Voices of the New Arab Public: An Interview with Author Marc Lynch

It’s not the war in Iraq that’s revolutionizing the Middle East — it’s the media.

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In April of 2004, as the insurgency in Iraq was steadily worsening, President Bush met with Tony Blair and reportedly floated the idea of bombing the headquarters of al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. Bush had his reasons: The satellite network, after all, was at the time single-handedly shaping the outcome of the battle against insurgents in Fallujah, by broadcasting images of violence and civilian casualties from inside the besieged city to its 200 million viewers across the Middle East, eventually forcing the U.S. military to withdraw from the city in the face of widespread protests.

President Bush was hardly the only person to see al-Jazeera as an enemy of the United States. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz accused al-Jazeera of “inciting violence” and “endangering the lives of American troops” in Iraq. Middle East expert Walid Phares has labeled the network “Jihad TV.” William F. Buckley, Jr., once wrote an editorial in the National Review demanding that al-Jazeera be “put out of business.” To hear this side, the popular network—which from 1997 until about 2003 was the first and only truly independent Arab news channel out there—broadcasts nothing but sensationalist images that rile the Arab public and foment anti-Americanism. Is that all there is?

Far from it, argues Marc Lynch, in his new book, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today. Insofar as U.S. policy in the Middle East is to promote democracy and reform, al-Jazeera—along with the networks that have recently sprung up to imitate it—may be America’s most useful ally. In part thanks to new media such as satellite TV and the internet, a new public sphere is emerging in the Arab world, where political issues can be debated and the status quo criticized for the first time in history. Talk shows on al-Jazeera have provided a forum for Arabs to debate the future of the region, and to agitate for democratic change. (Indeed, al-Jazeera receives as much criticism from despotic Arab regimes as it does from the United States.) Says Lynch: “What I call the new Arab public is palpably transforming Arab political culture, [and] building the underpinnings of a more liberal, pluralist politics.”

Surprisingly, it may be this new public sphere, rather than the war in Iraq or the Bush’s administration’s democracy rhetoric, that does the most to promote liberalization and reform in the Arab world. Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College and the (until recently) anonymous writer behind the popular blog Abu Aardvark, talked to Mother Jones about how the new Arab public is transforming the Middle East.

Mother Jones: You define the “new Arab public” as a public sphere that emerged in the Arab world in the late ’90s, where opposing views and arguments could be openly aired. How does this differ from Arab public debates of the past?

Marc Lynch: I think the biggest difference between what I’m calling the new Arab public and a lot of the old publics is that it’s more diverse and open to disagreement today. If you go back to the Middle East in the 1950s there was international broadcasting, and there was a press that was full of angry and politically mobilizing arguments, but what you didn’t have was the notion that everyone should have their own opinion. What you had were powerful Arab leaders or political movements who were trying to mobilize or rally people to a cause, and anyone who didn’t agree with them was not only wrong, but considered “not an Arab.”

That’s the key difference—in this new Arab public, it’s okay to disagree about important issues; in fact you almost have to disagree to be an “Arab”. And that’s an important difference, especially for people who are interested in seeing the emergence of a democratic politics in the region. It’s really revolutionary.

MJ: Now obviously Arab public opinion isn’t a monolithic entity—that’s part of the point of your book—but what would you say are some of the common characteristics that define this sphere as distinctively Arab? At one point, for instance, you mention that the Arab self-conception can often be described as feeling “dominated, threatened, encircled.”

ML: I think it is; although that self-conception passes through a couple of phases. The common narrative is very much framed by a pervasive sense that the world has a long history of being out to get the Arabs—through Israel, through American foreign policy. There’s a whole narrative of how the United States is propping up repressive Arab regimes, establishing military bases in the region, putting sanctions on Iraq. Even the things that we in the West would see as positive things—democracy, globalization, modernization—still create in the Arab world an overwhelming sense that the region is being battered by forces from the outside.

So the question is: How are Arabs going to respond to that? And some of those responses are negative and very violent, as we’ve seen. Others are positive and confident, saying, “Hey, there are things about the West such as progress and freedom and democracy that we really like, even if we don’t like the way the West—especially the United States—goes about it.” Then there’s a whole mainstream middle which is generally disoriented and confused, and that’s where all the arguments in the public sphere come in, trying to make sense of these developments.

MJ: It was interesting that your book focused on Iraq, rather than Israel-Palestine, as the one issue that has really helped create the new Arab public sphere. Can you explain a bit about why the issues surrounding Iraq—from the first Gulf War, the sanctions, the bombing attacks in the late 1990s, and eventually the 2003 invasion—were more conducive to creating serious public debate in the Arab world than, say, the Palestinian issue?

ML: I think the key is that on Palestine and Israel, there was a near consensus in the Arab world, and that’s someplace where, up until quite recently, you didn’t see a lot of productive or interesting disagreements in the Arab public; anyone who didn’t support the Palestinians was considered a traitor to the Arabs. Whereas with Iraq, people really disagreed. You had, on the one hand, people who were really horrified by the impact of the UN sanctions, seeing the images on TV. On the other hand there were people who saw Saddam as really nasty and responsible for a lot of things that had gone wrong in the Arab world in the 1990s. So there was a lot of space for arguments and disagreements about what to do about Iraq.

It wasn’t always an evenly balanced or well-reasoned debate, and often got very heated, but the key thing is that there were serious people on both sides of the issue, and just because someone thought preventing Saddam from getting nuclear weapons was an important part of Arab security or that overthrowing Saddam would help create a more democratic Iraq, it didn’t mean he or she wasn’t an Arab.

MJ: And around that same time al-Jazeera was emerging and starting to cover the news independently and aggressively, unlike the state-run media stations of old, but also creating a new space for actual political debate that people around the region could watch. So that sort of combined with the emerging Iraq debate to create a perfect storm, right?

ML: That’s a good way of describing it, although it wasn’t only Iraq. The three big issues debated in this new public are: the Palestinian issue, Iraq, and then a big basket of things concerning reform and critiques of the Arab political status quo, and each works in different ways. With the Palestinian issue, what you get is mostly just mobilization; al-Jazeera and the other TV stations will show Palestinians fighting against Israelis, and you get a lot of emotion without generating a lot of debate.

But then came Iraq, and suddenly you’ve got al-Jazeera—which is already making a name for itself in the late ’90s with the way it’s covering things—focusing on the Desert Fox bombings, when the U.S. and Britain began bombing Iraq for four days in December of 1998. From that point on you saw lots and lots of debates and coverage of Iraq over the sanctions and weapons inspections—it was always a front-burner issue.

The other thing that’s always going on in al-Jazeera is a relentless criticism of the status quo, of political repression, of economic stagnation. There’s an ongoing debate about political freedoms and political rights in the region. So people were tuning in to al-Jazeera because they wanted to see what was happening in the West Bank or in Iraq, and as they’re watching, the next thing they know they see something they’ve never seen before: televised debates between supporters and critics of their own king, say, in Jordan.

MJ: Now how would you connect the 2005 protests in Egypt and Jordan, along with the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, to the creation of this new Arab public and the emergence of networks like al-Jazeera?

ML: Well there’s a huge indirect relationship, and obviously each country in the Middle East has its own individual issues, but if you look at the changes going on across the region as a whole recently, I would say that this new Arab public is one of the most important driving forces. I think that al-Jazeera had a lot more to do with them than the Iraq war. Its talk shows had been talking democracy since the late 1990s, and if anything the invasion of Iraq drove democracy questions off the front burner for almost a year.

One reason is that there’s a common Arab narrative that connects events in the region together: If you’re Jordanian or Egyptian or Syrian and seeing what’s going on in other countries, it’s inspirational. A Syrian looking at the pro-democracy protests going on in Egypt might make a correlation, “Wow, maybe there is a possibility for us to protest and with the cameras on, maybe the government won’t be quite so willing to shoot us as they would in the past.”

There are also direct relationships. If you look at the people who are actually involved in the protests—if you look at the Kefaya movement in Egypt—those individuals often cut their teeth in the Palestine and Iraq protests. That’s where they learned a lot of what they know about how to organize a protest and not get shut down by the secret police, how to build networks, etc. And one of the things those protestors have learned is that an al-Jazeera camera is worth many thousands of people. Al-Jazeera can really empower small dedicated groups of protestors, first by protecting them from reprisals—although that doesn’t always work—but also, if a protest gets on al-Jazeera, then it gets international attention, and the local media can’t ignore it.

That’s one of the biggest differences between, say, 1995 and 2005. Back then, you could have had Kefaya protestors in the streets of Egypt, and nobody would’ve noticed. The regime could’ve safely ignored it because the local news would be ordered not to cover it. But now, al-Jazeera will cover a protest and suddenly it’s on the international media, and everyone with a satellite can watch it, and now the Egyptian regime has to take it seriously.

MJ: You cite some instances in which Arab regimes are forced by the debates in the public sphere to pay at least lip service to public opinion. For instance, regimes by and large demurred from least publicly supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But how far does this go? Isn’t there a limit to how far the public sphere can affect regime action?

ML: Yeah, there are real limits. But I would think about the direct and indirect influence of the public. If you’re looking for direct impact, it’s going to be fairly low most of the time. Take Iraq: if you look at the late 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of the Arab regimes were changing their rhetoric on sanctions in order to accommodate public opinion. But at the same time, they didn’t stop enforcing the sanctions, they didn’t kick the United States out of their countries, and when the war came in 2003, most of them tacitly went along and cooperated. So in terms of affecting the big issues, public opinion was never going to, say, drive Hosni Mubarak from power, or lead Saudi Arabia to change its policy towards Iraq.

But if you look indirectly, the public debates are actually much more influential than that. Public opinion changes the incentives for politicians, who have to at least think about what will play well on al-Jazeera. So the things the new Arab public cares about are going to become things the rulers have to pay attention to. The public might not be able to force these regimes to do what they want, but they can put it on the agenda.

MJ: But isn’t there the danger that if this new Arab public can’t bring about concrete change, it will only lead to even greater frustration?

ML: Yeah, already in this very short history of the new Arab public we’ve seen times when people get very excited that things are changing, and then when they don’t, it’s conducive to frustration and anger, which then can go in some pretty unpleasant directions. I think this new Arab public is inevitably going to be disappointing to the extent to that it has to act by itself. I don’t argue that al-Jazeera and the satellite TV stations, on their own, can create democracy from scratch, or can overthrow Arab regimes. For that you’ve got to have movements on the ground, real domestic political forces that are able to take advantage of the opportunities that this new Arab media gives them.

I do think the Arab media is helping to create those kinds of people, but they can’t do it all by themselves. There’s also a sense in which this new Arab public, precisely because it’s so transnational, is disengaged from real politics on the ground. Many observers may see what’s happening Jordan or Egypt or Lebanon as just one part of this bigger narrative of the Arab world. And for those activists trying to actually form political parties or protest movements or trying to lobby the government to respect human rights, the transnational media like al-Jazeera can be an unreliable ally. To accomplish change you need a national media working on your side, and a national public that is really focused on local issues.

So one of the arguments that could be made is that, while Arab regimes don’t like al-Jazeera, they’re willing to live with it, precisely because it deflects political energies outwards and gets people riled up about Palestine or Iraq or even about democracy in the abstract—and then they’ll be less interested in mobilizing on the ground level. And that’s why the Kefaya movement in Egypt is so interesting, because here is a local national network which is very much plugged into the new Arab public, but is also determinedly domestic and focused on the Egyptian regime. Of course when the Egyptian elections came around, they failed, but still, it’s early.

This also means that people who want to encourage democratic change in the region should focus on supporting free and independent and critical local media—Jordanian newspapers, Egyptian local TV stations. And we would expect Arab governments to be very wary of that kind of thing. For real democratic change, though, networks like al-Jazeera can help get things started, but they’re not enough.

MJ: Now over the past decade, opinion polls have begun to come out revealing, for the first time really, what the Arab public actually believes. How has this changed what observers of the Middle East understand about public opinion?

ML: I think the phenomenon of public opinion polling in the Arab world is just fascinating and works in a number of different directions. On the one hand it confirmed a lot of things we already knew: that anti-Americanism was high, or that most Arabs sympathize with Palestinians, for instance. But it also showed that sizeable majorities of Arabs were able to distinguish between opposition to American foreign policy in the Middle East and wanting democracy, human rights, economic modernization. That’s been one of the biggest findings.

The second thing is that public opinion polls in any society generally tend to privilege the less motivated, the less knowledgeable kinds of actors, and often have the potential effect of marginalizing activists. So you might have a bunch of Jordanian NGOs, or civil-society activist types who are saying that Jordan needs more democracy, it needs a new electoral law, but then local public opinion polls come out saying that 65-70 percent of Jordanians don’t want that, instead they want economic development, and don’t care for the existing political parties, and everyone loves the king. That can actually empower relatively conservative non-politicized majorities.

But it’s still early—and it’s still only been about two to three years since serious large-scale polling, from Pew or Zogby, has really started—and in a few years activists and even politicians in, say, Egypt or Jordan may be able to start to recognize and understand the possibilities of opinion polls to create a feedback loop. This could help those activist forces that are currently disempowered. If they see that Jordanians aren’t exercised all that much by democracy issues, but that corruption really bothers them, well that can tell activists how they want to frame their political critique and make them more effective.

MJ: You’ve written a lot about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric who has an extremely popular show on al-Jazeera, and is often scorned by the Americans as a radical but has in fact spoken out quite openly against the likes of Osama bin Laden. What has been his significance in the new Arab public?

ML: Qaradawi is one of the single most important figures in all of this. He’s maddening and infuriating and really important. The way I describe Qaradawi is that he’s a democrat but he’s not a liberal. He’s been very consistent for many years in arguing both for political democracy and for a more democratic approach to Islamic politics. As well, before 9/11 he was an opponent the kind of Islamism that produced Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, and he’s against the entire takfiri ideology, which declares Muslim opponents to be “non-Muslim”. So at that level he’s a democrat and an influential one.

At the same time, on foreign policy, he’s pretty anti-American and anti-Israeli, and he has given authorization for suicide bombings against Israelis. There’s a lot of controversy over whether he said it was acceptable to kill American soldiers in Iraq. There was a report that he had said it; he denied it. At any rate, he issued a fatwa not too long after saying, okay, controversy aside, I’m saying you can’t. The point is that he’s responsive to the feedback he gets. He’s a real populist, who has his finger to the wind in political affairs and a strong grasp on where the center of where mainstream Arab public opinion is. So he’s not only influential, but a bellwether.

But then, you take it one step further, he’s a real social conservative, like a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson or a James Dobson—he doesn’t like homosexuality, he’s conservative on gender issues, he wants to see religion playing a major role in political life. He thinks democracy is compatible with Islam, but he still thinks Islamism is the solution. Personally, as an American liberal I find myself heartened by the fact that al-Jazeera’s most prominent Islamic face is a major advocate of democracy. But I’m also horrified by a lot of the social and cultural positions that he takes.

MJ: Interestingly, you mentioned in the book that the public sphere, and networks like al-Jazeera, actually “underrepresent Islamism.” How, exactly?

ML: The jihadis hate al-Jazeera, and they hate Qaradawi. You can read it on the jihadist chat rooms and internet sites: they consider al-Jazeera part of the Crusader-Zionist alliance, and they see Qaradawi as extremely dangerous and as a real adversary. In Iraq, Zarqawi has repeatedly blasted al-Jazeera and all the other Arab media, and that’s one of the reasons why they turn to the internet and set up their own news sites. I would say that mainstream Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism can be found on al-Jazeera or on al-Arabiya. You tend to see more of a relatively liberal Islamism as well as liberal Muslims—and those are different things. But what you don’t tend to see is the type of bin-Ladenist extremism, which ironically enough, is what these networks are most accused of advocating over here in the West.

MJ: How do you think news outlets like al-Jazeera might start changing now that they’re subject to a great deal of market pressure? Could there come a time when they have to start pander to audience preferences, becoming more sensationalist, and less able to create a forum for serious debate?

ML: Well, I think that the “al-Jazeera era” is really over. From 1997 until about 2003 al-Jazeera virtually defined this new Arab public. But now you have a more competitive market with al-Arabiya, which is the Saudi-funded satellite network and the main competitor, as well as smaller, local satellite television stations. If you live in, say, the United Arab Emirates, you very well might be watching Abu Dhabi TV or Dubai TV as much as you’re watching al-Jazeera. Everybody watches al-Jazeera still, but it’s no longer the only game in town.

So it’s really competitive, and it’s interesting to ask why it’s so competitive, because none of these stations really sustain themselves through advertising, and so winning market share isn’t necessary for revenue. Market share is more a measure of influence and political power, and these stations do take their relative importance very seriously.

But what that competition leads to is not 100 percent obvious. It might lead to pandering to the lowest common denominator, true, but one of the really interesting findings of a number of surveys that I’ve seen is that the more educated you are, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to have al-Jazeera as your top choice of network. Which suggests that even though it is often sensationalist, it’s not necessarily appealing to the lowest common denominator. I mean, most of al-Jazeera’s most important programs are essentially glorified versions of C-SPAN. We’re not talking about reality TV here—although that’s huge in the Middle East, as it happens.

In fact, the argument could be made, looking at what al-Arabiya has done in the last year or so, is that some networks are actually becoming less sensationalist, at the expense of market share. Al-Arabiya seems to be losing market share by pitching itself as the more moderate, if not pro-American, alternative to al-Jazeera. Interestingly, Al-Arabiya is actually doing a lot of what the U.S. wanted al-Hurra to do when it tried, unsuccessfully, to set that network up—challenging al-Jazeera, giving voice to more pro-American and what we consider moderate voices. The problem with al-Arabiya, though, is that it’s owned by the Saudis, so it’s very soft on the Saudis and tends to be much friendlier to Arab governments and the status quo than al-Jazeera is.

MJ: Let’s talk about the U.S. and its relationship to this new Arab public sphere. You once wrote in Foreign Affairs that American policymakers often don’t listen nearly enough to what’s actually being said in public debates in the Middle East. What has been the effect of not doing so?

ML: I think it’s been extremely unfortunate and has helped to contribute to a lot of ineffective policies. I think that before 9/11 you saw some enthusiasm for al-Jazeera and some recognition of its potential contribution to democratization. But after 9/11, by November-December 2001, that got swept away. The administration saw the network as helping bin Laden, and started treating the Arab media as a whole as the enemy, as a problem to be fixed, and stopped seeing it as an opportunity or a reflection of what a lot of Arabs thought.

So I think what ended up happening was that a lot of American policy in the first Bush administration, including most of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, has really profoundly misunderstood how Arabs were likely to react to events. There was this whole theory that Arabs would respond to strength, that once the U.S. demonstrated its strength by toppling Saddam then you would see the revealing of this latent pro-Americanism as Arabs rallied to the “strong horse.”

But if you actually looked to what Arabs were saying before the war—those who were debating Iraq on al-Jazeera, on the op-ed pages—they were talking about these very questions, and anybody who was paying attention to those debates knew that wasn’t likely to happen. Arab perspectives towards the United States were rooted in some fairly well-developed ideas about American foreign policy and real fears about what the U.S. intended for the region, and really great resentment over Israel and over the sanctions on Iraq.

MJ: And a lot of those Arabs were both pro-democracy and against Saddam Hussein.

ML: Exactly. There was a very strong current of people who were opposed to Saddam Hussein and were happy to see him gone but simply did not trust the United States and didn’t want an increased American presence in the region. So I think that when the Bush administration behaved as it did it really tended to hit all the wrong buttons in all the wrong ways and made a lot of problems worse.

MJ: If the U.S. wanted to get serious about helping the Middle East liberalize and democratize, what would be the best way to engage with this new Arab public, or with networks like al-Jazeera?

ML: I think that in the past, the way that the United States dealt with al-Jazeera and with the Arab media—treating it pretty much as the enemy—really undermined whatever hope there was that the United States was serious about promoting democracy, because people asked, how can they be pro-democracy and anti-free press?

And it was a big missed opportunity to get out there and put out their side of the story. There was basically an informal ban on appearing on al-Jazeera on the part of senior Bush administration officials for years. Though I will say that Karen Hughes, since taking over as public diplomacy czar recently, has ended the ban and she herself has been on al-Jazeera several times, and senior officials are appearing all the time now. Again that’s not by itself going to solve all our problems in the region, but it’s a good start.

And then the question is, what do they do when they’re on? Do they listen, do they lecture, do they present the American case effectively? One of the problems is that too often when these officials go on al-Jazeera, their real audience, their intended audience, is in Washington. They’re so careful about what they’re saying, or they’re making arguments with an eye towards what’s going to look good in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, that they’re maybe not listening to what Arabs are saying. But again, these are things that are correctible, and I hope they will be corrected.


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