Arab revolution powered by television

March 06, 2005|By Marc Lynch

THE ARAB REVOLUTION is being televised.

Hisham Milhem, the acerbic host of one of the best Al-Arabiya talk shows, recently remarked that "the whole Arab world is watching on Arab satellite stations, which are covering live the events unfolding in Beirut, and it's having a tremendous effect on the Arab people."

Arab satellite television - including the often-demonized Al-Jazeera - might be more important than was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in driving the recent cascade of events from Baghdad to Ramallah to Cairo to Beirut.

The closest comparison to the current Arab ferment is not the election in Ukraine but the spring of 2002, when Al-Jazeera energized Arab protests against the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank. Arab television did this not just by showing gory pictures but by showing Arabs that other Arabs were marching and protesting.

Many participants in that wave of protests have said that the Arab media shaped their ideas of what was possible, inspiring them to march and to protest. When Jordanians marched in Amman, they weren't only "talking" to King Abdullah II or to the Israelis; they knew they were being seen by Egyptians, Moroccans and Palestinians.

The Arab satellite television coverage of the Beirut demonstrations is the single most important reason why Arab public opinion has turned against Syria.

In the absence of these televised protests, the natural inclination of most of the Arab public would have been to identify with Syria and to defend it against Israeli-American machinations. But the televised images of the Lebanese people, seemingly unified against Syria, tapped in to the core narrative of this new Arab identity: a unified, mobilized Arab public protesting against oppression and an intolerable status quo.

That they identified with this public more than they identified with a "targeted" Arab state represents an astonishing change.

The Arab satellite television stations have played a lead role in driving that deeper change. Their talk shows have been eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo for years. In stark contrast to the deadly boring, carefully controlled political theater of the 1970s and 1980s, the last decade's talk shows have been full to overflowing with critics of nearly every Arab regime and of the entire Arab system.

Hardly a week has gone by without a guest on some popular talk show denouncing some Arab leader as an authoritarian despot, demanding greater democracy or complaining about Arab backwardness.

While the immediate effect of any individual program might only be to provoke a diplomatic crisis or to get people riled up - the sensationalism factor - the cumulative impact has been to create a vast public sense of frustration with the politically stagnant status quo and an urgency for change.

One of the key things that Al-Jazeera did was to explicitly and implicitly link together everything that happens anywhere in the Arab world into a single, coherent narrative: Egyptian protests, Bahraini arrests of bloggers, Tunisian sham elections - they are all part of the same story, not isolated events.

This is the most fundamental impact of the new Arab media. It's been developing for a number of years. It largely has been opposed to U.S. foreign policy. But it has laid the groundwork for the kinds of democratic changes that we can now begin to envision.

It's possible, though not certain, that you needed the invasion of Iraq to get what you're seeing today, but you definitely needed Al-Jazeera.

Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College and a specialist on the Arab media, is the author of the forthcoming Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera, and the Changing Middle East.

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