And now for something almost completely positive: Every day I receive a digest of news articles from the Middle East, almost all of them translated from Arabic. Reading these pieces is often like trying to pierce a veil woven of metaphor and coy allusion. Here, for example, is a recent article from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar on efforts to foster reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas: "The problem is that the initiatives are not serious, especially since they are accompanied by conditions and counterconditions and they all serve the game of political cards between this or that side. … This game of cards and passing balls does not have any implementation signs, at least for the time being, on the grounds of reality." This is how you write when you have internalized the idea that you can't say what you think.
Now, increasingly, you can say what you think -- at least in Egypt, Tunisia, and a few other countries in the region. Here's a piece from the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt's bestselling newspaper, ridiculing the pap extruded by the country's state media since the Six-Day War with Israel, which was trumpeted as a great victory until the truth dawned [a few days later] that it was an utter fiasco: "Since then, and for the last 45 years, Egyptian television has been stunted. Bland, dull, unimaginative, and chronically incapable of delivering accurate and relevant news in an appealing fashion, state television has been on autopilot and content with simply existing."
Al-Masry is Egypt's boldest daily, and English editions are granted more latitude than Arabic ones. But I have been increasingly struck by new tones of voice glimmering through the fog of polemic and circumlocution in the wider Arab media. We tend to think about political change as a matter of elections and laws and new institutions, but such transformations take hold in people's minds by offering new ways of thinking, speaking, and writing. Saying what you think is habit-forming. "It is irreversible," says Hani Shukrallah, who used to edit the weekly magazine of Al-Ahram, Egypt's state-owned media monolith, until he was fired in 2005 for expressing heterodox opinions. Shukrallah is now the editor of Al-Ahram's English daily, which began publication a day before the transparently rigged parliamentary elections last November that helped precipitate the Egyptian revolution. This time, Shukrallah was able to describe exactly what happened.
There are still a few red lines in the Egyptian media, though they are enforced more by self-censorship than by direct intervention by the dreaded Ministry of Information, which has been demobilized, though not yet dismantled. (The old minister was fired, and no one was hired in his stead.) Very little has been written or broadcast, for example, about widespread allegations that the military tortured protesters during this winter's uprising. But the change has been stupefying. Shukrallah said to me, "I was just watching television when you called. I'm watching Channel 1, the state-owned channel. There are several hundred-thousand people in Tahrir Square, and they're out there showing the crowds. During the revolution they used to show an empty stretch of road near Tahrir Square when there were a million people in the square."