x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

It takes a revolution to show the power of Arab opinion

For too long ignored, Arab opinion shows its power in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The world must take note that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.

If one lesson is to be learnt from the remarkable events unfolding in Egypt, it is that Arab public opinion matters. For too long Arab voices have not been listened to, and Arab sensibilities and aspirations have not been respected. The Egyptian people not only rose up, demanding to be heard, they have challenged other Arabs and the West to pay attention to what they are saying.

On Thursday night, I watched a remarkable scene unfolding on television. As my dinner partner and I sat transfixed watching the BBC, there on one half of a split screen was President Hosni Mubarak making a last-ditch effort to save his rule. On the other half of the screen were throngs in Tahrir Square.

The disconnect was obvious. Mr Mubarak was talking, but he simply wasn't listening. He played every card at his disposal: the caring father, the patriot, the xenophobe, the reformer and more. Maybe, I thought, he was reaching out beyond the square to those he thought might also be listening. But if his imagined and hoped for audience was there, they were not responding. The crowd in the square was listening and his lack of responsiveness to their concerns only inflamed them and deepened their resolve.

It was the immovable object squaring off against the irresistible force. In the end, the force won. The protesters rejected Mr Mubarak's promises and his appeals as too little, too late and began to pour out beyond the square.

Now the president is gone. The throngs have won this round and they are empowered to seek more change. It is not the end, just the beginning of a process with an uncertain outcome. With the military in charge, it will now be up to them to listen. Will the army cede power and open the political process to real reform? Will the generals be more responsive to the growing aspirations of young people who are demanding jobs in an expanding economy where wealth is shared, an opportunity to participate in the future of the country, and the freedom to express their discontent and change policies they find deplorable without fear of repression?

In some ways, much has changed since February 11. In other ways, the struggle remains the same. The movement has won one round and became a potentially formidable force. But a regime that fears losing control is also a force which must be reckoned with. In the weeks and months ahead we will see this drama play out in the streets and in negotiations.

The constitution must be changed. Mr Mubarak had promised as much. The concerns of the demonstrators have been acknowledged by the military, who have said they are listening. Now we will see if, in fact, they were.

The inability to hear Arab voices is not only a problem for presidents who have fallen or those who are at risk; it is a problem for the West as well. For too long, the US, Britain and others have ignored the concerns and sensibilities of Arab people. Arabs have been treated as if they were pawns to be moved about on the board. While the West paid attention to its own needs and politics, Arabs were left to make do or accommodate the realities others created for them.

This is not a new phenomenon. The cavalier dismissal of Arab voices could be seen at the end of the First World War when Lord Arthur Balfour famously rejected the first survey of Arab opinion conducted for the US president Woodrow Wilson. While the survey found that Arabs overwhelming rejected the European powers' plan to carve up the Arab region into British and French zones of control and to create a Jewish nation in Palestine, Balfour balked, saying: "We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad ... is of far greater import than the desire and prejudices of the Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land."

Until the present day, all too often the West has acted in the Middle East as if Arabs were objects. The United States invaded Iraq without understanding the effect on Arab opinion. Washington has continued to ignore Palestinians' suffering and aspirations - recall Condoleezza Rice's dismissal of the plight of Palestinian refugees with a casual comment: "Bad things happen in history." And the US has engaged in widespread profiling and other deplorable treatment of Arabs and Muslims, paying no attention to the damage that these and other unpopular policies had on the legitimacy of Arab governments who were US friends and allies.

Now all this must, of necessity, change. When the Egyptian people organised themselves and demanded to be heard, they introduced a new factor into the political equation that could transform the region. It will no longer be possible to operate as if Arab public opinion doesn't matter. It will no longer be possible to act as if policies can be imposed that will be blindly accepted. No longer will the US be able to consider only the Israeli internal debate or the consequences on Israeli opinion in its calculations.

Arabs have been inspired by Egypt and empowered to believe that their voices must be heard and respected. It will make life more complicated for western and Arab policymakers. But if this is a good thing representing change, it has been a long time coming. As President Barack Obama has said, this is just the beginning and after today nothing will be same.

Transformation will not only affect Egypt. The change that is coming will be bigger than any of us can imagine.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute