Vol. 5 / No. 1 / Fall 2008  

Arab Media

by Anne Nelson

The Web 2.0 Revolution - Extended Version

Fall 2008

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an extended version of the article, “Arab Media: The Web 2.0 Revolution,” that appears in the Fall 2008 issue of the Carnegie Reporter

Egypt’s Facebook Girl

Last April, hundreds of journalists crowded into an opulent hotel conference room for the annual Arab Media Forum in Dubai. Much of the subject matter would have been painfully familiar to journalists in the West: anxious talk about the hemorrhage of newspaper classifieds to the Internet, tense remarks by broadcasters on daunting challenges of convergence and broadband.

But one of the most highly charged sessions (I was among the speakers) had little to do with journalism as we know it. The final panel, “Freedom: The New Battle Front for Arab Cyber Media,” opened with a video clip of Esra Abdel Fattah, otherwise known as Egypt’s “Facebook Girl.” The report described how the young Egyptian woman, who had no previous record of political activity, had been involved with a Facebook group in support of a national strike. The “6 April” strike was sparked by workers’ protests against skyrocketing food prices, which had only begun to climb in the West, but were already crippling working-class households in developing countries.

No one could have predicted the Facebook group’s appeal: over 70,000 users joined over the course of only a few weeks. Egyptian authorities, alarmed, arrested Esra and other young activists en route to a demonstration, and placed them in 15 days detention.

The journalists meeting in Dubai watched anxiously as the video portrayed the young woman as she ran, sobbing, into the arms of her mother. She looked far younger than her 27 years, a round-faced woman in glasses and a light hijab covering her head. There had been rumors that Esra’s release had been prompted by a medical crisis of an undisclosed nature. She took care to repeat to her interviewer that she had “not been violated in any way, thanks be to God.” Some members of the audience undoubtedly recalled that Egyptian blogger Mohammed Sharkawy, arrested on the same day as Esra, had been brutally beaten and sodomized during a previous detention in 2006.

The journalists at the Arab Media Forum reacted to Esra’s case with distress. “The Internet is the only way for these young people to express themselves,” one protested. An Egyptian reporter added, “There are lots of bloggers who are still in prison. They’re making a big public example of her to scare off others.”

The audience in Dubai considered the Facebook case to be a freedom of expression concern, but an Egyptian official would have presented the event in a very different light. Esra’s arrest took place amid an ongoing national crisis. According to Joel Beinin, director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, over the past two years, Egypt has been experiencing the “longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II.”[1]

Worker protests are nothing new, but the catalyst of new media is altering the nature of dissent in Egypt and other Arab countries. The precise outcome is impossible to predict, but the impact will surely be profound.

The Implosions in Arab Society

The Arab new media revolution is unfolding in a region in which other forms of social and political evolution have long been stymied. In Egypt, as in many other Arab countries, wishful thinking on democratization clashes with the harsh reality on the ground. The second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel, Egypt has been ruled by the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak for over twenty-five years. Public protests and demonstrations are illegal, and the reformist parliamentarian Ayman Nour, the most recent opposition candidate to mount a serious challenge to Mubarak in an election, was sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up charges. A 1981 Emergency Law permits the government to imprison individuals at any time for virtually any reason, and held indefinitely without trial. A 2008 State Department report charged that “torture occurred frequently in cases of detentions under the Emergency Law.” Although the U.S. government has strongly criticized Egypt’s human rights record, it also recognizes the country as a critical ally in the region and a lynchpin of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process.

The traditional Egyptian news media has been both victim of and accessory to this state of affairs. Most of the national media is state-dominated, with political coverage that is easily confused with government press releases.

Egypt has experienced considerable turmoil in recent years, and the political temperature began to rise again over the spring of 2008, when food prices tripled or quadrupled in many areas of the country. Textile workers joined forces with other traditional pockets of opposition, including student groups, leftist parties and Islamist organizations, and called a national strike for April 6.

In the beginning, this cycle of upheaval and unrest resembled any number of other tense situations in the developing world. But the story took a dramatic new turn when Egypt’s strikers were joined by a volunteer army of tens of thousands of tech-savvy young people. Esra and her counterparts created a new political space by deploying the new interactive media of Facebook, cell phone text messaging and YouTube.

In the United States, Facebook is often regarded as a frivolous application, adept at facilitating gossip and beer busts. But the Egyptian students and young professionals used Facebook to exchange anonymous critiques of the government and hone strategy. Meetings and protests were organized on Facebook pages and by cell phone. The young people alerted each other to police actions by posting the news via SMS (text messaging). Once the demonstrations were launched, attacking police were met by a forest of arms bearing cell phones, arising from the crowd to record their actions on video. The results were posted on YouTube within a matter of hours. (Examples can be viewed by simply entering “Egypt police.”)

There was much for the bloggers to report. As the April strikes spread to additional cities, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and hundreds were arrested. Other workers stayed home in silent protest in the hundreds of thousands. The young Egyptians filled a vacuum in the coverage by national newspapers and local television stations, as authorities applied traditional methods of repression and censorship. Ibrahim Eissa, a leading independent newspaper editor, was taken out of the action by a six-month prison sentence. (Eissa received a presidential pardon on October 6, 2008.)

The Cairo News Company, which provided satellite services and equipment for Al Jazeera, the BBC and CNN, was raided by police after it transmitted footage of the food riots. Its satellite equipment was confiscated, effectively shutting it down, and the owner was taken to court on manufactured charges.

In the past, such repressive measures offered the government a good chance of dominating the story through the state-controlled press. But new media applications were changing the rules. This was demonstrated by the arrest of a journalism student from Berkeley named James Karl Buck, who was detained along with his Egyptian interpreter as he photographed a street protest. Buck used the Twitter application on his cell phone to send a snapshot of himself and the text message “arrested” to a list serve of his contacts. His friends used the message to prompt intervention from Berkeley and the U.S. consulate. Buck was soon able to Twitter the word “free,” and mounted an online campaign to release his interpreter.

The Egyptian government scrambled to block protest sites on the Internet, but their young adversaries often trumped their efforts. One online posting, organized on behalf of jailed blogger Abdel Kareem, illustrated the new reality (as of this writing, the Web site is working at its normal location):

It appears to be that our Free Kareem campaign site is blocked in Egypt. We are now working on mirroring it. If the mirror site gets blocked, we’ll mirror it again at another location, until they learn that they can’t silence BOTH the victim AND his supporters!

The government assault on the Facebook group backfired as well. It was gradually revealed that Egypt’s “Facebook Girl” was a supporter of the strike group, but the actual organizer was a 28-year-old engineer named Ahmed Maher Ibrahim. Maher eluded arrest for a time, but police finally located him and tortured him for his Facebook password and names of the other group members (the vast majority of which he didn’t know). Upon their release, Esra and Maher became rock stars of the Arab blogosphere – unrepentant and radiating new resolve. The massive response converted a regional textile workers’ strike into a growing online universe of anti-Mubarak activism.

It is easy to understand why Egyptian officials are alarmed by their new online adversaries. Egypt’s Internet revolution is just the latest phase of a gradual loss of control. For the first decade of Mubarak’s rule, it was relatively easy to stage-manage the news. Few citizens had access to information beyond state television, the state-dominated press and the BBC World Service.

Some 70 percent of Egypt’s 78 million people have access to satellite television through legally purchased dishes, pirated connections or cafes. Another 6 million Egyptians have Internet access, a number that is growing rapidly. Cell phones, the dominant technology in Egypt, are ubiquitous, and new phones come equipped with the m.facebook.com application as a menu option. A sizable percentage of Egypt’s online community is young, restless and incessantly active on social networking sites such as Facebook, its Google equivalent Orkut, YouTube and related sites.

Facebook activism is by no means unique to Egypt. A search for “protest” on the site can pull up over 500 groups, and the numbers can be vast. As of August 2008, a U.S.-based group called “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma” had over 370,000 members. But in the United States, many would-be activists have been frustrated by the gap between an online click and concrete participation. Facebook groups and causes often swell, crest and dissipate without leaving a mark on the outside world. They may be diverted into countless other outlets for political expression offered under the U.S. political system, among them voting, letters to the editor, petitions and demonstrations. As the Arab journalists in Dubai pointed out, few of these avenues are open to the young Arabs in Egypt, Syria and other critical areas.

Western democracies are founded on the ancient Greek principle of participation in the agora, or public space. Arab societies have their own venues for debate, but many members of society face insurmountable obstacles to participation. Citizenship laws in some of the Gulf States prevent the majority of the population from voting. Social restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia bar them from participating in many aspects of public life. Political repression in Egypt and Syria close off avenues for peaceful activism among the youth.

The Internet offers a new online agora for each of these groups: immigrants are debating, women are publishing and students are organizing, all as never before. The power of the new media is illustrated in Egypt, even after a second strike called for May fizzled out. As of August 5, 2008, Facebook listed 484,137 members in the Egypt Network. The 6 April group was alive and well with 72,274 members (six of them new).

There are significant variations in the way the Internet is deployed in different societies. In the United States, the Internet has developed vast new worlds of online-generated content, including blogs, wikis, texting and other forms of social networking. But it is difficult to dwell in the realm of solely online-generated material for very long – most serious research soon leads to click-throughs to published material in its online form. Blogs often serve as updates, supplements and aggregators of meatier fare found in print publications. In fact, much of the value of online content consists of links and references to other media, such as the links from a Wikipedia entry to books and articles.

Print is the silent partner of the online package, often uncredited and uncompensated. One illustration is the way Google is building out its online universe with such print-oriented functions as Google News, Google Book and Google Scholar, repurposing content without creating it. Information generated for online consumption tends to run quick, information generated by traditional means is more likely to run deep.

There is still a gap between reading online and reading from a page—for the time being, with current technology, it is more difficult to assimilate lengthy, complex information on a backlit computer screen than it is on the page. There are still important differences in the way content is generated as well. The print tradition of knowledge creation tends to require more research, reflection and refinement in the process of transforming an idea from impulse to public distribution. The online environment encourages instant, reflexive responses. So the Internet as we know it has two powerful functions: as conveyor of its own immediate data, and as an extraordinary portal to traditional repositories of knowledge: the published books, reports, journalism, legal briefs and scholarly articles.

Consider how different the Internet experience is for the Arabic-speaking user. There are few deep and diverse archival resources to provide ballast for the excitable surface of YouTubes and chat. The Arab world has had a fundamentally different relationship to print culture, and modern published resources are sorely lacking. Drill down into a blog or a wiki in Arabic—and, on a sheer percentage basis -- you’re likely to find more blogs and wikis. For this reason, the Internet is every bit as powerful in the Arab world as it is in the West – and far more unsettling.

The Mixed Legacy of Arab Media

Arab media experienced an initial earthquake in the mid-1990s, when the old state-dominated broadcasting systems were challenged by the creation of regional satellite television. Now both state and satellite broadcasters are confronting the wild card of the World Wide Web. These forces are making a drastic impact on Arab society, and the reasons go deep into Arab history, culture and demographics.

Arab history is an enormously complex subject, and one in which many Westerners are rank beginners. Although Americans are finally realizing that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not equivalent terms, few recognize how elusive the concept of “Arab” can be. One glance around the Arab Media Forum confirmed this point. The room was dominated by Gulf Arab male media professionals in white dishdashahs, and their female counterparts, reporters, editors and professors, in long black abayas. But there were also Sudanese women journalists glancing shyly from the folds of their pastel robes, and Egyptian newspapermen working the room in rumpled suits and ties. In the meantime, Lebanese anchor babes held court in spike heels and designer minis, jeweled crosses dangling from their necks. All of them, Muslim, Christian and otherwise, were proudly present as Arabs.

The concept of Arabic as a language presents additional obstacles to understanding the media. Classical Arabic, with its roots in the Arabian peninsula and the unrivalled poetry of the Koran, forms the basis for the written language, and provides a common mode of discourse for educated Arabs, much as Latin did in Europe over the Middle Ages. But “Arabic” also includes scores of mutually unintelligible dialects, which often track the fault lines of regional and social tensions.

Defining the region is just as difficult. English speakers often use the term the “Arab world” to describe the twenty-four countries and territories where Arabic dialects predominate. But Arabs often refer to the “Umma-Arabiya” (which is often translated as the “Arab community” but carries the emotional weight of the Arabic word “umm,” or “mother”). This term encompasses not just the Arabic-speaking countries, but also the Arabs who make up 20 percent of the population of Israel, a million Baggara Arabs of Nigeria and Chad, 1.8 million Arab-Americans in the United States, 3.5 million Arabs in Argentina and others scattered across the globe.

There is little practical solidarity across the region, which presents shocking disparities in income and social indicators. Yemen, with a per capita GDP of only $1,000 a year, share borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, which generate fourteen times as much per capita income. Millions of stateless Palestinians live in wretched conditions in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, with no prospects of citizenship or advancement. The vast historical gulfs between Arabic-speaking peoples have generated profound differences.

Historical Foundations

Two pillars of Western democracy are literacy and public education, and in the Arab world these subjects are rife with irony. For many years Islamic societies were in the vanguard of higher education, establishing universities in the ninth century that led the way for later European institutions. The medieval equivalent of international exchange students poured into the Caliphate of Cordoba in the twelfth century to study with the leading scholars of the day, such as the great ibn Rushd Medieval Arab culture made many contributions to the European Renaissance, which in turn laid the foundations for the Western mass media. The printing press helped to secularize Western society by breaking the Church’s control over legal norms and education. Independent newspapers began to emerge in Europe over the early 1600s, spurring the quest for individual rights and political freedoms.

But education and the printed word took a very different course in the Arab world. In the early 1500s, as the Renaissance was spreading across Europe, the Ottoman Empire began to absorb large expanses of Arab territory, and soon dominated North Africa, the Levant and most of what is now Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Ottomans maintained their hold on the Arab regions until the 1920s, when their empire finally dissolved as a result of a disastrous alliance with Germany in World War I.

The Ottomans had their virtues, but they were no friends to public education, independent news media and the printed word. Ottoman culture favored the oral tradition, expressed in gorgeous poetry and music, and integrated the revered calligraphy of the Koran into every possible visual art form, from painting and ceramics to architecture and metalwork. But literacy languished, particularly among Muslim Arab populations. According to historian Donald Quataert, general Muslim literacy rates were only 2 to 3 percent in the early nineteenth century, and perhaps 15 percent at its end. The vast majority of Muslim women remained illiterate well into the twentieth century. Prior to 1840, an average of only eleven books a year were published in the imperial capital of Istanbul.[2]

The first Arab newspaper appeared in 1816 in the Ottoman outpost of Baghdad, but it was government-issued, and like the other Arab newspapers that followed, it published official news for a largely official readership. The first independent Arab newspapers emerged between 1860 and 1880, making their appearance in Lebanon and Egypt. These two Ottoman provinces were shaped by French trade and British occupation, and many other Arabs came to associate the notion of independent newspapers with European colonialism.

The Ottomans made a practice of allowing local Muslim authorities to govern according to local custom, so long as taxes were paid and armies were manned. This preserved the local practices of Arab tribal culture, rooted in the principle of consultative process, traditions that remain strong to this day. News travels on the street and in the coffeehouses, while local concerns are mediated through face-to-face consultations. Dubai’s newest glass-and-steel hotel still features a formal reception room with a permanent circular banquette, replicating the social configuration of desert tents in ancient times.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire over the nineteenth century energized rival forces that would profoundly affect the media of the future. As the British and French presence grew, their art forms and cultural norms gained footing. A counter-movement arose in the early eighteenth century in the Arabian peninsula, founded by a fundamentalist scholar named ibn Abd El-Wahhab. Wahhab condemned the spiritually lax rule of the Ottomans, and his followers extended his critique to the liberal influences of the West.

The final collapse of the Ottoman Empire set the stage for the polarized Arab media culture of today. After World War I, the British and the French set to work carving up their areas of influence into proto-nation-states, showing little regard for tribal sensibilities, and great concern for potential oil concessions.

Over the same period, the fundamentalist Wahhabis consolidated their alliance with Arabia’s Saudi dynasty, which laid claim to the sacred Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, founded on the puritanical principles of Abd El-Wahhab. Six years later, vast oil reserves were discovered on Saudi lands and assigned to U.S. oil concessions. The possession of both of Islam’s holy cities and the new oil reserves converted the Saudis from local sheikhs to wielders of global power.

By the late twentieth century, the two Arab cultural extremes were well entrenched. One end was typified by the worldly former European colonies of Lebanon and Egypt. These countries still produce the lion’s share of Arabic cultural output, including books, magazines, movies, popular music and other enterprises. At the other end of the cultural spectrum were the Saudi Wahhabis, who banned the domestic production of many forms of news and entertainment.

These two poles have had a dramatic impact on media development. Lebanese media, the most unfettered and dynamic in the Arab world, are popular throughout the region, but they carry the taint of Lebanon’s bloody religious conflicts and civil dysfunction. Saudi media operates under strict government control, so absolute that press freedom organizations were long barred from even monitoring it. But regionally, Saudi Arabia projects an image of absolute political stability, economic might, and an unshakable alliance with the United States.

The Information Vacuum

When Westerners discuss Arab media, much of the debate focuses on the scarcity of independent newspapers and broadcasters. But in my conversations in Arab countries, I have been startled to hear the concern expressed for books. One veiled Saudi woman told me that she had long been an avid reader of Dickens, but she never had the chance to read Edith Wharton. In Dubai, a working mother and journalist lamented, “It’s practically impossible to find good children’s books in Arabic.”

These were not isolated complaints. The 2002 United Nations Arab Development Report, compiled by leading Arab scholars and intellectuals, reported that fewer than 350 books were translated into Arabic every year, less than one-fifth the number translated into Greek. The 2003 report added that the 10,000 books translated into Spanish every year exceeded those translated into Arabic— over the entire millennium.

Another concern lies in the narrowness of content. For many countries, it is normal for around 5 percent of published books to be religious titles, but in the Arab world the figure is 17 percent, and in Saudi Arabia it is even higher. This situation is reflected in the online environment. As of early August, Facebook posted the nine Top Book choices from its Egypt Network. They were: Harry Potter, The Alchemist, The DaVinci Code, The Quran, The Holy Quran, Angels and Demons, the Qu2an, I Hate Reading and The Quraan.

In Saudi Arabia, the lack of books is accompanied by the struggle to modernize basic educational institutions. In his new book, Prophets and Princes, Mark Weston points out that Saudi Arabia did not have a high school until after 1930, and its first girls’ school was established after 1950. The Saudis have only 250 public libraries to serve a population of 26 million people, and there were no hours for female readers until 2006. The Saudis spend many millions of dollars translating and publishing the Quran into other languages, without devoting similar efforts to making foreign books available in Arabic.

Needless to say, the shortage of published content directly translates into a lack of content online. At the Arab Media Forum, Hamad bin Ibrahim Al Oman, a Saudi computer science professor with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, contended that 69 percent of the content on the Internet is in English and only one percent is in Arabic. How can Arab societies make the necessary strides, he demanded, if educators could not offer their students access to texts and scholarly journals in their own language?

In 2007, Egyptian-born businessman Kalim Nagy decided to address this gap. The Kalima Project (“kalima” means “word” in Arabic) is commissioning Arabic translations of hundreds of Western classics, ranging from Aristophanes to Stephen Hawkings. The project will distribute these works to Arabic-speaking audiences throughout the region, with support from the government of Abu Dhabi. But in a region where books are routinely banned and writers are frequently imprisoned, many other measures will be necessary to improve the literary climate. And while hundreds of Western classics represent an admirable initiative, it hardly addresses the cultural isolation of non-English-speaking Arabs who seek to understand the dynamics of the outside world.

Arab polarization extends to popular culture as well. In a world that increasingly defines itself in the mirrors of film and television, Arabs lack a recognizable gallery of images. The Lebanese and Egyptian film industries flourished in the wake of the European colonizers, but cinema has been starved and suppressed in the Gulf States. Movie theaters are still illegal in Saudi Arabia, as are other theatrical and musical performances for mixed audiences. Saudi capital finances film production all over the world – except at home. During a panel in Dubai, a frustrated Arab filmmaker protested, “When I went to MIPCOM in Cannes (the audiovisual content market), there wasn’t one stand to sell Arab content.” The audience was unmoved. One Arab investor responded, “We like to take things with proven success elsewhere and take the profits.” Unfortunately, Arabs in movies on the world market are often depicted in negative and one-dimensional terms. It is surprisingly difficult to find international cinema that offers Arab representations of Arab daily life.

One striking indicator of this phenomenon can be found on the Internet Movie Data Base. Of the 55 countries that have produced more than 500 feature films in distribution, Egypt, with some 80 million people, is the only country represented from the 22 Arab nations. Lebanon accounts for 135 films, but Saudi Arabia’s listing includes only nine, and most of these are student-made short subjects. The most poignant title is the 2006 documentary Cinema 500 km, about a young Saudi film buff who is so desperate for the experience of watching a movie in a theater that he borrows some money and goes to Bahrain. The documentary, widely circulated on home video in Saudi Arabia, sparked a debate about the Cinema Ban, but did not succeed in reversing it.

In some respects, Saudi Arabia has moved backwards. A few decades ago it was possible to attend movies and performances with mixed audiences, including unveiled women. But the 1975 assassination of reformist King Faisal prompted a cultural backlash, and ultraconservative clerics banned any public performances that involved mixing of the sexes, whether as performers or audiences. Saudi journalism, on the other hand, has experienced some recent advances, especially regarding the foreign press. It is now possible for Western journalists to travel in the country, and Saudi Arabia’s publications carry some outside perspectives, such as occasional editorials by foreign columnists such as Tom Friedman. [3] But even in the privately owned media, self-censorship is the rule, and it is a serious offense to criticize the king.

Saudi Arabia’s state-owned broadcasting typifies the country’s cultural isolation. The channels include Saudi 1 (in Arabic), Saudi 2 (in English), a sports channel and a 24-hour news channel launched in 2004. Broadcasts include lengthy programs consisting of the script for Muslim prayers rolling over an image of blazing clouds at sunset, accompanied by sung recitation. News programs feature long sequences of Saudi sheikhs paying homage to other sheikhs, bowing and offering their respects one by one, as an announcer solemnly intones each name, rank and tribe.

Such programming suggests not just different entertainment values, it speaks of a concept of public media that defies the very concept of entertainment, attempting to convert real-time rituals into a broadcast television experience. Not surprisingly, when satellite technology made it possible for Saudi citizens to receive media from outside sources, they formed a ready audience. The Saudi government could not control the broadcast laws of other countries – but they still held considerable control over the purse strings.

During the 1970s and 1980s, as Saudi clerics were turning back the clock for domestic audiences, Saudi Arabia undertook a bold regional strategy. In the words of scholar Marc Lynch,

Saudi Arabia used its dramatically increased oil wealth to establish a dominant position over much of the Arab press and electronic media. It did so partly to exercise power, partly to defend against what it saw as a threat from external media, and partly to prevent reporting of sensitive internal developments…Saudi control led to what Abd al-Wahhab al-Affendi described as “an eclipse of reason” in the Arab world.[4]

This damper still exists in force. One regional magazine editor described a life of restrictions: “Directly or indirectly, the Saudis have a controlling interest in every Pan-Arab publication. I look at articles in Western publications and would love to have similar features about women in the workplace and their professional challenges. But my owners tell me, ‘Women are about fashion and beauty. You must stick to that.’”

Satellite Broadcasting Makes Its Mark

For many decades, the enterprise of broadcasting was subject to licensing and prohibitively expensive equipment, making it easy for Arab governments to monopolize. Arabs who sought an alternative to the restricted Arab media often turned to the BBC, which laid much of the historical groundwork for the satellite broadcasting environment of today. The BBC Arabic-language radio service was founded in 1938, as an attempt to woo Arabs away from German and Italian fascist propaganda. Over the years, the BBC won a vast, loyal regional audience, established a strong measure of credibility and built up a corps of accomplished Arabic reporters.

In 1996, a group of experienced Arab journalists left the BBC to join Al Jazeera, the region’s first Arabic satellite broadcast service, launched from the Gulf state of Qatar. This innovation would revolutionize both the Arab media and the political sphere. The new company’s formats borrowed heavily from both CNN and the BBC, including raucous “Crossfire”-style debates and jarring real-time reports of crises and disasters.

For the first time, Arabs could experience televised debates between individuals from different Arab countries, unmediated by their governments’ ministries of information. Viewers watched news reported by BBC-trained staff, covering events in their own countries as they unfolded, without official filters. Al Jazeera was the first Arab broadcaster to transmit a broad range of opinions from the United States, as well as the first to showcase Israeli commentators. The breadth and independence of its coverage broke open the closed circle of Arab state-run television. The region’s governments were annoyed to find that they were now subject to public criticism, and pointed out that Al Jazeera’s no-holds-barred coverage extended to every government in the world, with the exception of its owners in Qatar.

Al Jazeera also succeeded in cracking the Saudis’ monopoly on pan-Arab media, which simultaneously created a new space for critical discourse about Arab politics. Detractors of the service deplored the strident tone of its debates, and labeled some of its programming as anti-American. But Al Jazeera ruffled many varied feathers, and regional critics have described it as everything from a mouthpiece for the CIA to an instrument of Al Qaeda. Al Jazeera’s unwillingness or inability to criticize Qatar compromises its reputation as a news organization (even though few perceive Qatar, the relatively quiet home to 1.3 million of the Arab world’s 325 million people, as a hotbed of regional news).

The phenomenon of Al Jazeera spawned a host of imitators, starting with Al Arabiya, launched in 2003 by MBC, a Saudi-owned satellite company based in Dubai. Al Arabiya portrays the United States and Saudi Arabia in a more favorable light, and quickly claimed a place as Al Jazeera’s primary rival. The company followed Qatar’s lead in hiring many media professionals from the BBC’s Arabic stable.

Arab audiences still favor Al Jazeera, but Al Arabiya has made substantial gains. (The 2008 annual Arab Public Opinion Poll indicated that Al Jazeera was the first choice for international news for over half of the Middle Eastern viewers polled, followed by Al Arabiya with nine percent of the audience.) Nonetheless, the competition between the two is often fierce, with Al Jazeera dominating the huge Egyptian market and Al Arabiya taking the lead in Saudi Arabia and some smaller countries, according to independent journalism project Pro Publica

In November 2006, Al Jazeera launched Al Jazeera International (AJI), its English-language service. The public reception far exceeded expectations, and the service now reaches 100 million households. The service conspicuously employs local reporters as correspondents in its regional bureaus. Al Jazeera International quickly became the market leader in sub-Saharan Africa. (It calls itself “the channel of the developing world reporting back to the developing world.”) Al Jazeera also has significant audiences in Israel, in both Arabic and English. Last October Israel’s biggest cable provider dropped CNN as too costly, substituting Al Jazeera International. (Al Jazeera has been trying to break into the U.S. market, but has made few inroads with American cable operators and satellite services. Some of its programs are available on YouTube, where it claims over 600,000 downloads a week, 30 percent of them from the United States.)

In 2004, the U.S. government launched its contestant in the fray, a new satellite channel called Al Hurra, which translates as “the free one.” Al Hurra has been described as the biggest and most expensive U.S. effort to influence international public opinion over the airwaves since the Voice of America was founded in 1942. [5] Some 500 million taxpayer dollars later, the American project is also fraught with controversy.

A June 2008 report by Pro Publica noted that Al Hurra’s Virginia newsroom was heavily staffed with Lebanese Christians, and that a State Department monitor described its broadcasts as “very pro-Lebanese, pro-Hezbollah.”

Journalists attending the Arab Media Forum in Dubai tended to be dismissive of Al Hurra. Some complained that broadcasts were delivered in a Lebanese dialect instead of the classical Arabic that is standard for the region’s elite media. One Arab journalists called it “the Pentagon channel,” while another described it as “an expensive joke.” But Al Hurra has a loyal following in Iraq, where pro-American Iraqis welcome it as a respite from the sharply polarized local broadcasters. Overall, Al Hurra accounts for a mere 2 percent of regional viewers.

In March 2008, the BBC reasserted its traditional role in the Arabic satellite television sweepstakes. Its new product, BBC Arabic News, is distinguished from other BBC television enterprises by its Foreign Office funding. This has led some Arabs to label it “propaganda,” in the same category as the U.S. government’s Al Hurra. The BBC argues that its long-standing editorial independence will be immune to the influence of its funding source.

Since the early 1990s, both the domestic and the international arms of the BBC have banked on a bold multimedia strategy. In Dubai, the BBC Arabic Service’s director, Egyptian journalist Hosam Al Sokkari, presented his own take on the policy. Al Sokkari, who was originally hired by the BBC in 1994 for its first Arabic television initiative, joined the launch of Al Jazeera when the BBC closed its initial effort. His current BBC position places him in charge of Arabic-language television, radio and online services.

Al Sokkari’s service has leapt into the new field of interactive broadcasting. Controversial programs invite viewers to send e-mail responses, which are posted on the screen in real time. Like its parent company, the BBC’s Arabic service complements its broadcasts with an encyclopedic Web site, online education programs and new applications for mobile devices.

In Dubai, Nigel Chapman, the head of BBC World, acknowledged that it was time for a make-over. The BBC’s image in the Middle East, he reflected, had been “the wise old uncle who always comes to the wedding.” Its current goal is to transform itself into something young Arabs would see as a “friend and companion our own age.” Chapman describes his vision of the future as “news at the time of your choosing, on the device of your choice,” offering text messaging for sports scores and stock market quotes, television for news and entertainment and computer-based services for research and education – all delivered in the BBC’s thirty-three languages and dialects.

The Americans and the British have recently been joined by other would-be players in the region. In 2007 the Russian government launched a 20-hour-a-day Arabic-language information channel, “Rusiya al Yaum” (“Russia Today”) in the attempt to burnish the country’s image in the region. On July 12, 2008, the European Union became the newest broadcaster in Arabic, funding the Lyon-based EuroNews to present Arabic news “from a European perspective.”

The political influence of satellite television is still growing in the Middle East, but its long-range prospects are uncertain. Satellite news, like other forms of hard-news journalism, tends to be a money-losing proposition, making the Western ideal of an independent news culture a near-impossibility, particularly in the Arab market. An article from the Guardian reports that the television advertising budget for all of the Arab countries combined is less than that of Israel. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya lose tens of millions of dollars a year, underwritten by their owners’ vast oil wealth.

At the same time, entertainment satellite channels have been proliferating in the region. They are making their own social impact, and enjoy a more robust advertising market. Some of the most intriguing programming on Arabic television today is hosted by Zaven Kouyoumdjian, who broadcasts on Lebanon’s Future Television satellite service. Zaven, the descendant of Armenian Christians who fled the Turkish genocide, started out as a broadcast journalist and evolved into a self-described “Oprah of the Middle East.” (Oprah herself, dubbed into Arabic, is wildly popular in Saudi Arabia.)

Zaven’s talk show has exposed Arab audiences to a broad spectrum of previously unmentionable topics. He has presented the region’s first television interviews with homosexuals, HIV/AIDs patients, trans-sexuals, cancer survivors and drug addicts from Lebanon and other Arab countries. “They love the feeling of free speech and expression in the Gulf,” he reports. “That’s where the advertising market is. It’s fine for them to watch unconventional TV on satellite, but once it comes to local TV, the audience becomes offended and the authorities become less tolerant.”

In many Arab countries, the tight restrictions on information can result in a backlash. Saudi audiences, barred from theaters, are addicted to home video, and there is an active market in hard-core porn videos and slasher movies. One of Zaven’s most popular shows was called “How to Do Sex and Not Make God Angry!” which simply described some middle ground between puritanical Islamic prescriptions and pornographic techniques.

There are many ongoing tensions concerning satellite broadcasting, but these appear to apply less to social questions than to political issues. Many Arab officials, accustomed to a high degree of control, are outraged by the critical content spilling into their countries from satellite news services based abroad. In February 2008, the regional ministers of information adopted a sweeping charter seeking to control satellite broadcasters. (The only minister to express reservations was from Qatar, home base for Al Jazeera). The charter banned broadcasting material that was perceived to undermine “social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety.” Broadcasters were forbidden to criticize religions or defame political, national and religious leaders.

“Freedom (of expression) is to be exercised with awareness and responsibility to protect the supreme interests of the Arab states and the Arab nation,” one clause stated. Violating the charter could lead to the host government’s suspension or revocation of the offending broadcaster’s license. The charter was announced the same week that Saudi Arabia banned live call-in programs, after one call criticized an increase in civil service salaries, interpreted as a criticism of the Saudi royal family.

By late June, it appeared that the charter was running out of steam. The ministers failed to reach an agreement on implementation, despite the strenuous efforts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But both countries stepped up domestic efforts to expand their censorship capacity. In July, the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm reported that Mubarak’s ruling party had drafted proposed legislation designed to create a new national agency to control the media. The agency would issue all broadcast licenses and regulate and censor the broadcast media, broadly defined to include the Internet and all other forms of communicating text, video or audio. Prohibited content, according to Marc Lynch’s blog Abu Aardvark, would include anything detrimental to social peace, national unity, the principle of citizenship, public order or public ethics.

Arab broadcasters have expressed alarm at the broadcasting charter and other efforts to extend censorship, but many journalists in Dubai wrote it off as unenforceable grandstanding. In the words of veteran journalist Mahmoud Shamam, “A dog barks day and night, and doesn’t eat or sleep. Why? Maybe because he wants to preserve his reputation as a dog.”

Media and Democracy: Mixed Messages

The politics of media and democratization have caught the United States in an awkward position. On one hand, the United States has shown new determination to support international freedom of expression, as evidenced by the admirable documentation in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and its ongoing advocacy for embattled journalists in many countries.

But the complex political underpinnings of the Middle East make it difficult to employ the traditional vocabulary of democracy, and Americans sometimes focus on the details of democratization at the expense of the main events. It is hard to imagine a functioning democracy without the basic rights of citizenship and participation in the electoral process. In 2005, the Western world applauded Kuwait’s decision to allow Kuwaiti women to vote and run for electoral office. But the same democracies were curiously silent about the rights of the two-thirds of Kuwait’s residents who have no possibility of obtaining citizenship. Over two million of Kuwait’s three million people are designated “foreign,” even though many of them were born in the country, some second- and third-generation. Kuwaiti law is based on jus sanguinis, or “law of blood,” which extends citizenship to the children of citizens. Noncitizens not only lack the civil and political rights of citizens, they are also deprived of many social services involving housing, medical care and public education. A similar situation exists in the United Arab Emirates, a strong U.S. ally and trading partner, where some 80 percent of the population is made up of foreign workers, most of whom lack any possibility of even applying for citizenship.

But UAE nationals, scions of the traditional tribes of the region, respond that the flood of foreign workers arrived to meet the demands of the international oil economy. Now they understandably fear that their own Arab culture could disappear. The Emiratis are keenly aware that they now speak a minority language in their own country. If access to full citizenship and a system of “one-man one-vote” were adopted, they could quickly produce a populist or Islamist Bangladeshi or Pakistani president. This, they say pointedly, would be profoundly disruptive to the region -- and to international oil markets.

The citizenship issue has an additional impact on press freedom. Many of the journalists in the Gulf States are foreign nationals, keenly aware of their precarious position. At the Arab Media Forum, an Egyptian reporter working in Dubai happily informed me about a recent reform: the Sheikh had decreed that expatriate journalists would no longer be summarily jailed for publishing offensive stories – just deported.

When George Bush visited the UAE in January 2008, he steered clear of questions involving rights of citizenship, elected governments and deported journalists. Instead, he told his hosts, “You have shown the world the model of a Muslim State.” The government responded by presenting Bush with an enormous necklace, encrusted with hundreds of rubies, emeralds and diamonds and a medallion with a hand-painted enamel American flag. (Secret Service agents called it the biggest “bling they have ever seen.”) [6]

It is little wonder that when the United States talks “democratization,” Arabs hear confused noise. It has not escaped their notice that the closest U.S. allies in the region are monarchies and dictatorships. They have been horrified by the fallout from the U.S. attempt to impose an electoral process in Iraq, which is widely perceived as bloodshed, corruption and social breakdown. Iraq’s neighbors have experienced the country’s democratization in the form of millions of Iraqi refugees, many of them members of the educated and professional classes who were essential to economic and social advancement. Television coverage of the U.S. invasion brought Arabs the unforgettable images of Iraq’s gutted university, the looted museum, the national library reduced to ashes. These were not just the bastions of Iraqi civil society, they were landmarks of Arab civilization. In the aftermath, journalists have been slaughtered in Iraq in record numbers, as well as lawyers and educators. The war in Iraq has inflicted layers of trauma across the region that will take decades to heal.

George Bush notwithstanding, few Arabs would venture to define exactly what is meant by the “model of a Muslim state.” The wisest observers, both Arab and others, know that such a model will be a long time in the making. The journey will be arduous, fraught with urgent questions about stabilizing economies, building out civil society and improving education in Arab countries. To be successful, grassroots political movements must be integrated into a peaceful political process. New media will play a crucial role.

New Media and Democratic Disturbances

New online communications are transforming every imaginable realm of Arab society. Once the economic thresholds of cell phone, computer and Internet connection have been crossed, anyone can have a say. Foreign workers in the Gulf States can comment on the government, and Islamist political parties can publish policy positions. In Saudi Arabia, the Internet has spawned a new wave of female authors publishing novels, memoirs and poetry online. In Jordan, where the country’s first newspaper was not published until the 1920s, journalist Basil Okoor has launched Ammonnews.net, an online publication that has become the country’s first comprehensive national news outlet, with contributors from across the country and around the globe. Jordan – startlingly enough – has made the journey from its first newspaper (in 1921) to full Internet news service in the span of a single lifetime.

The immediate forecasts from media forum Dubai suggest more vertiginous change to come. One notable voice belonged to Ayman Abdul Nour, a reformist blogger from Syria whose Web site, syria4syria, has been repeatedly closed down by the government. Nour predicts that by the year 2010, 90 percent of Arab villages and libraries will have Internet access. Najat Rochdi, a Moroccan communications expert from the United Nations, pointed to the rapid recent growth in Internet ad sales, and added that Arab youth blog more than any other in the world. The implications were inescapable: the vast Arab population under the age of 20 will pursue its future online.

As increasing numbers of people across the globe turn to the Web for news, entertainment and social interaction, there is a pressing need to fashion new filters and frameworks to meet the pressures of the online environment. In many societies, this role is assigned to institutions corresponding to education and civil society. But many Arab countries have few institutions that can mediate between the free-for-all of the Internet and the harsh, self-serving hand of the government censor. As the Lebanese elder statesman of Arab journalism, Jihad Al Khazen, lamented at the forum, “We don’t have the fourth estate here – we don’t even have the three estates.”

Arab countries have at least one additional characteristic that is accelerating the online revolution: the lack of “legacy infrastructure.” In the United States and Western Europe, existing legal and physical infrastructures have slowed down the adoption of some innovations, such as cell phones and high-speed Internet. Many of the wealthy Arab countries are starting from scratch, which makes them high-tech playgrounds for innovation. Flat-screen televisions abound, and Al Jazeera International was launched as the world’s first broadcaster with all HDTV infrastructure.

Many young Arabs are eager to proceed, full-speed ahead, and there are reasons for optimism. Vivian Salama, a journalist based in Cairo, applauds the impact of social media on Egyptian society. “The Internet is the only option for political movements to thrive at this point in time. Never have ideas been so freely exchanged in modern Egyptian history as they are now, thanks to the Web. It gives people the power to speak their mind – albeit anonymously at times – and openly voice opinions that citizens once feared to even whisper.”

But if these political changes are to occur peacefully, they will need to be attended by development in other realms. One body that shows a sophisticated grasp of these challenges is the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations. Its media analysts have suggested a menu of sensible approaches, reinforcing the Internet, journalism, culture and education to promote real dialogue over propaganda, and looking for ways to reduce violence through building social infrastructure instead of scoring cheap political shots. Many Arabs yearn to build out their institutions of civil society and education, and to reassert their cultural riches. Supporting them will not be cheap or easy – but neither are the mistakes we have made thus far.

It is clear that, whatever the outcome of last April’s events in Egypt, the Internet and Facebook are neither the cause nor the solution to Egypt’s problems. There are many signs that modernization is advancing in the Arab world, and that many Arabs regard it as a double-edged sword. Friction will be inevitable, and some of it is bound to affect the West. But we are not powerless in this situation. New media technology is going to be an influential factor in the process, and it is inexcusable to adopt it in a spirit of ignorance and passivity.

In surveying this difficult landscape, one can see a few ways to soften the landing for societies in rapid transition. So far, much of the media assistance from the West has been focused on exporting hardware, as in the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. Other programs promote such American cultural values as investigative reporting and popular music. But these programs should tread with care. New investigative skills have landed many Arab journalists in jail or worse. These journalists deserve assistance that addresses their lack of legal protection as well. On the cultural front, the U.S. government’s Radio Sawa broadcasts the music of the belligerent rap artist Eminem, to the dismay of many Arab elders.

We should take a second look at the media bridges we are building, and seek to promote paths to information that is significant and accurate, and builds on a relationship to works of the past. We should invest in media and institutions that will ease the Arabs’ approach to the West by promoting critical thinking, discernment and high standards of utility. Partnerships between Arab and Western high schools and universities are vital – not only in the traditional technological spheres, but also in the social sciences, arts and humanities. We should integrate technological assistance into traditional educational approaches, and increase the number of students and faculty exchange programs, especially those that directly address the constructive use of technology in society. We have a long way to go in our own critical research into the optimum use of computers in modern life, work that should be expanded and actively disseminated.

The United States and its partners will win more consideration when we demonstrate that cultural exchange is a two-way street. This can be done by strengthening our support for programs that can make important content available in Arabic in print and online, such as the Kalima Project, and making good use of the Project of Translations from Arabic (PROTA), which renders Arab classic literature into English.

No one should regard the evolution of media as a question of superiority, as in “computers or print.” The two worlds will continue to be complementary for a very long time to come, each offering different strengths. As technology advances, their roles will also shift, as more of the traditional virtues of print become replicable online.

For the time being, online communications are all about access. The censors of the world are learning that the Internet and social media can’t be turned on and off with a switch; they are here to stay. But like any new technology, they cannot replace all other forms of human interaction. Each culture has its splendid traditions and its particular ways of creating social bonds. The people of the Arab world have pressing needs for education, employment and enhanced political and civil rights. Judiciously used, new media can help them shape their own definition of a peaceful and prosperous future, while preserving the grace notes of their cultural legacy.

An Annotated (Beginner’s) Guide to Arab Media and Culture

Books on Media

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, is one of the essential voices on Arab media and society today. His book, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today (Columbia University Press, 2005; 2007), is an outstanding offering on the subject. His blog, Abu Aardvark, covers a number of Arab media-related topics, including nuanced and news-breaking analysis of the evolution of public diplomacy in the region.

William Rugh, a former U.S. foreign service officer in Yemen, offers a useful perspective on the traditional role of newspapers in Arab societies: “Arab Culture and Newspapers,” in The Function of Newspapers in Society: A Global Perspective, Brett A. Miller et al., eds. Greenwood Publishing Group (Praeger), 2003.

The United Nations has created the Alliance of Civilizations, along with a related working group, to promote cultural exchange and understanding between Muslim countries and the West. Some of its recommendations are contained in its report: Report of the High-Level Group from the Alliance of Civilizations (United Nations).

See also the valuable report, Research Base for the High-Level Group Report Analysis of Media for the project above.

Daniel Kimmage, an analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has published extensive research on Al Qaeda’s use of new media: The Al Qaeda Media Nexus: The Virtual Network behind the Global Message.

Recommended Readings in Social, Political and Cultural History

Sweeping in its scope, described as a “modern classic,” by a noted Oxford historian: A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

Salma Khadra Jayyusi founded PROTA (Project of Translation from Arabic), which offers rich selections from Arabic literature to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Some of these are included in her anthology: Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed. Columbia University Press, 2005.

PROTA is expanding Arab cultural horizons by translating Western classics into Arabic, as well as promoting other forms of cultural exchange.

A gorgeously illustrated introduction to a thousand years of Islamic art: Islamic Art and Architecture, Robert Hillenbrand. Thames & Hudson 1999.

Essential background on the empire that profoundly affected the social and political underpinnings of Arab regions: The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922, by Donald Quataert. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mark Weston was a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. His new book offers a rare first-hand glimpse of Saudi society, including an unusual range of interviews with Saudis from many walks of life: Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present, Mark Weston. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Perspectives on the BBC Arabic-Language Service and the U.S. Alhurra

Annenberg Public Diplomacy Wiki on the BBC Arabic-language Service.

Propublica on Alhurra

Propublic Alhurra, Part 2.

Al Qaeda’s Use of New Media, in a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Report

The Al Qaeda Media Nexus

IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, presents up-to-date research from international partner organizations, offering a broad range of information and links on media issues around the world.

Blogging in the Middle East

Human Rights Watch on Egypt’s Facebook Movement.

The Columbia University Web site, New Media and Development Communications, describes news uses of media around the world. Several sections focus on media issues concerning Arab and Muslim societies, including valuable references and links.

Eamon Kircher-Allen, Syria: Web 2.0 for Participation and Development

Leehe Skuler, The Iranian Blogosphere

Vol. 5 / No. 1 / Fall 2008