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Paving The Way?

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In the light of the ostensibly single-minded war against terrorism, it is becoming increasingly difficult for defenders of Yasir Arafat to explain away his continuing embrace ? if not worse ? of terrorism emanating from within areas under his control. Further, the various Arab states that are nominally allied with the United States such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are having a devil of a time justifying their continued support of Arafat despite his recalcitrance, and also their urging pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian as the price of their participation in the anti-terror coalition.

What are these folks to do? What indeed?!

An answer of sorts surfaced this passed Sunday in the lead article on the front-page of the New York Times “Week in Review” section. The article was entitled, “Street Brawl: The New Power of Arab Public Opinion” and here is part of what it had to say:

To some, it has long seemed that “the street” is a kind of myth ? unable to turn its aspirations or discontent into action and fed by a press tightly controlled by the government itself. That press would, most often, offer a farrago of twisted conspiracies to excuse the failure of the regimes.

But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, the idea of the street may be taking on a new importance. The street, once all but powerless, has become a real force, exposed to more sources of information that repressive governments do not control, harder to rein in once inflamed, and more susceptible to radical Islam.

It is on just this Arab ? or better, Islamic ? street that President Bush must fight in his war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorists, a battleground for the public's mood that may be more important than the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. And this is not only a war between Mr. Bush and Mr. bin Laden; leaders of countries from Egypt to Pakistan must also weigh how to court and contain the street ? how much they can repress expressions of hatred for America when their countries are, however conditionally, American allies in the war against terrorism….

“There has been a major change which has led to the street becoming a major factor,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. “This is the emergence of satellite television and the privatization of media, which has dramatically changed things. Arab rulers no longer have a monopoly on information; they can no longer shape opinion….

“The so-called Arab street,” he added, “is a figment of the imagination that has become a reality.”

…While the conventional wisdom held for years that the Arab powers could manipulate the public mood as Nasser did, a new pattern appeared to emerge when the second Palestinian intifada broke out last year. This uprising was directed not only against Israel and the failure of the Oslo accords, but at the Palestinian Authority itself for its false promises, incompetence and corruption. Though Palestinians did not say so publicly, the uprising's raw power has been an open challenge to the established leadership, one capitalized on not only by Islamic idealogues, but by grass-roots fighters.

The leaders of Jordan and Egypt have been ambivalent in their response, encouraging support for the Palestinian cause, but also reining in pro-Palestinian demonstrations when they grew too large. In this, they have followed the old patterns of both co-opting and controlling the street. But Mr. Arafat's power to control his own street is far less clear; how much he can repress radicals among his own people, even in the face of American and Israeli demands, before being overthrown remains an open question….

“The street,” said Farid el-Khazen, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut, “is increasingly Islamicized. The phenomenon is there. The street counts….

So now we have the answer from an out-of-the-blue, essentially undocumented story in the New York Times, principally supported by the comments of two obscure professors no one ever heard of. Don't hold Arafat responsible for the violence because he can't control it, and if he confronts it, he will be overthrown with the direst of consequences. Ditto for the “moderates.” Their leaders cannot align themselves with a United States that is identified with Israel for fear that the Arab street will throw them out. Ergo, America must force Israel to acquiesce in Palestinian demands.

Neat and very cute!

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