Egypt is burning. Its military just imposed a national curfew. The phone networks and Internet arteries have been shut down to preserve order. Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters are flying to dissuade protesters. Yet, a defiant populous is still running through the streets of Cairo, ignoring the order to stay indoors.
Important installations are now burning in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. Egyptians everywhere are openly calling for the immediate ouster of its iron-fisted president, Hosni Mubarak, vituperation that just days ago was unthinkable. Now the West is suddenly confronted with yet another shock in the Middle East. To understand this shock, one must understand an entrenched concept in the Middle East known as “the Arab Street.”
While the world creates an information highway and bridges throughout the world, the term Arab Street is one which is too often forgotten—but not for long. The Arab Street is a dusty, unimproved and irrepressible thoroughfare of fury whose frequent itinerary has been known and feared for generations in the Middle East.
Quite simply, the Arab Street refers to the unexpected potential for popular upheaval at any time in any Arab locale. With no democratic venues to express popular wrath, this wrath pours onto the street and acts out en masse against the established order.
Historically speaking, Arab countries were created not by centuries of popular geopolitical evolution, as they were in the West, but by the artificial establishment of nation states according to an agenda driven by the West after WWI. That agenda was always one of commercial exploitation or the lust for petroleum. In the case of Iraq and Iran, it has been the lust for petroleum. In the case of Egypt, since 1869, it has been dependence on the gateway to a commercial artery of indispensable value, the Suez Canal.
The billions that flow into the western-backed and westernized regimes that govern Arab countries have never been shared with the majority of the populous. The overwhelming majority of people remain uneducated, unemployed, disenfranchised, and politically subordinated. In other words, they exist as a giant, detached, roiling, suspicious underclass ready to ignite at a moment's notice.
That has happened many times throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In 1941, the Arab Street rose up in a Nazi-allied frenzy to oust the British and their oil interests during WWII, and in the process, staged a two-day pogrom of murder and rampage against all the Jews of Baghdad, June 1-2, 1941.
In 1958, the British-installed rulers of Iraq were dragged through the streets and their bodies literally dismembered by the throng. In 1956, the Street arose in Iran to oust British Petroleum and create the Iranian oil enterprise that rules today. That same year, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, riding an outpouring of Arab Street demonstrations, nationalized the Suez Canal that prompted a Mideast war.
The Arab Street today circumvents the traditional red lights of military suppression and police crackdowns. It can self-accelerate through Twitter, Facebook, and al-Jazeera. The twenty-first century has seen the Street erupt in Iran, in Gaza, and in recent weeks the Street has overflowed with vengeance in Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, and now Egypt. As long as Western commercial and political interests continue to intersect the volatile traffic of the Arab Street, the West will be reminded that this thoroughfare is traveled by social vehicles which appear parked and sleepy, but in fact can race out of control at the turn of a spark.
What can happen next? The answer is, quite simply, the worst—and soon.
The dominos are already in motion. Arab Street explosions in Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen and now Egypt are more than just local manifestations of a quest for popular rule. They have enormous international implications. Washington wants it both ways. It wants democracy to bubble to the top, but when it does, it shrinks at the results. That is what happened when Hamas was elected in Gaza.
If the will of the Arab Street rules in Egypt in the hours and days to come, we could see Egyptian authority as we know it topple. The Suez Canal could be endangered or restricted. A bedrock peace treaty with Israel will surely vanish. The border containment of Hamas terrorism in Gaza and Al Qaeda in the North Sinai might quickly end, setting off volcanic anti-Western actions initialized by Hamas, Iran, and Bin Laden contenders.
The world could see the complete collapse of the multi-billion dollar house of cards that our foreign aid has so carefully established under the Mubarak regime. If that regime is replaced, will it be replaced by a westernized diplomatic personality, such as Mohammad elBaradei, or will it be overwhelmed by the terror-tinged Muslim Brotherhood? No one knows.
If Mubarak in Egypt falls, Hussein in Jordan could be next. If Egypt and Jordan renounce their peace treaties with Israel and their allegiance to the West, war with Israel could be imminent. If the Arab Street in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon link up, the world could quite easily see the re-emergence of the decades-long move for a single Arab nation. What type of nation that would be, whether a resurrected Caliphate or an international democratic federation, is anyone’s guess. Pakistan’s street may want to join up.
Watch your televisions. If Mubarak can enforce an iron-fisted policy, he may survive at least for a while. That is unlikely. Once the police in Suez, Alexandria, and Cairo join street protesters, the Mubarak regime is finished, and the dominoes will not only fall on each other, but on the rest of the world. That dreaded thudding sound is not lurking in some future time, but may be just days away.
Edwin Black is the author of "IBM and the Holocaust" and "Banking on Baghdad." This article is based on his just-released books," The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust" and "British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement."