Donald Macintyre: The Arab 'street' is more complex than we grasp

International Studies
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For decades, pundits, including those in the Middle East itself, have talked airily about the Arab "street". It is a convenient if somewhat patronising term, of course – a necessary nod to the fact that there are peoples in the region as well as regimes. But it has also been sometimes used to conjure 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.

One of the many consequences of the past nine days is, or should be, a much wider understanding that the "street" is a much more complex human organism than that. As Western politicians have wrung their hands and worried that the "stability" afforded by President Hosni Mubarak's autocracy could give way to the rise of a new and dangerously Islamist Egypt, the hundreds of thousands who have marched and stood in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in central Alexandria have started to tell the world a story that conspicuously fails to fit neatly into this binary model. One part of this is the price paid domestically over the past 30 years for that stability: a brutally thuggish police, a fawning and utterly controlled state television network, the concentration of absolute power in the hands of a dictator who rigs elections and is chief, not only of the government, but of the judiciary, the army, the non-military security forces, even the journalists' association. Indeed, the widespread public understanding by Egyptians of just how concentrated is this power is why the protests are focused so personally on the President, and why his appointment of a new deputy or a new cabinet cuts so little ice with the protesters.

And the other is the real goals of the "street" itself, or at least of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who seem to have rediscovered their dignity and sense of national pride by the sheer act of speaking out. Anyone who has spent any time talking to them in the past week finds that many of those goals are markedly like those we take for granted in the West.

It was a 40-year-old software engineer who told me what little hope he had for his children, aged 13 and nine, from this "very corrupted" government. A hospital anaesthetist on a gross salary of less than £100 a month told me how he despaired of sending his children to the private school that he was sure was their only hope of a decent education. A secondary school teacher who spent five months at the University of East Anglia on a scholarship complained of how Mubarak had "sold our country to businesses" and lamented that "we are a quiet and patient people" but that the regime had "taken advantage of these qualities". A science lecturer said how badly Egyptians needed British and American help to win "real freedom". "You can't let [Mubarak] stay for 30 years," he insisted. "This is not a kingdom. It is a republic."

Of course, it is the question of how, if at all, to respond to this last demand that has been causing such agony in Washington in the past few days. We may have now entered the most dangerous phase of the crisis. The demonstrations in Mubarak's support, while much smaller than those against him, had an ominous air about them even before yesterday. Certainly, there are those among them who genuinely want the Egyptian President to stay, and who think that is the best way of restoring some semblance of normality, economic as well on the streets.

But the fear is that Mubarak's police are encouraging the attacks on his opponents, if not actually participating in them themselves. And even if they had been spontaneous, it is not difficult to see that of the two types of street protest, those in support of Mubarak have included groups that started yesterday's violence, are more bellicose and, yes, in any common sense definition of the word, more extreme. And there isn't much doubt that the man they are so determined to keep in power could stop them if he wanted, which intensifies the dilemma for the US. The wider context, of course, is the failure of Washington to realise the bold, true and unfulfilled words of Condoleezza Rice in 2005 – that having pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and achieved neither, it would now concentrate on fostering democracy.

But the crisis in Egypt is now deepening too fast to have the profound rethink of US policy that is certainly necessary. Maybe when Mr Mubarak fulfilled Washington's publicly-stated demands that he should announce a departure date, they thought he would then breathe a sigh of relief and quietly await the dignified exit he predicted for himself. It's not looking like that now. No doubt the Obama administration is worried about the domino effect elsewhere in the Middle East (including Jordan) of giving the direct call to the Egyptian President to go that would be seen as a victory for the nine days of anti-Mubarak protests.

The problem with not giving it is that Washington is now associated by many Egyptians, including ones instinctively well disposed towards the US, with a man perceived to have authorised lethal police attacks on demonstrators, and who encouraged, by withdrawing police from the streets altogether, lawlessness. At the very least, he took no steps to halt the clashes yesterday.

No doubt the US is pondering whether a figure such as the new Vice-President and long-time intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, should replace a determinedly resistant Mubarak. But without doing something beyond what it has done so far, Washington risks the charge of not having prevented the much worse bloodshed that could still be to come.