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A thirst for dignity, a hate of oppression

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BEGINNING in 2010, the Arab world -- the Middle East -- witnessed a series of public uprisings that overturned unpopular authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The unrest has spread to Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

University of Maryland political scientist Shibley Telhami describes this movement as "an unprecedented public empowerment that transcends national boundaries, an awakening on a greater scale than ever before."

In The World Through Arab Eyes, Telhami explores the meaning of the Arab uprisings, using polling data that he has collected from ordinary Arabs in six countries -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates -- over the past decade.

The result is a timely, cogent account of the values and beliefs that are driving profound change in the Arab world.

When Telhami first became interested in the attitudes of ordinary Arabs, most political scientists minimized the influence of public opinion in the Middle East because the region was dominated by authoritarian governments.

With the Arab awakening in 2010, however, the significance of Arab public opinion was patent, and Telhami, having conducted scientific surveys of Arab opinion for years, was well situated to explain the new political environment in the Middle East.

For Telhami, the Arab uprisings were about individual rights and liberty, economic opportunity and democracy. But most important, they were animated by an aspiration for dignity.

During the past two centuries, the Arab world has been dominated by foreign powers -- first European colonialism, then the United States. Arabs deeply resent their authoritarian governments being clients of these external powers.

As Telhami writes, "the revolts were not simply rejections of particular regimes as such -- they also rejected what most Arabs saw as a rotten political order of autocratic rulers anchored around and enabled by Western powers -- principally the United States, in recent years."

What Arabs want, Telhami says, is "Arab power, Arab progress, Arab democracy and an Arab state that would help take Arabs to what they perceive to be their rightful place among nations."

It is this desire for dignity that has galvanized Arab opinion and inspired the Arab uprising. The revolts are not primarily about economic deprivation; they are not led by the unemployed.

If Arabs want dignity, the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, for Arabs, the antithesis of dignity. It embodies Arab frustration and resentment over foreign influence in the Middle East, and is, Telhami suggests, "the prism of pain" through which Arabs view the world.

Integral to the Arab awakening, Telhami argues, has been an "information revolution." Fifteen years ago, most Arabs received their information from government-controlled television within their own borders.

Now, with the affordability of satellite receivers, Arabs get their news from outlets beyond their borders.

These outlets, Telhami says, have not shaped Arab opinion, but have reflected it on key issues.

As a result of the uprisings, public opinion will play a greater role in the politics of the region than every before. Telhami's book is an excellent guide to the forces that are reshaping the Middle East.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1

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