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Assessing the Democratizing Power of Satellite TV

In a March 25 interview with The Washington Post, American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice marveled at the contribution of satellite television to the emerging democratic trend in the Middle East and the world. Watching the Lebanese protestors in the streets, she argued, inspired people around the globe to take matters into their own hands and demand democracy. This represents quite a change for the Bush administration, and for mainstream American opinion. Far more common over the last four years have been fierce denunciations of Al Jazeera for allegedly spreading anti-Americanism and extremism in the region. From Fouad Ajami's lurid portrayal of Al Jazeera in The New York Times Magazine as a cesspool of irrational anti-American hatred, to widespread denunciations of the Qatari station as "Jihad TV" or "Hate America TV," to sharp statements by administration officials castigating the Arab media for allegedly inciting or even supporting the insurgency in Iraq, the Arab media has largely been cast in the villain's role. After Arab satellite television coverage magnified the impact of the Iraqi elections and the Lebanese opposition protests following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, however, Americans are beginning to realize the potentially positive role which the Arab media can play in bringing democratic reform to the region.

What are the potential contributions of Arab satellite television to regional transformation? Talk shows on Al Jazeera and other Arab television stations have contributed enormously to building the underpinnings of a more pluralist political culture, one which welcomes and thrives on open and contentious political debate. News coverage of political protests and struggles has opened up the realm of possibility across the Arab world, inspiring political activists and shifting the real balance of power on the ground. But satellite television alone will not suffice to overcome entrenched authoritarian regimes. Nor are its political effects always constructive. Satellite television has had a vital role in driving underlying, structural change in the Arab world, but expectations that it alone can bring about democratic transformations should not be exaggerated.

Talk Shows

The first transformative feature of the satellite television stations comes from the political talk shows. Al Jazeera's programs famously revolutionized political discourse in the Arab world, fearlessly tackling taboos of all stripes. Open, frank discussions of social issues (AIDS, education, women's rights), economic issues, and especially political issues brought those subjects which had previously been discussed only in private salons or in limited circulation, elite newspapers into everyone's living rooms. That Faisal Al Qassem's provocative program The Opposite Directionbecame one of the most watched and discussed television shows in the Arab world virtually overnight in the late 1990s attests to the ravenous hunger for such frank political debate.

Perhaps too much has been made of the transgressive nature of these programs, what Mamoun Fandy calls their "political pornography." Smashing taboos is exciting, and wins market share for a time (until fatigue sets in, and audiences start to crave more extreme pleasures), but is not in and of itself politically transformative. As Jon Alterman has argued, the framing of political discourse around a confrontation between two radical extremes actually strengthens existing governments by leaving the status quo as the only seemingly sensible, viable alternative. Pairing the Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi against "terrorism expert" Steven Emerson to discuss the possibility of a "dialogue of civilizations," or inviting Daniel Pipes to debate old-school Arab nationalists about the implications of Bush's re-election, does little to bridge gaps or seek common ground. And allowing angry talk can be a mechanism for allowing people to blow off steam without taking any real action.

But Alterman, Fandy, and other critics similarly fail to offer a full account of these talk shows. They fall into what one might call a "Faisal-centric" view, one which takes The Opposite Direction not simply as a paradigm, but as typical. But it is not. Other programs on Al Jazeera are far less polarized, and emphasize argument fand debate rather than breaking taboos for its own sake. While one popular Al Jazeera program is called "With No Limits," epitomizing the transgressive urge, the station's motto is famously "The Opinion ... and the Other Opinion." Ghassan bin Jiddu's Open Dialogue, for example, often invites moderate guests, and his format (a small studio audience invited to ask questions) and style encourage a more reasoned debate. Minbar Al Jazeera usually simply presents a host taking calls on camera. One recent episode of Voice of the People presented a stellar lineup of thoughtful guests, along with focus groups assembled in four different Arab cities, to discuss the results of an online poll about the "priorities of the Arab street."

And outside of Al Jazeera, many more programs can be found which bear little resemblance to the pyrotechnics of The Opposite Direction. Hisham Milhem and Ghiselle Khoury on Al Arabiya, James Zogby on Abu Dhabi TV, LBC's Al Hadath, and many other popular programs depart from this mold. The Faisal-centric view is useful for those who wish to portray the talk shows as a source of extremism and division, but it poorly captures the reality of a diverse, competitive, and evolving arena.

Alterman and others are right, however, to warn that television talk shows can not stand in for democracy. What one enthusiast once called the "Democratic Republic of Al Jazeera" does not exist. The Arab public has no way of directly influencing state policies, and no institutional means for translating a consensus into practical reality. 

Put simply, Arab talk shows can not stand in for the hard work of politics: party organization, mobilization, bargaining, and negotiation. Growing recognition of this reality contributed to a noticeable coarsening of political discourse over the last few years. After the heady excitement aroused by the success of Arab mobilization in forcing Arab states to show support of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000, as well as the simple success of getting Arabs out into the streets to demonstrate their own commitment to each other and to themselves, nothing of consequence followed. Even if this vocal Arab consensus could score tactical victories, such as scuppering Vice President Dick Cheney's attempts to build support for an invasion of Iraq in a spring 2002 trip to the region, it could not affect the ultimate outcome. Nor did the angry criticism of Arab authoritarianism and a stagnant status quo seem to translate into any immediately noticeable democratic improvements. The new Arab media could build enthusiasm, but could not translate its excitement into political outcomes.

That said, I would argue that the talk shows have had two long-term and profound transformative effects. First, they have contributed to building the foundations for a pluralistic political culture by affirming and demonstrating the legitimacy of disagreement. In a political culture otherwise dominated by authoritarian states with a mobilizational, monolithic nationalist discourse in which dissent equals treason, or else by an emergent Islamist trend seeking to impose a religious uniformity upon society, the centrality of argument and disagreement to the satellite television talk shows can not be over-stated. They demonstrated in the most direct way possible not only that Arabs disagreed about the great issues of the day, but that one could disagree publicly without compromising one's authenticity or credibility.

Second, the talk shows have contributed to the evisceration of the political legitimacy of the Arab status quo. Relentless criticism of all aspects of social, economic, and political life has exposed the cruel failings of the Arab order for all Arabs to see. The cumulative effect of program after program in which Arab leaders are savaged for their failures, where the Arab street is ridiculed for its impotence, where the Arabs are held up as "the joke of the world," where sham elections and cults of personality are mocked is to generate an urgency for change and impatience with traditional excuses. The talk shows may not have caused any of the current upheavals, but they prepared the ground for them by legitimizing dissent and exposing the regimes.

Demonstration Effects

A second level of transformation comes from the direct political impact of straightforward news coverage. Before the satellite television revolution, most Arab viewers depended on terrestrial state television, and perhaps on foreign radio broadcasts. Neither gave direct, immediate visual access to political developments abroad, in other Arab countries, or even in their own countries. When Egyptians protested in one part of Cairo, for example, other Egyptians outside that neighborhood would have heard about it only via word of mouth, since Egyptian television would not have covered it. Now, virtually any protest or election or political event is immediately covered by Al Jazeera and its many competitors.

Paired with the talk shows, it establishes a common, core Arab narrative which in the past had existed only in a more abstract sense. When Al Jazeera covers events in Algeria, in Bahrain, in Egypt, in Jordan, it does not cover them as isolated events. It insistently places them within a single Arab story, drawing connections by implication (in the news) and explicitly (in the talk show discussions). This can lead to political outcomes which some might find disturbing: for example, the rise in anti-Americanism in the region since 2002 might well be partially explained not simply by the appearance of graphic, bloody images from Palestine or Iraq, but also by the common narrative linking America as the common denominator for each of these otherwise distinct issues.

An Iraqi celebrates her vote.

But it has also been essential to outcomes which many see as vital positive developments. The current wave of reformist enthusiasm in the region may or may not have been sparked by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- whether by emboldening opponents or increasing pressure on dictators -- but there is no doubt that the Arab satellite television stations have been necessary. For the Iraqi elections to have had an impact on Arabs elsewhere, they needed to see the images of jubilant Iraqis voting -- and they needed to see them on Al Jazeera, not on stations seen as vehicles for American propaganda, such as the American Alhurra. The Kifaya ("Enough") movement in Egypt, protesting the possibility of President Mubarak's running for a fifth term, was well-served by Al Jazeera, and to a lesser extent by other Arab satellites, which gave its early demonstrations both prominence and some protection through their coverage. Satellite television coverage of the arrest of opposition leader Ayman Nour kept the issue alive, where scores of previous Egyptian arrests of dissidents had passed with little notice. In Jordan, the authorities made a point of barring the satellite television cameras from the area before riot police cracked down on an Amman protest on behalf of the professional associations. For democratic dominoes to fall, people need to see them falling.

It is Lebanon, of course, where this has had the greatest impact. It is hard to over-state the importance of the televised coverage of the early opposition protests in shaping Arab (and Western) public opinion after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's frustrated demand that the television cameras "zoom out" to reveal the true size of the protests-and the inspired response of the protestors, who took up Assad's challenge with signs and chants demanding that the cameras do just that -- demonstrates the general recognition of the media's effect on the political dynamics. Where in the past Arabs might have been expected to flock to the side of a beleaguered and targeted Syria, this time they did not. An Al Jazeera online poll taken in the first weeks after the protest found some 90 percent of respondents supporting a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The powerful images from the streets resonated with the core Al Jazeera identity and narrative: the Arab people fighting against the repression and corruption of Arab regimes. The massive Hizbullah counter-demonstration complicated this narrative, suggesting that Lebanon was indeed divided.

Protestors in the streets of Beirut.

The demonstration effects in recent protests have been fascinating to observe. In Jordan, protestors self-consciously imitated the Lebanese decision to use the national flag exclusively rather than Islamist or party symbols. In Lebanon, protestors imitated the symbols of Egypt's Kifaya. In many Arab -- and non-Arab -- countries, the Lebanese protests have been inspirational. Watching this popular activism on television suggests new political possibilities, new openings, and gives new confidence. One Al Jazeera cameraman may be worth many thousands of protestors when it comes to generating political power.

As with the talk shows, this alone will not be enough. Arab regimes are resilient and tough, and will not easily surrender their prerogatives. They will no doubt look to weather the storm with token concessions while blocking further reaching changes, as is arguably the case with Egypt's move to presidential elections. As Egypt's forceful blocking of a Muslim Brotherhood protest on March 29 reminds us, these states hold great repressive power against which the publicity of satellite television offers only weak protection. Street demonstrations do not necessarily translate into sustained political mobilization, particularly where a moment of enthusiasm conceals real differences in political agendas and interests. And the television broadcasts will show the frustrations and the failures as well as the dizzying moments of success: not only the triumphant Iraqi elections, but also the months of political stalemate and continuing violence which followed.

Arab television alone can not overthrow governments, nor can it create democracies (two very different propositions). But satellite television has transformed what the political scientist Sidney Tarrow called the "repertoire of contention," expanding the realm of political possibility for Arab citizens. Rather than view the impact of satellite television in terms of single moments of change, or pin great hopes for revolutionary change on its broadcasts, we should focus on these deeper, less obvious but more profound ways in which it is refashioning the political terrain.

About Marc Lynch

Marc Lynch

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science at Williams College. He received his PhD from Cornell University. His second book, Voices of a New Arab Public: Iraq, al Jazeera, and a Changing Middle East, will be published by Columbia University Press.

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