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The Real 'Arab Street'

By Amr Hamzawy
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B07

The turnout in last Sunday's Iraqi elections surprised even the most optimistic observers in the Middle East. Reading Arab newspapers during the weeks before the vote, one could hardly escape the expectation that the adventure of holding elections in Iraq was certain to be a fiasco. The bulk of Arab intellectuals and journalists foresaw a minimal turnout and possibly devastating results, such as an outbreak of civil war between the Shiite and Sunni populations and the emergence of an Iranian-controlled Islamic republic of Iraq.

Operating from Pan-Arabist and Islamist credos, they could not envisage the elections as at least a step toward political normality in a country long ruled by a brutal dictator and currently under foreign occupation. Commentators emphasized potential voting irregularities, asserting that no free elections would ever take place under occupation and implicitly urging Iraqis to stay away from the polls.

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Because Arab writers normally see themselves as embodying an imaginary "Arab street," they had no trouble, in the absence of independent public opinion surveys, in representing their own quite ideological views as those of the Iraqi majority and as those of Arabs generally. They took this line even though their rhetorical warnings at the time of the initial invasion of Iraq -- exemplified by the slogan "the Arab street will explode if the Americans invade" -- had proven incorrect. These writers were taught a hard lesson by the Iraqi voter turnout in a way that should lead to questions about their claim to represent Arab public opinion.

Assessing Arab public opinion is notoriously difficult because of widespread media censorship and government domination of the media. One of the few real indicators we have are readers' written comments on op-ed articles published in Arab dailies, especially in the regional newspapers such as al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat. The partial liberalization of the media landscape in the region since the 1980s has led gradually to less censorship of readers' comments, especially those published on the Internet. This has created a small but important space for open debate. Of course the readers of these papers represent the more educated sectors and are not fully representative of whole Arab societies. Nevertheless, taking their ideas and opinions seriously opens up the possibility of a direct, less ideological access to the sphere of Arab public opinion. And it is worth doing.

Looking at readers' comments in these newspapers on the Iraqi elections during the past two months, one is first of all struck by the diversity of views and voices. One finds an unpredictable assortment of conspiracy theories and objective assessments, ranging from critical analyses of what went wrong in Iraq and anti-American tirades to poetic appreciations of Western values, Kurdish separatist ambitions, Sunni claims to Iraq's unity, and a host of other sectarian and secular views on society and politics.

Even the sense of self-identity among these readers is highly heterogeneous. Some describe themselves as citizens of the Arab world; others point out their ethnic affiliation. A small number use identification titles that are drawn from the radical Islamist spectrum, such as mujaheddin and Ansar al-Islam.

But within this very wide spectrum a mainstream perception of Iraqi political developments can be discerned that runs counter to the main tide coming from prominent intellectuals and journalists. A clear consensus exists among the majority of commenting readers on the moral and political rightness of the elections and a hopeful attitude toward the democratization of Iraq. Mistrust of American intentions and lamentations on the fate of pan-Arabism are to a large extent pushed aside by a more pragmatic understanding of events.

An active polemical minority, largely non-Iraqis, certainly remains, but it does not define the terms of the readers' debate. Most interesting, however, is the fact that the readers' comments turn out to be self-referential -- that is, they entail less commenting on the respective op-ed pieces and far more discussion among the readers. A pluralistic platform emerges, without the usual allegations of betrayal or tendentious ideological statements.

With all due modesty regarding how representative the readers' comments on the Iraq elections are, they do portray a different picture of the Arab public, a public that is pragmatic, confident and for the most part tolerant. This is one more reason to be hopeful for a better political future in the region.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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