reforms (elections) but pulled by their oppositionist ideology to attempt at least a partial re-Islamisation of society. Liberal freedoms and religious minorities are at risk - especially the millions of Copts in Egypt. "Islamists," said Roy, "recognize collective rights of minority religions - they accord them a place. But they won't tolerate individual rights: no apostasy from Islam." Yet, he notes, in Algeria there's a thriving protestant minority that was granted permission to organize by the government in 2011. Its leader, Mustapha Krim - himself an apostate - said in an interview last year (in French) that "the situation is OK in the cities. On the other hand, it's hard to live in the faith in the villages and small towns in the interior - certainly because of a lack of tolerance and culture on the part of the population there."

Individualism is a powerful engine: as is education, which in secular societies is the vehicle for independent thinking. Neither young women nor journalists, once the fruits of free thought have been grasped, give up easily. But the struggle is likely to be prolonged. Hend Badawi, and others who seek more freedom, are not cardboard copies of Western civil rights advocates: more often, they seek a new synthesis of tradition and modernity, one with which they and others can live.

The struggles in Arab societies defy a simple evocation of a "Street" ever willing to be roused to fury or adoration. New generations have more tools to work things out for themselves. The Tunisian foreign minister is right to call on Israel to understand the changes. But they are more complicated than he suggests. And the leaders of the Arab world - including groups like Hamas in Gaza - are the ones who should, more urgently, understand.

( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine. )

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