On March 27, 2003, Hafez al-Mirazi, Mouafac Harb, and Jonathan Schanzer addressed The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is a rapporteur's summary of Mr. Schanzer's remarks.
Images broadcast by Arab satellite television depict a volatile Arab public, an apparent vindication of those who warned of the debilitating effect of any American-led war on regional stability. Yet, there is reason to believe that such sentiments may not pose a long-term threat to the stability of Arab governments. Historically, most protests in the Arab world have been fueled by economic crises, and those that have been political have rarely resulted in regime change. In the months prior to war, most demonstrations remained relatively small, numbering no more than several hundred participants. It was not until regimes began sanctioning protests in February and March that the numbers climbed into the hundreds of thousands, and most of the demonstrations were clearly orchestrated by Arab leaders to co-opt public opposition to the war for political gain.
Once war broke out, the Arab street seemed to erupt. Regime tolerance of public dissent may actually benefit both American interests and Arab governments. Regime acceptance of nonconformist opinion may allow social protest to take the place of radical violence, thus frustrating the spread of terrorism. Equally important, any relaxation of regime controls on dissent may encourage further political liberalization. The Tunisian government, for example, recently allowed opposition parties to organize their first demonstration in over ten years. Such changes are significant and should not be overlooked.
Still, areas of concern persist. Areas of weak political authority -- such as the refugee camps, southern Jordan, Upper Egypt, and parts of Yemen -- remain political hotspots where persistent instability could degenerate into antiregime violence. A more important factor, however, is how Arab media -- in particular al-Jazeera as the most watched Arab news source -- depict the Iraq crisis. Al-Jazeera, while clearly possessing higher levels of journalistic integrity than many of its counterparts, continues to fuel public outrage through provocative images and inflammatory rhetoric. This may complicate American efforts for postwar rapprochement.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Evan Langenhahn.