America and the Arab Spring 

Dr. Shibley Telhami
Founding Director
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development
University of Maryland, College Park

July 8, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Dr. Shibley Telhami believes that the Arab Spring represents a fundamental shift of the Arab political landscape because it debunks the popular theory that “public opinion doesn’t matter in the Arab Street.”  The political innovation of the Arab Spring, he said, was the ability of the Arab people to finally circumvent the brutal and systematic oppression of their rulers, which had long prevented them from organizing a desire for change into political organizations and action. Dr. Telhami said that no longer will the “silent majority” he had previously studied in public opinion polling data be subject to monolithic government oppression.

Dr. Telhami explained that old and new media acted together to spur on the Arab Spring; new media was important for organization, while old media was key to publicity. The credibility of pan-Arab satellite broadcasting, he said, was what inspired people to turn out for mass demonstrations on the planned dates. He said due to media interconnectivity, “the overall pace of political change is increasing” around the world. Governments can no longer afford to ignore the popular opinion of their populations, and with regards to the future, a “dynamic of public empowerment” is now present across the Middle Eastern.

Dr. Telhami cautioned that the Arab Spring cannot improve Middle Eastern-U.S. relations without policy change on the two issues which are the “lens” through which the Arab Street views the American government:  military presence in the Gulf and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latter is thankfully unlikely to worsen, even considering Mubarak’s fall; according to Dr. Telhami, the new Egyptian government may make Israel “uncomfortable,” but repealing the Camp David Peace Treaty or entering into armed conflict is unlikely. However, Dr. Telhami warned that solely “doing the right thing” and supporting popular uprisings will not create an instantaneous opening for the United States to have better relations in the Middle East.