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The Coming Arab Backlash

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Marc Lynch

Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the Middle East has been rocked by mass protests. Egyptians have demonstrated in solidarity with Palestinians at great personal risk, and Iraqis, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Yemenis have taken to the streets in vast numbers. Meanwhile, Jordanians have broken long-standing redlines by marching on the Israeli embassy, and Saudi Arabia has refused to resume normalization talks with Israel, in part because of its people’s deep fury over Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip.

For Washington, the view is that none of this mobilization really matters. Arab leaders, after all, are among the world’s most experienced practitioners of realpolitik, and they have a record of ignoring their people’s preferences. The protests, although large, have been manageable. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other leaders have long encouraged protests about the treatment of Palestinians, which allow their people to blow off steam and direct their anger toward a foreign enemy instead of against domestic corruption and incompetence. In time, or so the argument goes, the fighting in Gaza will end, the angry protesters will go home, and their leaders will carry on pursuing self-interests, an activity at which they excel.

U.S. foreign policymakers also have a long history of disregarding public opinion in the Middle East—the so-called Arab street. After all, if autocratic Arab leaders are calling the shots, then it is not necessary to put stock in what angry activists shout or in what ordinary citizens tell pollsters or the media. Since there are no democracies in the Middle East, care need not be given to what anyone outside the palaces thinks. And for all its talk of democracy and human rights, Washington has always been more comfortable dealing with pragmatic autocrats than with publics it regards as irrational, extremist mobs. It rarely pauses to consider how this might contribute to its dismal record of policy failures.

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The United States’ willingness to dismiss popular concerns is strengthened by the memory of 2003, when Arab public opinion was wildly against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but most of the region’s leaders cooperated with the invasion and none took steps to oppose it. Despite decades of frequent mass protests against Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt have maintained peace treaties with Israel, and Egypt has even actively participated in the siege of Gaza. Indeed, U.S. complacency has actually increased as anticipated eruptions of popular anger—for example, over moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or bombing Yemen—failed to materialize. Washington’s conviction was briefly shaken by the Arab uprisings of 2011, but it returned in full force as autocracies reasserted control in the following years.

That seems to be what the United States and most policy analysts expect this time around, too. When the bombing is finally over, the crowds will return to their homes and find other things to be mad about, and regional politics can go back to normal. But these assumptions reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how public opinion matters in the Middle East, as well as a deep misreading of what has truly changed since the 2011 uprisings.


The term “Arab street” is used by policymakers to reduce regional public opinion to the rantings of an irrational, hostile, and emotional mob that might be appeased or repressed but is without coherent policy preferences or ideas. The expression has deep roots in British and French colonial rule and was adopted by the United States as it entered the Cold War and came to believe that education and capitalism are capable of transforming the Middle East into the image of the West. These ideas underpinned Washington’s policy of cooperating with Arab dictators who could control their people. That suited Arab leaders, who could deflect Western pressure on issues such as Israel or democratization by pointing to the threat of popular uprisings and Islamic boogeymen waiting in the wings to take their place.

Before 2011, the high point of the Arab street concept occurred during the so-called Arab cold war of the 1950s, when populist pan-Arab leaders enjoyed great success in mobilizing the masses against conservative Western allies in the name of Arab unity and support for Palestinians. The sight of thousands of angry protesters responding to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s radio addresses by rampaging through the streets in countries including Jordan impressed itself on Western policymakers. Washington, in particular, concluded that the Arab street was dangerous, creating openings for the Soviets. These peoples, then, were not to be reasoned with but to be controlled by force. Long after the Cold War ended, this perception has endured, although it rests on a basic misunderstanding of Arab politics and continues to drive U.S. Middle East policy, as well as many policy analyses of the region. It has always been easier to dismiss Arab support for the Palestinian territories as rooted in atavistic anti-Semitism—or to wave away public fury at U.S. policies as cynically drummed up by politicians—than to take seriously the reasons for Arabs’ anger and to find ways to address their concerns.

This idea of the Arab street changed somewhat in the 1990s and the subsequent decade. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, crystallized in these decades and shaped a pan-Arab public opinion. The rise of systematic, scientific public opinion polling in the 1990s provided considerable nuance about national variances, attitudes changing in response to events, and sophisticated assessments of political conditions. The emergence of social media allowed a wide variety of Arab voices to break the media’s control and shatter stereotypes through their unmediated analysis and interactive engagement. After 9/11, Washington put great effort into a war of ideas, designed to combat extremist and Islamist ideas across the region, an approach that, however misguided, did require significant investment in survey research and careful attention to Arab media and emerging social media. But then the uprisings in 2011 shattered general complacency about the stability of the region’s autocrats, showing that the people’s voices needed to be heard and taken into account.


The memory of the 2011 uprisings still hangs over every calculation of regime stability in today’s Middle East. The results of those revolutionary events carried mixed lessons. The rapid spread of regime-threatening protests from Tunisia across virtually the entire region showed that the supposed stability of Arab autocracies was mostly a myth. For a brief moment, it stopped making sense for Washington to ignore the subtleties of Arab public opinion or to defer to the assurances of jaded Arab rulers. The uprisings were manifestly not simply the eruption of a mindless Arab street. Rather, the young revolutionaries who captured the spirit of the era articulated thoughtful, incisive critiques of the autocrats they challenged, and even the Islamists in their midst spoke the language of freedom and democracy. Western governments initially raced to engage with these impressive young leaders and tried to support their efforts to bring about democratic transitions and more open political systems.

But such lessons were quickly forgotten as Arab regimes regained control through military coups, political engineering, and wide-ranging repression. Autocrats throughout the region helped other autocrats restore their power, and the West simply stood by. The United States, for example, did not act as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states supported Bahrain’s vicious repression of its protests in 2011 and poured financial and political support into the 2013 Egyptian military coup. The autocratic restoration that followed brought a level of repression that went far beyond that which had existed before 2011, with regimes across the region crushing and silencing civil society, fearing any resurgence of opposition. Digital surveillance aided these repressive measures, giving regimes unprecedentedly nuanced understandings of their citizens’ views and the potential for opposition movements to appear.

The autocratic restoration quickly resulted in the return of an older model of Western foreign policy based on cooperating with autocratic elites and ignoring the views of Arab publics. Nowhere could this be seen more clearly than in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From 1991 until recently, Washington had shepherded a peace process in part because U.S. leaders believed that delivering a just solution for Palestinians was essential to legitimize U.S. primacy. President Donald Trump’s administration, however, simply ignored Palestinian and Arab public opinion as it brokered the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The accords also included Sudan, as well as Morocco, after Washington agreed to recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

U.S. President Joe Biden, despite promising campaign rhetoric, instead wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s approach to the Middle East, pushing for Arab-Israeli normalization and ignoring democracy and human rights. After his inauguration in 2021, Biden abandoned his promises to put human rights first and make Saudi Arabia a pariah for its murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its war on Yemen. Instead, he scrambled with unseemly desperation to finish Trump’s policies of normalizing relations with Israel without resolving the Palestinian issue and fending off Chinese gains in the region by securing an agreement with Saudi Arabia. It is not an accident that the Hamas assault on Israel on October 7 coincided with the Biden administration’s full-court press for a Saudi normalization deal in the midst of unprecedented provocations by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There were many signs of Arab discontent with normalization and countless warnings of an imminent explosion in Gaza, but Washington ignored them as just another instance of misguided deference to an Arab street that it believed its autocratic allies could control. It was wrong.

That is because public opinion matters in the Middle East. Politics matter, even under autocracies, and in the Middle East, political forces move seamlessly between the domestic and the regional. Successful leaders must learn to master both dimensions of the game. Part of ensuring their survival is knowing how to respond to protests, and the response depends on the issue at hand. Western diplomats listen to Arab rulers who would not sacrifice even minor interests for the greater good if they could get away with it. Of course, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would do a deal with Israel if he thought it would serve his government’s interests and he could absorb public anger without too much risk. But that is a big if. Prince Mohammed and other Arab leaders care about what might get them overthrown. For the most part, they care about one thing more than anything else: staying in power. That means not only preventing obviously regime-threatening mass protests but also being attentive to potential sources of discontent and responding as necessary to head them off. With almost every Arab country outside the Gulf suffering extreme economic problems, and accordingly exercising maximum repression, regimes have to be even more careful in responding to issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arab leaders are, meanwhile, also focused on the regional political game and fiercely compete to position themselves as the most effective defenders of their shared identities and interests. That is why they often dress up even the most nakedly cynical and self-interested moves as serving the interests of Palestinians or defending Arab honor. The recent actions of the United Arab Emirates, such as when it tried to justify the Abraham Accords by claiming to have prevented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned annexation of the West Bank, are a case in point. Arab leaders care about what gives them an advantage or threatens them in the intensely competitive game of regional politics—whether that is against other Arab contenders for influence or against other powers, including Turkey and Iran. The regional dimension of competition has become even more intense over the last decade, as the Arab uprisings highlighted how political developments throughout the region may risk the survival of any domestic regime. Most notably, Qatar competed hard with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over political transitions and civil wars in Syria, Tunisia, and elsewhere, seeking to shape public opinion but also responding to it.


Today, it is glaringly obvious that it was wrong for the United States to assume that it could ignore Arab public opinion about the treatment of Palestinians. Arabs have not, in fact, lost interest in the issue. And Arab regimes have not, in fact, established a death grip on public mobilization. Almost every regime now finds its publics extraordinarily mobilized by what they consider to be Israel’s genocidal campaign against Gaza and a new program of displacement and occupation. The resulting level of mobilization and public outrage exceeds the 2003 fury over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it is clearly influencing the behavior of the region’s regimes. Indeed, the degree and power of popular mobilization can be seen not only in the media and the crowds in the streets but also in the uncharacteristic criticism of Israel and the United States being voiced by regimes that need to get this right in order to survive. Even Egypt, a close U.S. partner, has threatened to freeze the Camp David Accords if Israel invades Rafah or expels Gazans into the Sinai.

The Arab media, which had been badly fragmented and politically polarized during the previous decade’s intraregional political wars, has largely reunited in defense of Gaza. Al Jazeera is back, reliving its glory days through round-the-clock coverage of the horrors there, even as its journalists have been killed in action by Israeli forces. Social media is back, too—not the corpse of Twitter or the woefully censored Facebook and Instagram, so much as newer apps such as TikTok, WhatsApp, and Telegram. The images and videos emerging from Gaza overwhelm the spin offered by Israel and the United States and easily bypass soft-pedaled coverage by Western news outlets. People see the devastation. Every day they confront scenes of unbelievable tragedy. And they know victims directly. They do not need the media to understand WhatsApp messages from terrified Gazans or to view the horrifying videos widely circulating on Telegram.

Arab activists and intellectuals have been developing powerful arguments about the nature of Israel’s domination of the Palestinian territories and these are entering the Western discourse in new ways. The case South Africa brought to the International Court of Justice, alleging an Israeli genocide in Gaza, introduced many of those arguments into circulation across the global South and within international organizations. It did so by referencing not only the statements of Israeli leaders but also conceptual frameworks about occupation and settler colonialism developed by Arab and Palestinian intellectuals. The war of ideas that the United States sought to wage in the Muslim world after 9/11, claiming to bring freedom and democracy to a backward region, has reversed course, with the United States on the defensive because of its hypocrisy in demanding condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine while supporting Israel’s war on Gaza.


This is all happening in an era characterized, even before the Israel-Hamas war, by the declining primacy of the United States and the rising autonomy of regional powers. Leading Arab states have increasingly sought to demonstrate their independence from the United States, building strategic relations with China and Russia and pursuing their own agendas in regional affairs. The willingness of Arab regimes to defy U.S. preferences was a hallmark of the previous decade, as Gulf states ignored American policies toward democratic transition in Egypt, flooded weapons into Syria despite Washington’s caution, and lobbied against the nuclear agreement with Iran. This willingness to flout the United States’ wishes has become even more apparent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The past two years have seen most Middle Eastern regimes refusing to vote with Washington against Russia, and Saudi Arabia declining to follow the United States’ lead on oil pricing.

Washington’s unblinkered support for Israel in its devastation of Gaza, however, has brought long-standing hostility toward U.S. policy to a head, and triggered a crisis of legitimacy that threatens the entire edifice of historic U.S. primacy in the region. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Arabs blame the United States for this war. They can see that only U.S. weapons sales and United Nations vetoes allow Israel to continue its war. They are aware that the United States defends Israel for actions that are the same as those the United States condemned Russia and Syria for. The extent of this popular anger can be seen in the disengagement of a large number of young workers in nongovernmental organizations and activists from U.S.-backed projects and networks built up over decades of public diplomacy, a development cited by Annelle Sheline in her principled resignation from her post as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department in March.

The White House is still acting as if none of this really matters. Arab regimes will survive, anger will fade or be redirected to other issues, and, in a few months, Washington can get back to the important business of Israeli-Saudi normalization. That is how things have traditionally worked. But this time may well be different. The Gaza fiasco, at a moment of shifting global power and changing calculations by regional leaders, shows how little Washington has learned from its long record of policy failures. The nature and degree of popular anger, the decline of U.S. primacy and the collapse of its legitimacy, and Arab regimes’ prioritization of their domestic survival, as well as regional competition, suggests that the new regional order will be much more attentive to public opinion than the old. If Washington continues to ignore public opinion, it will doom its planning for after the war ends in Gaza.