Op-Ed

Public Opinion Could Flare Out of Control in Arab Nations

Shibley Telhami

President Bush delivered a dramatic speech last week calling for an end to the violence in the Middle East and for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities and announcing the dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. The speech departed from a policy that had assumed escalation on the Palestinian-Israeli front would not significantly disrupt the region or affect vital U.S. interests.

This view was in part based on another assumption: that public opinion in the Middle East will ultimately not affect the policies of authoritarian governments in the region. What has become evident in the past few weeks is that this is a new era. The information revolution has empowered the public in the region on a scale not seen for years. The Arab public can no longer be disregarded.

This shift in policy brings the U.S. position closer to the position of the international community, including Western Europe, which has expressed serious concerns about the consequences for the region and for the world of allowing the conflict to spiral out of control. Most around the world viewed the public rage in the Arab world with grave concern. But in Washington, many analysts have been skeptical about the gravity of the situation.

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As demonstrations against Israel’s massive military operations in the West Bank spread across Arab and Muslim countries, many U.S. analysts wondered whether these expressions of outrage in the region really mattered. For a long time there has been a pervasive assumption among some Washington political analysts that Arab public opinion doesn’t really affect the behavior of Arab states. Authoritarian leaders need not heed the wishes of their public on foreign-policy issues and, in any case, those leaders have the power to shape and manipulate the opinions of the public, the analysts believed.

This view has been around for some time. In the 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with the mediation of President Jimmy Carter, Sadat tried to use Egyptian public opinion as leverage. Begin responded that “the people of Egypt could be easily manipulated by Sadat, and their beliefs and attitudes could be shaped by their leader.” The Israeli leader cited Sadat’s ability to convince his people that the Soviets were their best friends, only to recast them later as their worst enemy.

This view was always exaggerated. All governments, even authoritarian ones, must pay attention to their public. Public discontent can be contained only by straining the governments’ security and economic capacities.

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But there was at least a partial truth in the notion that governments in the region had near-monopoly control over information and could mold public opinion in important ways. In the 1950s, unrest forced the overthrow of governments in Iraq and Syria and major upheavals in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Since then, Arab governments have acquired effective repressive capacities that have helped them contain public discontent.

Holding onto power

As a result, rulers in the region have survived many major crises. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war that led to Israeli occupation of significant Arab territories, including the West Bank and Gaza, resulted in no major changes in government across the region. And in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut while Arab governments watched helplessly, public displeasure across the Arab world was again contained without resulting in significant government change.

In 1990, even though the “Arab street” was generally opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, that did not prevent several Arab governments from cooperating strategically with the United States.

Indeed, the ability of the United States and its allied Arab governments, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to increase their influence in the region after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was an indication to many analysts in Washington that Arab public opinion was not especially relevant. They concluded that the way to do business with the Middle East was by building relations with rulers through a strategy of incentives and threats, and then relying on rulers to bring their peoples along.

Now, in the era of globalization, public opinion in the region may have even a greater impact on the policies of Arab governments. An information revolution has overtaken governmental media monopolies. Nearly half of Saudis, for example, receive their information from non-Saudi television news. Most Arabs today have access to a large number of media outlets, radio and television, originating outside their borders. Many have access to satellite television. And many of the newer stations, such as Al-Jazeera in Qatar, have learned that success in getting the largest share of the increasingly competitive Arabic-speaking market is to cater to consumer demands.

Driven by the desire to capture this growing market, these stations try to address issues of common concern to all Arabs, across state boundaries. And no issue resonates with most Arabs as much as the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

Helpless and angry

In the past, Arab governments have been able to limit the emotions of their public by limiting their exposure to painful pictures. Today, the public often watches live pictures of death and injury of Palestinian civilians, of Israeli tanks in West Bank cities, and emotional interviews with parents of fallen children. They feel helpless and humiliated but also angry at the apparent impotence of their governments.

In the past the frustrated Arab public pinned its hope for change on some outside government. In the 1960s, for example, those who opposed “Western imperialism” or sought to “liberate Palestine,” or even to change their own governments, pinned their hopes on regional leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. When he failed to deliver military victory in 1967, there was a massive sense of resignation and loss of hope across the region. And in 1990, those who were again frustrated by Israeli actions, and by a sense of weakness after the end of the Cold War, pinned their aspirations on the prospects of powerful leaders like Saddam Hussein.

But today, few people believe that governments and leaders in the region will be able to deliver. As the media convey pictures of mounting Palestinian casualties, their contempt for governments is growing by the day. Their new inspiration for violent change is a form of the “power of the people,” and their new heroes are Lebanese guerrillas, including Hezbollah and the Palestinians of the intifada.

The extent to which these examples will be copied across the region and employed to challenge governments and interests of the United States, which is seen as Israel’s backer, remains to be seen. Certainly, opposition groups in every state in the region see an opportunity to mobilize the masses and embarrass their own governments.

Arab governments have limited capability to act in this crisis. Militarily, Arab governments do not have significant options. One of the outcomes of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel has been that Arab states had no serious military capability in fighting a conventional war with Israel. Many of them have strong interests in maintaining strategic relations with the United States. Egypt, for example, receives $2 billion a year in aid from Washington, which is second only to the $3 billion Israel receives. And its military is supplied by, and strongly tied to, the U.S. military. Jordan, which is a vulnerable state with insignificant military capabilities, needs Washington’s continued backing.

But mounting pressure has already led to Egypt’s reducing its contacts with Israel, and Jordan is considering the same. With every new escalation in the conflict, public pressure will demand more.

As for the oil weapon, which was employed after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it is less of a threat than it was in the ’70s. But a significant reduction in oil production from the gulf would have far-reaching economic consequences that cannot be ignored. Certainly, oil producers, who heavily rely on oil income, would stand to pay a price as well.

Such a scenario remains unlikely, but it is not impossible. In 1973, the entire international community, including Israel and the United States, failed to anticipate the war by Syria and Egypt to regain their lost territories for a simple reason: It seemed entirely irrational to expect states to wage wars they knew they had no chance of winning. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later explained that he had to modify his outlook on Middle Eastern politics. “Our definition of rationality did not take seriously the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect,” he wrote.

Today, Arabs are highly unlikely to initiate a conventional war. But there is a pervasive sense of humiliation and loss of self-respect, and a desperation for restoring dignity across the Middle East, the consequences of which are especially unpredictable in the uncharted waters of the globalization era. An end to the bloodshed and a revival of serious negotiations could prevent a dangerous test of these consequences.