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.”