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And the Arab Street?

A lack of public opinion in Arab countries may be hurting the Syrian cause

One of the most discouraging aspects of the Syrian tragedy, which has now taken some 18,000 lives, is the zero role being played in it by public opinion in other Arab and Muslim countries. In the past, the non-existence of this public opinion had a justification in the authoritarian nature of the region's regimes. Practically the only demonstrations you ever saw in their streets had to do with the regimes' whipping up of anti-Western feelings, against the Iraq War, or in defense of the Palestinian cause, particularly in answer to the latest Israeli punitive action in Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza.

As a result of this skillful manipulation of Pan-Arab feelings - fomented by the official media or in mosques, as the vicissitudes of policy requires - the so-called Arab Street became a global political factor of the first order. Though some, not without reason, denounced the whole Arab Street concept as Orientalist, because it projected a diminished image of Muslims as an ignorant mob, fanaticized by Islam and prone to irrational violence; the fact is that from the viewpoint of the regimes and probably of the imams, the operation was a success, for it got Western governments to factor into their strategic calculations the negative impact their policies might have on Arab and Muslim opinion.

Though the spontaneity of these demonstrations was suspect, Western governments feared they might diminish the moral authority of the moderate regimes they sponsored or further radicalize those they did not.

Some, not without reason, denounced the whole Arab Street concept as Orientalist

However, once the wave of changes began, which we call the Arab Spring, we have seen no equivalent of public opinion awakening in these countries - this, in spite of the obvious parallels and cross-influences between the Arab Spring processes in various countries. But that does not mean there has been no cross-border solidarity. There have been aplenty, for example, as in the welcome the Tunisians gave to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Libya. But as we see in the case of Syria, and saw in part in Libya, this solidarity has not turned into pressure on governments to act more decisively.

Oddly enough, while the most radical elements of each country, grouped in the local franchise operations of Al Qaeda, are region-wide in their thinking, the governments stick to the practice of non-interference. What is worse, in the measure that some governments, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been more vigorous (sending arms and money to the rebels in Syria and Libya), their actions reflect geopolitical reasons and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions, rather than a cosmopolitan logic based on protection of human rights or humanitarian intervention. The pathetic spectacle of the United Nations is answered by that of the Arab League, incapable of even showing up in Moscow or Beijing to explain the consequences of their vetoes on the lives of the Syrian people.

We often speak of double standards in European foreign policy, but it was millions of people who demonstrated in the streets of Europe against their governments' intention to invade Iraq. A decade earlier, it was millions too who pressured their governments to do something to stop, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, the genocidal plans aimed at a mainly Muslim population. Likewise there are many who have criticized the European intervention in Libya, but this intervention was far more marked by the Srebrenica syndrome (where Europe washed her hands and, once again, let thousands of Muslims die) than by geopolitical or energy considerations.

In the Syrian case, so much was argued against intervention: the Syrian army, the possible destabilization of Lebanon, the possible reaction of Iran, and then the veto of Russia and China. But none of these obstacles would have been insurmountable, if millions of Arabs and Muslims had come out on the streets to demand an intervention that might have put a stop to this slaughter.

Twitter @jitorreblanca and in the blog Café Steiner in elpais.com

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