Except for Arab autocrats aligned with Western powers, much of the Middle East supports the Palestinian cause, according to several opinion polls.
The recent signing ceremony of the UAE-Bahrain deal with Israel has once again shown up a stark difference between the mindset of the Arab streetand the contrasting political agendas of its autocratic states.
Many polls have consistently shown that support for the Palestinian cause among Arab populations has been historically and consistently strong. The same thing could not be said for the Arab autocratic states, however.
“The solidarity with Palestine among ordinary Arabs rarely, if ever, translates to something tangible since the regimes that are normalizing with Israel are not democratic states and do not represent their people’s views on domestic or foreign policy issues,” says Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian political analyst and author.
Baroud said the autocratic nature of most Arab regimes hurts the Palestinian cause more than anything else across the Middle East.
“The above assertion is not meant to suggest that Arab people’s support for Palestine is irrelevant, but to accentuate a persistent problem in the Arab body politic, where people are irrelevant and only the interests of the ruling class, or clan, largely matters,” says Baroud.
In world politics, official political stances do not always complement popular sentiments. But states can also not ignore the will of the majority for too long. Lessons can be taken from the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, which captured the political imagination of the American majority throughout the 1960s.
A former super power, the communist bloc under the Soviet Union leadership was also not able to fight back against popular sentiment, one that demanded more freedom, political space and access to capital and other financial sources.
In 2011, the Arab Spring movement swept across the Middle East, overthrowing some long-standing regimes in countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. While Cairo brought back its military autocracy after a bloody coup in 2013, Syria and Libya slipped into civil wars.
What Arab autocrats do not want to learn
In the wake of the Arab Spring, and clear examples from current and former super powers, Arab autocratic states, which have signed peace agreements with Israel at different times against the wishes of their own people, do not appear to learn much about the power of popular sentiments.
“A public opinion poll conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and published in July 2018 showed that Arab support for Palestine and Palestinians is very high. For example, 91 percent of respondents still saw Israel as the greatest threat to the region and 87% opposed any normalization between Arab countries and Israel,” Baroud told TRT World.
“Despite the fact that many Arab countries are in the throes of war and conflict, 77% of all respondents believed that ‘the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs and not the Palestinian people alone,’” he continues.
In the past, there was a united Arab political front against Israel. But after humiliating defeats at the hands of Israelis during the Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt and Jordan signed peace agreements with the Zionist state.
Most recently, a political rapprochement between the Gulf and Israel is in the air. This has resulted in the UAE and Bahrain to normalise their relations with Israel.
Past and recent peace agreements of the Arab autocratic states with Israel have barely changed the political sentiment across the Arab street, according to analysts.
“These numbers reflect the kind of solidarity with Palestine that remains stable throughout the years and shared by several generations of Arabs. In my mind, this solidarity will not change even if or when more Arab countries join the ongoing normalization schemes between Arab countries in the Gulf and Israel,” says Baroud.
Western backing: Crucial to Arab regimes’ survival
Most Arab regimes do not care about the popular sentiment across their countries because they are well aware of the fact that their power is not based on people’s democratic will, but instead on foreign support.
Most of the Gulf dynasties, including the Saudis, the Emirates and Bahrain, came to power in their respective countries with the help of the British, the former colonial power which had occupied parts of the Middle East under different mandates following World War I.
Since then, much of the Gulf has historically devised policies friendly to Western powers, especially the US, which would go on to succeed British power in the Middle East after World War II.
That said, most of those policies have been against their own people or the general aspirations of the Arab world, according to Sami al Arian, a Palestinian-American professor, who is also the Director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at the Sabahattin Zaim University.
“They are fearful of losing their rule and power. They are fearful of that because they are based on non-democratic systems and because they think that the wave of democracy will eventually get to their shores,” Arian told TRT World.
As a result, the Arab autocratic regimes think that the only way they could survive is to ally with both Western powers and Israel, surrendering their security arrangements to Washington and Tel Aviv, says Arian.
That political arrangement creates a suppressive political atmosphere across the Middle East, which makes ordinary citizens fear about their life prospects if they follow their political aspirations, including the defence of the Palestinian cause.
In Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, people’s genuine aspirations for more political freedom and human rights, have been violently suppressed by autocratic leaderships.
“The views of the Arab people, whether on Palestine or any other pressing topic, will only become consequential when Arab governments truly reflect and represent their own people,” Baroud views.
“Sadly, without true participatory democracy, the views of the ‘Arab streets’ will begin and end on the street, and will never make it to the centers of power,” he concludes.