An Egyptian girl sleeps on her mother’s shoulder in Tahrir Square,
February 9.

The Revolution Will Be Televised

If digital media helped opposition activists transform a few well-contained Police Day protests into an unprecedented occupation of Tahrir Square, and the regime inflicted some harm upon itself by disenfranchising a large contingent of Parliamentarians it had previously co-opted, that still leaves a big question: Why did so many ordinary Egyptians—and Tunisians, and Algerians, and Bahrainis—suddenly decide to rise up? The younger generation, much celebrated after the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, had previously been written off both within and outside of the Arab world as too apathetic to change a system to which their parents had long been inured. What happened?

Marwan Kraidy, who spent late January and early February devouring Arab television and newspapers on an old Dell and a new Mac, points his finger at a culprit many mainstream commentators have been hesitant to credit.

“I believe WikiLeaks is much more important than Facebook and Twitter and blogging and all of this,” Kraidy said in February, on a day when Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi blamed growing protests in his own country on teenagers drinking Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.

In December 2010, the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar published a leaked cache of documents and diplomatic cables specifically pertaining to the Arabic world. Al Akhbar is a publication that defies easy categorization. Kraidy calls it “a kind of left-wing, socialist, very independent type of newspaper that on the one hand supports Hezbollah politically, but on the other hand, advocates for gay rights.” That made it hard for anyone to dismiss the documents, which were sensational and soon became daily fodder for Al-Jazeera newscasts.

“The stuff about Tunisia was unbelievable,” Kraidy says. “It showed the extent of the corruption … how corrupt the ruling family was. Especially the family of the first lady, that they were in fact a mafia that had a finger in every single business in the country.

“But most importantly, what WikiLeaks did was to give Arabs a sense of vindication—that their beliefs about politics, about the deals some of these dictators had made with the US and with each other—beliefs that until then were not respected, because they were described as conspiracy theories—were in fact very true.

“The so-called conspiracy theories were stated as facts by cables from US diplomats sent to Washington!” Kraidy continues. “Nobody, not a single leader, tried to say that these were lies. They could not. So, the private lives of Saudi princes being broadcast like that—everybody knew what was going on in those palaces, everybody knew that there was Scotch whiskey, that there was prostitution, that there were these wild parties by people whose public personas were very pious and very conservative.”

The revelations were explosive. Without amplification, however, they might have faded into irrelevance. But the Arab media sphere has been completely transformed in the last 15 years.

Twenty years ago, Kraidy points out, “the only thing they had was the state channels. If you were in Jordan, or Egypt, or Libya, or Saudi Arabia, the newscast was the newscast. Not one among many. And you evidently didn’t believe everything you saw, but you didn’t have this multitude of sources of information to compare and contrast. And most importantly, you didn’t have the kind of news that made government regime or court news look so ridiculous.”

The beginning of the end of that monopoly, Kraidy explains, came when Iraqi tanks invaded Kuwait in 1991.

“The Saudi government waited on that piece of information for four days,” he marvels. “Four days in the 1990s was a very long time! Not only did you have Saudis who saw tanks rumbling across the border and were wondering, ‘What the heck is going on?’ but you had many of them turning to the one source of information back then that was not controlled by the government, which was CNN at hotels where Westerners stayed. And immediately you had businessmen who were politically connected who said, ‘There’s a huge margin for us here. Number one, to stay on top of the information and the news cycle—to have some say in shaping what people see and hear. But also to make some decent money.’”

The Saudi king’s brother-in-law kicked it off in 1991 with MBC, an offshore channel based in London. “In 1996, Al-Jazeera starts,” Kraidy says. “The Lebanese channels went on satellite in 1996: LBC and Future TV, which did for entertainment what Al-Jazeera did for news. And the rest is history. We now have over 500 channels, all of them in Arabic, covering the whole region, most of them on satellite, and most of them free-to-air.”

This “chaotic, messy public sphere,” Kraidy says, is built on more than soap operas and sitcom reruns. “In many ways, the Arab media sphere today is as diverse as the American media sphere is—from the extreme right to the extreme left; from the extreme secular to the extreme religious; to channels that talk about American imperialism and the nasty impact of market liberalization to channels that teach you how to diversify your stock portfolio,” he says. “But I think the most important are the ones that are hard to classify, from an American perspective. Which is the kind of channel that is critical of American foreign policy in the region, but is tackling corruption, or that is doing things that are part of what the US likes to see happen in the region. So you can’t just dismiss them as, ‘They’re anti-American.’”

This bloomed into full view in 2006, when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation. For Kraidy, one of the most fascinating aspects of the conflict was the spectacle it spawned on call-in TV shows. “People would call on Lebanese channels and call the Saudi king a pig, on a live show! The boundaries between what you can say in your living room and what you can say on the public airwaves completely collapsed,” he says. “And that creates a much more difficult environment for dictatorships. Many of them are very good at manipulating information—you know, most of these guys have their own Facebook pages, and have special squads that monitor the Internet, that hang out in Internet cafes, that Tweet and do all that stuff. But they’re always playing catch-up.”

To Kraidy and others, it is self-evident that one of the critical forces that enabled secular, pro-democracy protests to achieve critical mass in Egypt was that great American bugaboo: Al-Jazeera.

“Yes, some of [the protesters] used Facebook, some of them used Twitter to organize, and most importantly there were text messages,” Kraidy says. “But it was not as important as you, who’s part of a demonstration of 200 people in some small city, watching Al-Jazeera and seeing that in fact in another city there are thousands of people. That you are not alone. Let alone if you’re sitting in your living room and saying, ‘God, my cousins went down, my brother went to join them, some of my colleagues are already on the public square, I kind of feel bad about myself here sitting in my living room.’ You see all these images on an outlet like Al-Jazeera, and you feel compelled to be part of history, as opposed to sitting on the fence or on the margins. So the old medium of television was at least as consequential as Twitter and Facebook, if not much more.”

Interestingly, Kraidy thinks Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Middle East overall was outperformed by its sister station, Al-Jazeera English. “With Egypt, they [Al-Jazeera Arabic] went all-out. With Bahrain, they stepped back—because Bahrain is in the Gulf and the Gulf Cooperation Council, very close to Qatar, so Al-Jazeera kind of betrayed that in fact that they’re not this transparent, unbiased [entity]—that they have their agendas too, and that their agenda is very aligned with the foreign policy of Qatar. Al-Jazeera English, on the other hand, I think did a better job. Some of their reporting was magnificent … They’re one degree removed from the Qatar leadership, so in a way I think they were more independent. … With Bahrain, Al-Jazeera [Arabic] was ridiculous. They were nearly propagandizing for the regime. CNN and ABC did a good job, but they didn’t have the access and the knowledge of Al-Jazeera English.”

Robert Vitalis agrees that satellite TV played a crucial part in kindling the sparks from Tunisia into an antiauthoritarian blaze that gripped the entire region.

“Everyone’s watching Al-Jazeera now, or equivalents,” Vitalis says. “People were focused on Tunisia. There were, it turns out, contacts between Tunisian and Egyptian activists. Egyptians have been smart and thinking about this. The youth wing has been trying to imagine a different politics. It’s not like they’re just grumpy one day and get up. It turns out they’ve been studying other movements and moments, and had contact with other activists in other places. We now can see how much the spread of this across the Arab world has to be explained by the witnessing of the thing itself.”


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COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
Photography by Tara Todras-Whitehill C'00 EAS'00

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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