On his recent visit to Washington, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah evidently persuaded US President George W. Bush to rescue Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, even though by assisting one who has both organized terrorism himself and sheltered killers, America violated principles for which it recently went to war.
Abdullah reportedly intimated that unless Arafat was released from the Ramallah headquarters where he was surrounded by Israeli troops, "the Arab street" would revolt, upsetting the price of oil and Western economic health. It would also ruin the coalition of Arab "moderates" that the US putatively needs to unseat Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Who comprises this Arab street, and how does it have so much power? Why would Arab dictators, who for decades have successfully repressed even mild opposition, suddenly become so fearful of "the street" and sensitive to its demands?
The story of Gaza, a place where an extremely militant "street" is engaged in almost daily demonstrations, may explain the phenomenon.
In 1967, when Israel repelled a threatening Egyptian army from the Gaza Strip, 600,000 of its 750,000 inhabitants were on UN "refugee" welfare. Their number has grown significantly in the 54 years since the 1948 Arab attacks on Israel that created these refugees, and despite billions having been spent to help them. (Having refugee status, which entitles you to free basic food staples, health care and education, is highly profitable in impoverished Arab societies.)
When the employment of many Gazans in a relatively developed Israel more than tripled their annual income, the UN decided to limit its welfare subsidies to families with pregnant or nursing mothers. The birthrate skyrocketed. Over 60 percent of Gaza's population is now under 19; another 25% is under 36.
Generally, a high birthrate is common in predominately agrarian and traditional societies, where women have low status. Large families provide cheap exploitable labor and physical and economic security for the elderly.
Once, poverty and high infant mortality took their toll. However, improvements in hygiene enabled more infants to survive. The growing numbers of farm youth, combined with the devastation of agriculture caused by price controls, forced their migration to urban shantytowns, where the state subsidized large families.
Dysfunctional Muslim economies could not support the growing masses, so many immigrated to developed countries, while others lived in Saudi-funded radical Islamic "schools."
Hordes of such unskilled and testosterone-loaded youth (Arabs cannot approach women until marriage) make up the violence-prone Arab "street," which has recently appeared in Europe too. In Gaza, the idle youth have joined private armies financed by almost every Arab state and political movement especially the extremist fundamentalist groups lavishly funded by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya, making Palestinian politics a proxy for interstate Arab rivalries.
Militancy has become a chief avenue for the social advancement of youth of lesser status in class-bound Muslim societies. It grants them instant heroic status, good income and family welfare, should they become "martyrs."
If you carefully watch television footage of the (always) furious demonstrations in Arab or Muslim countries, you will notice that most demonstrators are students from secular or religious institutions. They are released from school and led by professional agitators who supply the placards they brandish and the effigies they burn, and compose the megaphone-amplified slogans and chants that incite them.
Such well-organized "spontaneous" demonstrations are impossible to prepare in Arab dictatorships without the connivance of their secret services. Occasionally such demonstrations get out of hand, at which point the authorities quash them brutally.
THIS IS then "the street" that Arab dictators conjure up whenever they want to bend Western policy to their demands.
Arab dictatorships organize these street demonstrations not only for external use. They are used to distract the public's mind from its miserable poverty and lack of any rights, and to enable it to let off steam without threatening the regime.
The rulers can safely channel the accumulated rage of their oppressed populations against foreign "enemies" such as the US, "The Great Satan," and Israel, the little one. Arab leftist or Islamist intellectuals believe, or pretend to as the Iranians did before their revolution that the US supports their dictators in order to exploit Arab oil on the cheap, and that it strengthens Israel because Israel is America's Middle East enforcer.
In all Arab states, including the wealthy oil producers, oppressive statist control of the economy has stymied growth, increased income disparities and misery and inflamed social and ethnic tensions. Foreign aid, chiefly from the US, meant to help Arab states combat poverty, has made things worse. It created huge, wasteful, corrupt and corrupting state bureaucracies that fatally damage the private sector and civil society.
People and resources have been diverted from economic development to military and bureaucratic careers and to radical political activism. This has accelerated the vicious cycle of social and economic decline, dependency, bitterness and political and religious radicalization.
It is these circumstances that have created the easily manipulated Arab street.
It is easier for many Arabs to accept the humiliation they feel when they see their once-great civilization and once-triumphant religion in such a dismal state if they can believe they are victims of a worldwide American and Jewish conspiracy to enslave and exploit them.
Conspiracy theories are extremely popular in a repressed Arab world.
It is unbearable Arab rage over Arab failure, rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict that threatens to destabilize the Middle East. It is this rage that exploded on September 11 in New York when a group of Saudis inspired by organized Egyptian radicalism (Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is the fountainhead of all radical Islamists) attacked the US.
Israel is a prime target only because of its physical proximity to the Arab world and because it is perceived as a dangerous "cancer" infecting the Arab world with ideas of political freedom.
No amount of American effort to strike a compromise in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict short of letting the Arabs destroy Israel and no effort to prop up "friendly" Arab dictatorships by acquiescing to their demands is going to overcome, in the long run, Arab structural internal deficiencies that cause dangerous instability in the Middle East.
Only by encouraging a peaceful but hastened evolution of Arab regimes toward political democratization and economic liberalization as was done in Germany and Japan after the Second World War can the US hope to reverse the trend of Arab decline that moves Arab dictatorships in the direction of Iran, Syria or Libya.
Establishing a radical irredentist Palestinian state in order to satisfy a manipulated "Arab street" will certainly not contribute to democratic evolution. In fact, it may halt it.The writer is president of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, an independent pro-market policy think tank.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post