TCS Daily

Our Friend, The Arab Street

By Michael Totten - March 16, 2005 12:00 AM

The purple finger revolution in Iraq may have inspired non-Iraqi Arabs in a "good for them" and a "wish it were us" sort of way. But the liberals, moderates, and other disorganized dissidents in the rest of the region can't just copy what the Iraqis have done whenever they feel like it. No election would have been possible if an international military coalition, led by the world's only superpower, hadn't first demolished the Baath regime in Iraq. Democratic-minded citizens in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia don't have that kind of power at their disposal, nor will they ever.

What's happening now in Lebanon, though, just might trigger the democratic domino effect we've been hoping for. The government propped up by Syrian military and intelligence agents was toppled after a mere two weeks of protests. It was as easy as that. Non-Iraqi Arabs can hope to take that home to their own countries.

Lebanon's "Cedar Revolutionaries" have more than just the power of regime-change at their disposal. They're savvy enough to convince foreign countries to amplify their power and apply hard pressure from outside. The United States, France, and even Saudi Arabia told Syria's Bashar Assad to get the hell out of Lebanon and to get out right now. He caved, too, and he caved in a hurry. All Syrian military and intelligence personnel are to be withdrawn from the country.

Unfortunately, Lebanon's ousted pro-Syrian prime minister has returned to his post. But this fight isn't over. The Cedar Revolutionaries are just getting started. They are startled by and intoxicated with their own strength and power. Why shouldn't they be? They get dramatic results both inside and outside the country.

Likewise, Middle Easterners in general have every reason to be inspired by what the so-called "Arab street" can accomplish. Military support from a superpower isn't necessary always and everywhere. It's only really required in countries like Iraq, where a Stalinist political system makes revolution impossible. In weaker "merely" authoritarian countries it's now a demonstrable fact that people-power can work.

Right now we're seeing two revolutions at once: a literal revolution by the "Arab street" against a dictatorship, and an intellectual revolution in the West about what "Arab street" means in the first place.

Christopher Hitchens notes in Slate that the term "Arab street" has gone the way of the dodo. He isn't complaining. There was always something slightly obnoxious about referring to people as though they were pavement. But the real reason the phrase "Arab street" was interred is because what we thought we knew was at least partly based on a lie.

The tyrants of Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria lie about America. They lie about Israel. They lie about "infidels." They even lie about their own culture. Sometimes it seems the racist canard that Arabs can't handle democracy is believed by Arabs themselves. The free election in Iraq may not prove it's a lie, but it does belong in the evidence column.

The "Arab street," said the propaganda ministries of these same despicable tyrannies, was supposed to rise up against America, against the West in general, and against any so-called "moderate" pro-Western Middle East governments in particular. What else would you expect them to say? They want nothing more than to channel the rage of their own brutalized subjects toward anyone but themselves. But that's not what happened. Surprise, surprise. The Arab street -- at least in one country -- took its cue not from Osama bin Laden's jihad but from Ukraine's Orange Revolution instead.

The conventional wisdom on the anti-war left and the paleo-conservative right hewed a little too closely to the Arab nationalist party lines in Damascus and Cairo. The Middle East, they said, is a hornet's nest that we best not rile up. As it turned out, Syria's Bashar Assad was the one who riled it up. The West took the Arab street's side, just as it took the dissidents' side in Ukraine.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has long pointed out that Syria plays by what he calls Hama Rules, named after the city of Hama that was flattened by the regime when the inhabitants rose up against it. Syria doesn't dare play by Hama Rules today, especially not in Beirut, and especially not when most of the world -- including the United Nations, if Resolution 1559 is to be taken seriously -- is united against it.

Bashar Assad already admitted as much himself. "I am not Saddam Hussein," he said to Time Magazine. "I want to cooperate."

He had better cooperate. Whether or not he is Saddam Hussein, he is Saddam's Baathist comrade in arms. In any case, as I'm sure he well knows, George W. Bush isn't John Kerry.

Anti-regime protests in Syria were unthinkable just a few weeks ago. They aren't any more, not because Syria is more open to dissent than other Middle Eastern countries -- it's arguably the most oppressive state in the region now that Saddam's regime has been dismantled -- but because the Lebanese protests and Assad's cringing response prove he is far more vulnerable than almost everyone thought. He doesn't win every battle. He can lose and his enemies don't even have to fire a shot. This is news in Lebanon, and it is news in Syria. If he loses the showdown in Beirut -- and he's well on his way to doing just that -- he might find he's facing one in Damascus.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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