Too close for comfort - Monocolumn | Monocle


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31 July 2014

What happened to the Arab street? A lazy shorthand to describe protests from Amman or Algiers (“what are those Arabs thinking?”), it was a place that was always heard from whenever Israel/Palestine erupted in violence. Those protests tended to come with the approval, tacit or otherwise, of Arab leaders who were more than happy for people to vent their anger at a convenient target like Israel.

This time around though, aside from protests in the West Bank, there have been few public displays of anger, while the leaders themselves have been unusually quiet. From Jordan, nothing. The Saudis, the same. Lebanon, a few voices here and there but nothing major.

So what happened to the so-called “Arab street”? The similarly poorly named “Arab Spring”, that’s what. As protests erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, it became clear what the real problems in the Arab world were not Israel but their own leaders. Residents of Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut have more important things to worry about than the fate of Palestine.

The nature of Palestinian leadership during this conflict also differs from previous ones. Hamas’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood mean that many countries – and Egypt is a prime example – want nothing to do with them. Hamas is not Fatah and Khaled Meshal is no Yasser Arafat. The former leader of the Palestinian Authority was a hero across much of the Arab world. While many ordinary Arabs may sympathise with Meshal’s cause, he has neither Arafat’s charisma or symbolic status.

The Arab League, once prepared to back the Palestinian Authority to the hilt, has refused to side with Hamas, backing Israeli calls for a ceasefire when Hamas’s leadership was opposed.

Not that the Palestinian cause has ever had the overwhelming support in the Arab world that it at times appeared to have. While the rhetoric may have been supportive, the actions often were not. Lebanon in particular has never seen fit to help the Palestinians still languishing in their refugee camps.

That leaves Qatar and Turkey, two relatively new diplomatic powers, neither of whom are as effective as they appeared to be three years ago. Qatar’s foreign-policy radar has turned somewhat fuzzy since last year’s change of leadership and has been quietly tussling for influence with its bigger, more important neighbour, Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has wisely given up on his “zero problems in the neighbourhood” ambitions but thanks in part to Turkey’s emotional and increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has limited political clout in the region.

The anger and protests are now found in European rather than Arab capitals, though that is unlikely to translate into political support any time soon. In the Arab world, solidarity for Palestine is now little more than a slogan. And one that’s not being shouted as loudly as it once was.

Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.


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