There Is Arab Public Opinion

Presidents and kings realize that they have lost a big part of their monopoly on fashioning public opinion.

The Cairo International Film Festival, which ended several weeks ago, was not a great success. It was unsuccessful because it drew a small number of moviegoers. When summing up the reasons for this failure, the director of the festival explained, "The elections for parliament stole most of the public's interest." And this is the news: When elections for the Egyptian parliament arouse greater interest than films, this means that something important is transpiring in public opinion.

In fact, "something important" has been happening in Arab public opinion over the past year, and not only in Egypt: Public opinion has become something of great import. Lebanese public opinion is what drove Syria out of Lebanon; Egyptian public opinion helped to establish the new opposition movement Kifaya (Enough) and to prod the president into adopting political reforms. Iraqi public opinion decided that government institutions would be established via elections, even when terrorism is still dictating the way of life in the state. And Palestinian public opinion, fed up with the corruption and division in Fatah, decided to support Hamas. Even the developments in Saudi Arabia can be attributed to public opinion that is stirring an interesting public discourse there about changes in curricula, driving licenses for women, and a struggle against Islamic terrorism - subjects that came out of the living room and into the public squares.

The prominent television critic Ibrahim al-Aris believes that the satellite television stations like Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are responsible for this new pattern of public opinion and that, despite the small number of independent stations, they are dominant in everything related to forging modern Arab public opinion. There is no doubt that the revolution in Arab media has made an impact and that Arab public opinion, as expressed during the past year, is an innovation that has not been seen in this region for decades. This process did not just begin during the past year, but it has now succeeded in generating several changes.

It is an upheaval, even if it has not been completed, that is even greater than it appears to be at first glance. Presidents and kings realize that they have lost a big part of their monopoly on fashioning public opinion. The strength of the Lebanese protest against Syria, for example, compelled Bashar Assad to decide to withdraw his troops even before American and French pressure came to bear. The daily demonstrations, much more than the weak American pressure, were what convinced Mubarak to change direction, after he realized that the fate of his regime's legitimacy lies in the hands of those hundreds of stubborn people whom he could once have dispersed with water cannons or thrown into jail.

Of course, those who see the paragon of democracy in these public displays of power are liable to be disappointed. The Arab public still lacks the full power that citizens of Western countries enjoy. Political activists are arrested in great numbers, journalists are not allowed to write everything they know, and demonstrations are illegal in most Arab states. Still, it would be a mistake to judge democracy only in this way, because an important change has occurred during the past year. Arab public opinion is sending a strong signal: "I am here." This message emphasizes, "I am not here to curry favor with anyone" - not America, not Europe and, of course, not Israel - "but rather for myself." And thus it empowers the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the occupied territories and religious Shi'ites in Iraq.

The innovation that Arab public opinion displays should also echo in the courtyards of those in the West who dictate global policy. They need to understand there are additional and important players in this arena, which has been exclusively controlled by leaders. There is an attentive public that can be addressed even when its leaders are close-minded. Iran is not just Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Syria is not only Assad. And here is the absurdity: The Arab public has quickly learned to utilize methods to circumvent the regime, such as satellite television and the Internet, while its counterparts in the West are still stuck in the previous century, a century when the voice of the Arab public was at most a curious oddity.