Word on the street is… mild

By David Aaronovitch, February 21, 2011

In 2003, a matter of weeks after the fall of Saddam, I went to Cairo to make a programme for Channel 4.

I was apprehensive, not because I was asking about the problem of Middle Eastern antisemitism but because the airwaves and foreign pages had been full of hoary lock-shaking concerning what was universally called "The Arab Street".

TAS (for short) was furious. TAS was potentially violent towards Westerners. It would be best - when encountering TAS - to pretend to be Irish or Patagonian.

This TAS was, in my mind's eye, like one of those Rawalpindi rent-a-crowds that emerges whenever someone draws a blasphemous cartoon, or is rumoured to have burned a Koran, or otherwise done something to deserve some of the rich stock of local effigies being got ready for a burning. And, with a name like Aaronovitch, at a time like that, well… who knew how people might react.

I needn't have worried. Even allowing for the superfluous men with trousered machine pistols who insisted on riding with us in our Ministry-supplied van (complete with bored-witless chaperone), there was no antagonism whatsoever. Far from mad Streeting, people were both mildly friendly and hugely engaged in the immediate business of surviving in Egypt.

The demos in Tunisia and Egypt have been neither pro-Jihadi nor anti-Western

You sometimes wonder what it will take for the myth of TAS to dissipate. After all, whatever else the real TASes of Tunisia and Egypt have been, they have not been xenophobic, anti-Western, pro-Jihadi or even violent. In fact, they have been far, far more reasonable (if one were to judge by, say, the EDL demos and counter-demos, and even some student protestors) than TS-UK.

The experience should have disabused Westerners of what the Independent's Donald McIntyre described as "the notion of a homogeneous, poorly educated, restive mass whose true feelings, such as they are, can be grasped only by some form of almost mystical osmosis; and one prey to seduction by extremists without the firm hand of a strong ruler."

Nevertheless, many, not least in Israel, seem to have bought into the stereotype, in the sense of having an exaggerated idea of the perils of Arab people-power. What if the Muslim Brotherhood get elected? What if treaties with Israel are renounced? What if democracy rolls Egypt (or Jordan, or Tunisia, or Morocco) back to Nasserism and confrontation?

Such dark thoughts might have been made gloomier by a super-jeremiad by crash-predictor Nouriel Roubini in the FT this week.

One may hope for good things, wrote Roubini, plainly not expecting them, "but the recent experience of 'free elections' and 'democracy' in the Middle East has been disappointing." And Roubini instances Iran, Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq as examples. For some reason, which Roubini does not elaborate, Middle Eastern folk outside Israel are a democratic letdown.

Not so fast, Nouriel. First, in 2006, Hamas won only three per cent more of the vote than Fatah, at the height of that organisation's unpopularity. I think there was a fair chance, had the victory been recognised, that Hamas would have lost subsequent elections.

Second, there is no equivalent to Hizbollah in Egypt, Jordan or Tunisia. Third, the democracy movement in Iran (which is not a democracy) is far more friendly to peace with Israel than the theocrats of the Supreme Council. Fourth, Roubini should visit Iraqi Kurdistan and go from there to Turkey.

As to the Brotherhood, well isn't it interesting how mellow they have had to be?

In fact, it is often the autocrats who tend to stoke the anti-Israeli fires when it suits them. Tunisia may have been "friendly", but that did not stop the organs of the regime describing any dissent as being "Zionist" motivated and funded. Now, it seems, that much of TAS could see this for the displacement activity it always was.

So, happy-skippy down to the woods, there to eat chocolate and drink champagne forever? No, of course not. There is a lot of hard work to be done - and it should be done on the side of democrats and reformers.

But seriously, ask yourself this - would a democratic government of Egypt or Jordan (or even Syria) seek huge instability on its border, while still trying desperately to create an economy and a society that will work for its citizens? Or would it seek settlement and co-operation?

No, I think those who want a long peace have least to fear from the Arab '89, if it goes the distance. On the other hand, I'm not sure I would want to be a Supreme Leader in the near future.

Last updated: 10:36am, February 21 2011