Egypt's revolution began in "the Arab street." Where does that phrase come from?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 31 2011 10:50 AM

So, What's With  "the Arab Street"?

We never hear anything about "the Latin American street" or "the European street."

Egyptian protesters in Cairo's Tahrir square
Egyptian protesters in Cairo's Tahrir square

Egypt and Tunisia are in the throes of revolution, as angry citizens move to oust long-serving heads of state and their cronies. The mass protests have renewed talk about the "Arab street," a handy metaphor to describe popular opinion in the Muslim world. Where does that phrase come from?

The Arabs. In 2009, professors Terry Regier of U.C. Berkeley and Muhammad Ali Khalidi of York University in Canada published a paper tracking the origins and usage of the phrase Arab street (PDF). They found that Arabic-language newspapers regularly use the street as a stand-in for popular public opinion, and not just in reference to Muslims. Journalists in Arab countries also write stories about the mood on the "British street," the "American street," and the "Israeli street."

That's not to say the street formulation necessarily comes from Arabic. The provenance of the phrase is a bit muddled. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Wyndham Lewis, an English writer and painter, as the first person to refer to popular public opinion as "the street." In a 1931 book sympathetic to Adolf Hitler, Lewis noted that Democratic politicians couldn't suppress the fascist leader because of his "Mastery of the Street." Just like his pro-Hitler sentiment, Wyndham's turn of phrase didn't catch on in England or the United States, but the metaphor appeared in Arabic in the 1950s. Lebanese editorialists used thestreet to represent the oppressed working classes in the Muslim world.

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When American political scientists picked up the metaphor in the 1970s, it was applied exclusively to Arabs. CUNY professor Robert R. Sullivan wrote about the use of radio propaganda in "mobilizing the Arab 'street' " in a 1970 article for The Review of Politics.   Steven J. Rosen used the phrase in a 1977 American Political Science Review article. * In those days, the word street was usually enclosed in quotation marks, suggesting that writers were borrowing the concept from Arabic media.

The metaphor moved into the Western mainstream media in the late 1980s. Prior to 1987, American journalists always referred to "Arab public opinion" rather than the street. The metaphor caught on when the first Palestinian Intifada broke into the news. Usage intensified during the original invasion of Iraq in 1990, and then again after 9/11. By 2006, journalists were using the street metaphor in the majority of their descriptions of popular sentiment in the Arab world, according to Regier and Khalidi's research.

The two academics also identified a difference in tone between Arabic and English use of the phrase. In English, the Arab street is very often associated with volatility and mayhem. It's liable to "explode" or "erupt" with little notice. Writers in Arabic sometimes use this imagery as well, but they are far more likely to glorify the street, in the same way that U.S. politicians lovingly describe Main Street, U.S.A. Yemen's Al-Ayyam newspaper has described the Egyptian street as "the heart and conscience of the Arabs." Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has even referred to the Israeli street with approbation.

Correction, Jan. 31, 2011:The original article incorrectly stated that Steven J. Rosen was indicted for treason. He was indicted for violating the Espionage Act in 2005, but the charges were dropped in 2009. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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