With the recent wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East, Western observers have had the chance to face up to an important realization: that the oldest of clichés about Middle Eastern politics, “the Arab street,” is both a pernicious myth and a dynamic reality. For decades, Orientalist stereotypes about Arab culture and attitudes imbued this so-called street—a crude and monolithic metaphor for Arab public opinion and popular political sentiment—with almost uniformly negative connotations, which would then segue into dire warnings about the consequences of its eruption. Now the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and antigovernment protests in many other Arab states have demonstrated that the Arab street most certainly does exist—but it bears no resemblance to the bogeyman so long cultivated in the Western imagination. Western commentators supplemented their hand-wringing about the Arab street with anxiety about “our Arab allies,” generally autocrats whose rule was considered vital to American interests in the region: the maximization of US power and influence, the control and pricing of energy, Israeli security, and regional stability. It’s true, of course, that the future complexion of the Arab political landscape remains uncertain, but the character of the rebellions has already been the strongest possible refutation of this traditional calculus and the mythology that misinformed it.
more from Hussein Ibish at Bookforum here.