Watching Egypt (but not on Al Jazeera)

I don't have a lot of time this morning before the panel discussion I'm hosting at GW on Tunisia -- webcast here, if you can't make it to the Elliott School! But I do want to make a few quick comments on Egypt. The images and stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world. Their efforts are not new, despite the intense Western desire to put them into a narrative driven by Twitter, WikiLeaks, or demonstration effects. Egyptians have been protesting and demonstrating for the last decade: massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and against the Iraq war from 2000 to 2003; Kefaya's creative protests for political reform and against succession which peaked in 2004 to 2006; lawyers and judges and professional associations; the Facebook protests and April 6 movements; the plethora of wildcat labor strikes across the country.

One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned.

It is too soon to know how much impact these protests will have in the short term, given that protests are not novel in Egypt and there has long been a much freer and more contentious media than in Tunisia. Like many people, I have been skeptical about the ability of the Egyptian opposition to overcome their internal divisions or a well-prepared regime focused intensely on not becoming the next Ben Ali. We've watched wave after wave of protest be crushed by the Egyptian regime. But I'm certainly hoping that this time they can capture momentum and change the game in Egypt. There seems to be a renewed energy and sense of possibility, one which is clearly being understood by Egyptians as part of a broader Arab narrative of a collective popular uprising against economic conditions, political repression, and corruption.

More broadly, it's astonishing how much is now in motion in Arab politics after such a long period of seeming stagnation. There's a vivid sense of an era coming to a close and an uncertain new vista opening. Even if Al Jazeera's release of the so-called "Palestine Papers" doesn't bring down Abu Mazen's negotiating team or the PA it feels like the autopsy of a long-dead peace process. Hezbollah's Parliamentary maneuver to bring down the Hariri government and replace him with veteran politician and businessman Najib Miqati, a response to the Special Tribunal's reported indictments which has sparked violent protests by Hariri backers, may mean an end to the era of U.S. alliance with a March 14-led Lebanon. It's hard to know where to focus --- but in fact I continue to see these seemingly unrelated events as part of a broader story of the crumbling of an Arab status quo which has long seemed unsustainable.

More later.

 UPDATE, 3pm:  Al-Jazeera's lack of coverage of the protests has become a major story.   It doesn't seem to have gotten any better since this morning --- since getting back on line I've seen an episode of a talk show, more Palestine Papers, and only short snippets of breaking news on Egypt.  Al-Arabiya apparently hasn't done any better.  My Twitter feed and email are full of comments like "AJ Arabic is covering childrens gymnastics programs in Indonesia right now. Good call." (@mwhanna1) and "Exposed. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya's failure in covering #Jan25" (@SultanAlQassemi).   Egyptian activists are complaining bitterly, and most seem to think that Mubarak cut a deal with the Qatari and Saudi governments.    Al-Jazeera Arabic has just cut in with some coverage of the protests, but the damage may have been done --- more later. 

Flickr January 25, 2010

Marc Lynch

Tunisia and the New Arab Media Space

An interesting discussion has already broken out over whether Tunisia should be considered a "Twitter Revolution" -- a far more interesting and relevant discussion than whether it was a "WikiLeaks Revolution" (it wasn't). I've seen some great points already by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, Luke Allnut, Jillian York, and others. I'm looking forward to being one of the social scientists digging into the data, where I suspect that both enthusiasts and skeptics will find support for their arguments. For now, I would just argue that it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions. That feels like a sentence which I've written a hundred times over the last decade… and one which has never felt truer than the last month in Tunisia.


Calling Tunisia a "Twitter Revolution" is simplistic, but even skeptics have to recognize that the new media environment mattered. I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition ("Twitter vs. Al Jazeera"), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space. Without the new social media, the amazing images of Tunisian protestors might never have escaped the blanket repression of the Ben Ali regime --- but it was the airing of these videos on Al Jazeera, even after its office had been shuttered, which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realized what was happening around their country. This is similar to how the new media empowered Egyptian "Kefaya" protestors in the early 2000s and Lebanese protestors in 2005, but in a significantly changed media space.

Al Jazeera may be so 2005, but it is still by far the most watched and most influential single media outlet in the Arab world. It has also embraced the new media environment, creatively and rapidly adopting user generated content to overcome official crackdowns on its coverage of various countries -- a practice perfected in Iraq, where it had to rely on locally-generated content after its office was closed down in 2004. Other satellite television stations have followed suit, leading to genuine and highly significant integration among new and slightly-less-new Arab media. All of these media platforms and individual contributors layer together to collectively challenge the ability of states to control the flow of information, images, and opinion. This is the latest stage in the new media revolution in the Arab world about which I've been writing since the early 2000s, and it's profoundly exciting to watch.

I'd point to one other aspect of this which often gets overlooked. Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information -- they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves. For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance. Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest ---the "Al Jazeera narrative" of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike. Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative. From Al Jazeera's talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.

Al Jazeera's role may not fit the current passion for the internet, but overlooking it will lead to some serious misunderstandings of how the media works in today's Arab world and how the Tunisian events might matter outside of that country over the longer term.

Al-Jazeera Screen Capture, January 14, 2011