Navigate to News section

A Newly Paved Arab Street?

Wieseltier and Ibish cast uprisings in instructively similar lights

Marc Tracy
March 15, 2011
Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square last month after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.(John Moore/Getty Images)
Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square last month after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.(John Moore/Getty Images)

When two smart people converge on a common understanding from totally different angles, it seems wise to take note. Leon Wieseltier (a Tablet Magazine contributing editor), in The New Republic, and Hussein Ibish, in Bookforum, have each written essays that in their own ways proclaim a new era in Arab politics. “The Arab street,” no longer defined and in part shaped by the Orientalist assumptions of the West (to borrow from Ibish), has achieved, in Wieseltier’s term, “a post-post-imperial moment.” Against those who see the Arab world as respectful above all of power (and especially violence) and as unusually susceptible to religious extremism—a group that includes Tablet Magazine columnist Lee Smith—Wieseltier and Ibish conclude that, rather, members of the Arab street, no longer the victims of actual Western imperialism or of its legacy, must be accounted formidable and essentially modern political actors.

Which is not to say the two agree (or would agree) on everything. Wieseltier indicts President Obama’s view of the current upheavals, which, he says, is mired in the outdated, stereotypical view of the Arab street. And Ibish argues that despite the absence of anti-Western, -American, or even –Israeli sentiments among the main driving forces of the masses in Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere, “There is no question that the Israeli occupation is still the prism of pain through which most Arabs view international relations—and that they are passionate about the cause of Palestinian freedom.”

But I still think reading the pieces together (choice excerpts below the jump) provides a fascinating, insightful window into the changes afoot half a world away and how they are realigning the ideological spectrum at home. What I mean to say is, it really struck me how the two of them use such different language to describe such a similar reality.


the democratic eruption of recent months marks the advent of a post-post-imperial moment, in which the future is finally allowed a greater claim upon the present than the past. Post-post-imperialism is another term for self-reliance, for an internal renovation, for what an early Zionist writer called “auto-emancipation.” There is no deeper emancipation. The blessing of the post-post-imperial moment is not that the terrible history has been forgotten, but that the lachrymosity it left in its wake, the lowered expectations that derived from the belief that there is only one story and only one enemy, the pessimistic effects of unceasing commemoration, have been dispelled. … Democracy, for these protesting peoples, is no longer defined, or tarnished, by its largely Western provenance. This is a milestone. Indeed, the post-imperialist analysis of the Arab uprisings is now the desperate and hallucinatory work of Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who would suspend all Muslims in eternal grief and eternal rage. They are the losers in the Arab apotheosis. Reality is shattering their conspiracy theories, in a grand historical rebuttal.


Any serious, honest appraisal of what is spreading throughout the Arab world refutes every aspect of this pernicious mythology. Certainly, the size, scope, and bravery of the demonstrations for democracy, good governance, and accountability mean that no one can continue flogging the Orientalist shibboleth that Arabs are inherently resistant to change—at least not with a straight face. Likewise, the idea that Arab political culture is inherently violent has been most eloquently debunked by the extraordinarily self-disciplined nonviolence of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia—in spite of extreme provocation and abuses by the police and government-paid hooligans. …

Consider, by contrast, how events in Egypt might have unfolded had the Western stereotype of the Arab street possessed any real explanatory power: The demonstrations in Cairo would have been violent and chaotic—and driven by religious fanaticism. But Islamism and religious identity played almost no role in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings; indeed, these supposed prime movers of Arab culture and politics haven’t been particularly evident in the region’s other mass protests, with the exception of Jordan. It wasn’t Islamism that brought millions of Arabs out into the streets to demand change. Rather, these protests were the product—and, just as important, the expression—of national consciousness, uniting Christians and Muslims, the devout and the skeptical, and a range of urban social classes, from the upper middle class to the working poor.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.