Home / Culture & Society / Reconnecting the World: How New Media Technologies May Help Change Middle East Politics

Reconnecting the World: How New Media Technologies May Help Change Middle East Politics

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, politics sometimes receives an unexpected jolt that produces unanticipated consequences. This has happened during the past decade as information and communication technologies have become more pervasive and influential. This process is accelerating.

A key factor in this expansion of reach and power is the growing irrelevance of borders. New media will facilitate transnational trends in politics because the media themselves are increasingly transnational. This will affect the dynamics of democratization by reducing the isolation of movements for political change and by facilitating detours around obstructions created by those currently holding power.

The complexity of democratization should be respected, however, and no single factor’s impact should be overrated. Media effects, for instance, are just part of a large political universe, the constituent elements of which must come into alignment if democratization is to develop. That said we should not underrate the role of the media. As Mohammed Jassim al-Ali, former managing director of Al Jazeera, has said: “Democracy is coming to the Middle East because of the communication revolution. You can no longer hide information and must now tell the people the truth. If you don’t, the people won’t follow you, they won’t support you, they won’t obey you.”(1) That may overstate the situation, but the premise is sound in the sense that democratic reverberations are being felt in parts of the Middle East that rarely have been touched by such impulses in the past.

This is not merely a matter of theory. Media tools have been put to use in political protests in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere. Transnational satellite television, for example, can—to a certain extent—evade controls imposed on news coverage within a country. The 2005 “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon demonstrated how this can work on two levels. Regional/international coverage—such as is provided by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, among others—could provide information to Lebanese audiences with less concern about political repercussions that might deter some indigenous media organizations. By showing the size and energy of the protests, such coverage helped fuel the demonstrations and encouraged broader pressure for Syrian withdrawal.

It is worth noting in this context that transnational media are not necessarily external media. Lebanese television channels, some of which are available on satellite, also intensively covered this story, as did radio stations and print media that reached regional and global audiences through the Internet. In Lebanon, as in any other country, indigenous news content is likely to be affected by the political, sectarian, and other interests of those who own and run media organizations. News consumers must take this into account when evaluating the information they receive.

The reports from Lebanon reached viewers throughout the region, letting them see political activity that they might decide to emulate. Later demonstrations elsewhere incorporated television-friendly tactics that were seen in the Beirut coverage. In Jordan, national flags were prominently displayed in front of the news media’s cameras, which helped avoid having the protests dismissed as simply factional discord.(2) Overall, notes Bernard Lewis, television “brings to the peoples of the Middle East a previously unknown spectacle—that of lively and vigorous public disagreement and debate.”(3)

Coverage of the Lebanon story is just one example that underscores the significance of the transnational nature of new media technologies. Some governments try to impose an intellectual sovereignty that ensures perpetuation of the status quo and prevents penetration by “discordant” ideas and actions. Freer movement of information, which is partly a function of globalization, works against repressive sovereignty of this kind and improves prospects for democratization. The increased flow of information does not, however, in itself guarantee a surge of democracy. Increased plurality of self-expression is useful, but sometimes it can be more a cacophony than a coherent, purpose-driven chorus. As with many of the elements of democratization, expanding public debate and participation is merely one of the numerous incremental steps needed in the process.

Communications pressures in the Middle East have been building for more than a decade, and governments have tried to control emerging technologies by licensing fax machines, blocking Web sites, finding friendly owners for satellite TV stations, and so on. But such measures can be circumvented as more satellite stations begin broadcasting, cell phone owners send text messages, and public ingenuity finds new ways to avoid government controls.(4) For example, the London-based Saudi Human Rights Center used satellite radio and television to encourage demonstrations in Riyadh. Islah Radio promoted Saudi reform in its broadcasts from short-wave transmitters at an unrevealed location (thought to be in Lithuania) and via the Hotbird satellite to take advantage of the substantial number of households with satellite reception in Saudi Arabia. Since most of the audience wants TV pictures, not just radio words, Islah Television was born, presenting just its logo and text information scrolling on the screen with the radio broadcasts as the audio. The station eventually provided programming with more audience appeal, including a call-in show featuring the station’s driving force, Saad al-Faqih, who responded to viewers’ e-mails, faxes, and phone calls placed through an Internet phone service (which allowed them to avoid government eavesdroppers). Al-Faqih consistently criticized the Saudi princes, at one point calling them “thieves who should be beheaded instead of petty criminals.” The Saudi government apparently fought back, as the short-wave and television signals were jammed and pressure was brought to bear on the European TV transmission providers to drop the station. In December 2004, the station was on the air with a new satellite home that let it be more insulated from economic pressure. As all this was going on, the station had achieved small but noteworthy results in its efforts to encourage demonstrations in support of human rights within Saudi Arabia.(5)

Without judging the merits of the station’s content, its struggle for existence illustrates the kind of battle that can be expected as new media organizations confront governments that are unaccustomed to being challenged. Other Arab broadcasting and print news organizations that are based outside the region and compete against state monopolies are further expanding the amounts of information available to Middle East publics.(6) As journalist Youssef Ibrahim has observed, “The din of democracy talk has been amplified by satellite television, the Internet, and cell phones, and that is a new wrinkle for autocratic regimes experienced at quiet repression.”(7)

Over the long term, the Internet may prove to be even more potent as a force for reform, although this will take time, given the limited Internet access within most of the Middle East. Once more widespread Internet access takes hold in the region, the intrinsic political vitality of the World Wide Web is likely to change the way people view their own countries and the rest of the world. Information from news organizations and other sources that were previously out of reach will be tapped and the interactive nature of the Internet will foster the intellectual enfranchisement that opens the way to political change.

The Internet is an increasingly significant presence in international politics, but its lasting impact remains uncertain. Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas have noted that the Internet “is only a tool, and its specific uses by political, economic, and societal actors must be carefully weighed and considered,”(8) and Charles Kupchan has observed that the “international effects of the information revolution, just like those of economic interdependence, depend upon the broader political context in which these technologies are deployed.”(9) In other words, the Internet should not be viewed as a cure-all by advocates of democracy. It is a tool for reform, but there must be people willing to use the tool to bring about systemic change.

Although the Internet can generate political pressure because it is intrinsically democratic, the effect it will have in the Arab world remains speculative, particularly because Arab states lag far behind most of the rest of the world in taking advantage of this technology. As of 2003 there were only 18 computers per 1,000 people in Arab countries, compared to the global average of 78 per thousand.(10)

Even with access, Internet users in some countries encounter government controls, with sites that are found officially bothersome blocked. The Saudi government’s Internet Services Unit states that “all sites that contain content in violation of Islamic tradition or national regulations shall be blocked.”(11) Among these blocked sites are Amnesty International’s Web pages related to Saudi Arabia, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Women in American History,” Rolling Stone magazine, and Warner Brothers Records. In Egypt, some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web sites, such as ikhwanonline.com, occasionally have been blocked, which is noteworthy given the putative efforts to make the Egyptian electoral process more open.

Besides blocking, some governments establish their own Web sites to present their version of issues and events that people may be learning about from the news media. The Lebanese Army has its own site (lebarmy.gov.lb), the Palestinian Authority uses the Web to present its policy views (pna.gov.ps), and in the United States, the Pentagon offers its online take on the war on terrorism (defendamerica.mil). How much credibility these quasi-news sites have with the public varies from country to country, but they provide a means for governments to compete with conventional news providers as sources of information.

Other entities such as NGOs effectively use the Internet to make their case to global audiences and for purposes ranging from stimulating news coverage to raising money. Terrorist organizations also use Web sites to recruit, fund raise, and proselytize. Despite government efforts to deny these groups access to the news media and the public, terrorist Web sites have proven successful in disseminating material such as pronouncements from Osama Bin Laden, propaganda disguised as newscasts, online jihadist magazines, and video footage of executions of kidnap victims. Since the goal of these organizations is to instill terror in the public, the Web is a valuable device for delivering their message in sometimes horrific fashion.

The Internet is also important in recruiting, training, and communicating with terrorist groups’ adherents. One example is the June 2005 online release of a 46-minute video, “All Religion Will Be for Allah,” produced by Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Iraqi branch of al Qaeda that featured a corps of suicide bombers-in-training. It was disseminated by a specially designed Web page with numerous links for downloading, including one for playing it on a cell phone.(12)

Open access to media venues and the easy dissemination of unmediated media may be viewed as information democracy, but because this freedom is available to all, regardless of their intentions, it may be abused, as can be seen in the terrorist examples. News organizations are sometimes inadvertently complicit in this as their coverage of terrorists’ pronouncements reaches a much larger audience than could be achieved through the original Webcast, videotape, or other message. This raises issues about mainstream media’s gatekeeper role, and the European Union has urged media organizations to draw up a code of conduct to ensure that they do not become de facto propagandists for terrorists.(13)

Yet another use of the Internet with significant political potential is blogging. Blogs amplify voices that may have previously gone unheard. As such they foster a degree of democratic parity at least in terms of expanding audience access for those who feel they have something worthwhile to say. The blogging firmament is already crowded and becoming more so (as of October 2005, blog search engine Technorati covered roughly 19 million blogs), but bloggers are good at finding each other and reaching audiences.

Particularly in countries where governments have tried to suppress political organization, blogging may prove to be valuable in orchestrating pressure for reform. In 2005, bloggers in Lebanon and elsewhere spurred debate about the perpetrators and aftershocks of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri—a debate that could be joined by anyone with Internet access, regardless of some governments’ desire to stifle these discussions. Another example of political blogging could be seen in 2002 when Bahrainis dissatisfied with conventional media coverage of a scandal related to the national pension fund could read less constrained analysis on blogs such as “Bahraini blogsite” or “Mahmood’s Den.”(14) Talk about such matters has expanded from the neighborhood coffee house to global proportions, enlisting participants and encouraging electronic speech and the thinking behind it. Some time will have to pass before this phenomenon’s long-term political impact can be determined, but if bloggers’ talk leads to expanded bloggers’ activism, this may be yet another way that mass media provide impetus for democratization.

While the Internet is put to increasing use, an even more common communications device is proving increasingly useful in mobilizing activists. Text messaging on cell phones facilitates organization of demonstrations and circulation of political information. Particularly when political parties are restricted, text messages can be sent to unofficial membership lists. In Kuwait, women organizing protests about voting rights in 2005 found their effectiveness increased because they could summon young women from schools by sending text messages. In May 2005, Kuwaiti women were granted the right to vote and to be candidates in parliamentary and local council elections. In Lebanon, text messages (and e-mails) were used to mobilize anti-Syrian demonstrators in March 2005.(15) Fawzi Guleid of the National Democratic Institute in Bahrain observed that text messaging fosters expansion of speech because it “allows people to send messages that they would not say in public.” It also should be noted, however, that text messaging lends itself to the spread of rumors and anonymous attacks. Rola Dashti, one of the organizers of the women’s rights demonstrations in Kuwait, was the subject of widely circulated text messages that criticized her for her Lebanese and Iranian ancestry and alleged that she had received funds from the American embassy. Her response: “It means I’m making them nervous…and I’d better get used to it.”(16)

Is it the Right Time?

Advocates of democracy in the Middle East cannot ignore the reality of having many obstacles to overcome. In new media technology, there is a digital wadi, a “deep and daunting canyon” with regard to the region’s Web access compared to that of much of the rest of the world. The 2003 Arab Human Development Report notes that although the number of Internet users in Arab states grew by 60 percent from 2000 to 2001, the total was only 4.2 million, or 1.6 percent of the Arab population.(17) (Among the factors contributing to the level of technology use in the Middle East and some other parts of the world is the overall literacy rate and the usefulness of having a working knowledge of English.)

Even a development as encouraging as the increased availability of satellite television is not a panacea for political problems. Hugh Miles has observed in his book about Al Jazeera that “optimists theorize that satellite TV will sweep away traditional Arab obstacles to progress and dissolve seemingly intractable problems and that an ‘Islamic Glasnost’ will ensue... But to believe that satellite television is automatically going to make Arab societies democratic is to presume that the current state of affairs in the Arab world results from an information deficiency, which is not true. Except in the most authoritarian Arab countries, the news has long been available to the determined via the radio, and that has never brought about much democracy.” Miles added that even if Arab satellite television viewers see something on the air that leads them to change their minds about an issue, “there is still no political mechanism in place for them to do anything about it.”(18) Miles makes a valid point, but it should be kept in mind that audience size is important in itself and the significance of sheer numbers with easy, frequent access to diverse sources of information should not be underestimated. When a critical mass has better access to information, political processes are likely to change.

Nevertheless, optimism about prospects for media-inspired reform should be tempered with caution. Mohamed Zayani wrote: “One should be skeptical about the often ambitious transformative claims for new media as well as the claims about its democratizing potential and its ability not just to increase and widen participation among the various social strata in the Arab world, but to transform social and political organization. Real change cannot be expected solely or mainly from the media sector. Democracy cannot emanate just from the media; the political systems and institutions themselves have to change, evolve, and adapt….We should not be under the illusion that satellite TV can dramatically change society or revolutionize its institutions.”(19) Similarly, Marc Lynch has written: “What one enthusiast called ‘the Democratic Republic of Al Jazeera’ does not, in fact, exist. Al Jazeera cannot create democracy on its own, nor compel Arab leaders to change their ways. Television talk shows cannot substitute for the hard work of political organizing and institution building.”(20) Looking at this from another angle, Mamoun Fandi has noted that the proliferation of satellite television may create a virtual politics that citizens watch, like an event in an arena, rather than actually becoming participants. “Governments in the Arab world,” wrote Fandi, “are encouraging the trend whereby the media become a substitute for real politics.”(21)

All that may be true, but skepticism should not be allowed to slip into the cynical fatalism of the “change will never happen” variety. Media might not make revolutions, but they certainly can contribute to them. In the end, the public’s willingness to act is the most crucial factor in reform.

A more optimistic evaluation of media influence has been offered by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has argued that “as literacy and bandwidth both expand dramatically, publics are exposed to a broad, often unregulated, spectrum of views that range from secular to religious, from nationalist to global, and from material to spiritual. Under the new paradigm, information is demand-driven rather than supply-driven, and the universe of available views is far broader than ever before.” One consequence of more information being more widely communicated, wrote Alterman, is “greater political spontaneity. Whereas Arab politics have often been characterized by orchestrated demonstrations of solidarity, anger, sorrow, or joy, the regime’s ability to organize such demonstrations in the future will be greatly diminished.”(22) 

Media and Democratization: Work in Progress

The most recent Arab Human Development Report acknowledges that “formidable obstacles stand in the way of a society of freedom and good governance in Arab countries. And this is an undeniable truth. But at the end of this difficult journey, there lies a noble goal, worthy of the hardships endured by those who seek it.”(23)

Despite the presence of those obstacles, the Middle East in 2005 provided fascinating illustrations of the ways that new media can surge and influence the political climate. The reverberations of the American invasion of Iraq continued and attracted much news coverage and angry attention. A parallel story could be found in the assertions of electoral freedom in Iraq and Palestine, and other democratic manifestations (of varying degrees) in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Reform seemed to be developing momentum, sometimes on the level of headline-grabbing politics, as with the Iraq elections, and sometimes on a more incremental basis, as with the increasing assertiveness of some Arab women.

The new media played a critical role in all this; satellite television showed Egyptians, Syrians, and others that real elections were taking place in Palestine and Iraq, and showed Saudi women, among others, that Arab women in some countries might actually be allowed to hold positions in government (as in Bahrain) and even drive cars.(24) For the Iraq elections particularly, Middle Eastern television stations displayed their ambition and the strengths of their hardware. Al Arabiya broadcast from eight satellite trucks throughout Iraq, and used videophone links and live feeds from neighboring countries. Al Jazeera, despite being banned from broadcasting from within Iraq (an example of the political obstacles that continue to impede information flow), also offered heavy coverage.(25)

Supplementing television’s influence, the Internet increasingly contributed to the new sense of intellectual community: 
• From Lebanon, “bloggingbeirut” provided real-time Web video of the “Cedar Revolution” demonstrations against Syria’s presence in the country. This demonstrated how the speed and pervasiveness of the Internet make it a valuable mobilization tool; along with cell phones it can keep people abreast of what is happening and bring them into the streets. 
• Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere used the Web to nurture a virtual state through online communication among members of the far-flung Kurdish population. Traditional borders lose relevance when they no longer impede the flow of ideas. Kurdistan may not appear on conventional maps, but communications technology helps make it real.
• On an even larger scale, extending far beyond the Middle East, satellite television and the Internet are bringing a degree of virtual cohesion to the ummah, giving members of the worldwide Islamic population some easily accessible common ground despite the many differences within this global community. The Internet as a unifying tool does not require uniformity; members of dispersed groups can tie themselves tightly or loosely, as they choose, to a central cultural identity. The Internet connects on its users’ terms.

It is significant that these cases primarily involve indigenous media. Just a few years ago—as recently as the Gulf War of 1991—audiences in the Middle East remained largely dependent on Western news sources such as CNN and the BBC. By the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other Arab satellite stations had supplanted the Western broadcasters as principal providers of war news to the Arab world. One of the keys to the increasing media influence within the Middle East is that new media organizations are providing information about Arabs that is produced and delivered by Arabs. Western media hegemony is in decline and this aspect of globalization has significant ramifications in the Middle East and elsewhere.

These issues also are relevant to the public diplomacy efforts undertaken by the United States. American policy makers should recognize that public opinion in the Middle East is being galvanized not by the lavishly funded U.S.-based broadcasting projects—such as Alhurra television and Radio Sawa—but rather by regional and local media sources that are taking advantage of new technologies. Audience preferences are clear. A survey conducted by the Arab Advisors Group, an Amman-based consulting firm, that found that among Cairo households with satellite television reception, 88 percent watch Al Jazeera while 5 percent watch Alhurra. Similar figures appear in studies of other Arab audiences.(26)

Emerging from the rush of events and the shifting global and local political dynamics is a region that is clearly changing—often quietly and with small steps, but changing. If this is considered to be an area where, in Bernard Lewis’s words, “things had indeed gone badly wrong,”(27) maybe these changes will be redemptive for those who live there. But if that is to happen, further steps must be taken.

Moving Onward

The availability of communication and information systems is certain to keep expanding. That will affect how individuals live and how nations operate on intrastate, regional, and global levels. The Middle East will not be the only area where this transformation occurs, but the rate of acceleration and breadth of movement toward democracy will be particularly significant there.

The news media—with their audience expanding through new technologies—will be among the most important players in determining how this process turns out. The Absence of thoughtful standards that most journalists decide to observe, could lead to democratization foundering as tumult overwhelms progress. Gadi Wolfsfeld warned about this tendency toward spectacle: “The news media are a poor forum for public discourse over political issues. The rules of access and norms of debate are mostly designed to ensure a good show rather than an intelligent exchange of views.” The obligation of journalists to recognize the effects of information must go hand in hand with the democratization process in the Middle East, or else the always-volatile politics of the region will derail progress.

A related factor to be weighed when looking ahead is the question of who will best utilize and most benefit from new media. Jon Alterman wrote that, “As control of public opinion increasingly slips away from governments’ grasp, those who can organize and mobilize will find a far more receptive environment than any time in the recent past.” It is important to note, he added, that this does not necessarily mean democratization, because “Islamist groups in the Middle East are among the most modern of political organizations, both in their techniques of organizing and in the sophistication of their communications strategies.”(28)

This is an important point: Democracy can be blocked or undermined by parties within and outside government. As the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004 noted: “There are some media outlets that are little more than mouthpieces for government propaganda, promoting freedom of speech only if it does not turn into political activity. Such captive outlets fail to stimulate intelligent and objective debate, enhance knowledge acquisition, and advance human development among the public at large.”(29) Without the advancement of debate and enhancement of knowledge to which new media can make substantive contributions, prospects for democracy will weaken. For those contributions to be meaningful, all involved in the information process—from the individual blogger to the big media corporation—must retain independence. Government pressure is inevitable but it must be resisted if the democratic process is to gain a foothold.

These issues raise many complex questions that have few precise answers. New media’s role in progressive political change is hard to define with certainty because the path toward democratization remains uncharted. Those who move in that general direction do so with more faith than certainty. They may get there, and their chances of doing so will certainly be affected by the ongoing evolution of new media in Middle Eastern societies.


1. Mohamed Zayani, “Introduction—Al Jazeera and the Vicissitudes of the New Arab Mediascape,” in Mohamed Zayani (ed.), The Al Jazeera Phenomenon (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005), 33.

2. Marc Lynch, “Assessing the Democratizing Power of Satellite TV,” TBS Journal 14, spring 2005.

3. Bernard Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 3, May/June 2005, 46.

4. Steve Coll, “In the Gulf, Dissidence Goes Digital,” Washington Post, March 29, 2005.

5. David Crawford, “Battle for Ears and Minds: As Technology Gives New Voice to Dissent, a Saudi Vies To Be Heard,” Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2004, A 14; John Bradley, Saudi Arabia Exposed (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 193-95.

6. “Mass Media, Press Freedom and Publishing in the Arab World: Arab Intellectuals Speak Out,” United Nations news release re Arab Human Development Report 2003, October 20, 2003.

7. Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Will the Mideast Bloom?” Washington Post, March 13, 2005.

8. Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas, Open Networks, Closed Regimes (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), 150.

9. Charles Kupchan, The End of the American Era (New York: Knopf, 2002), 106.

10. United Nations Development Program, Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society, (New York: United Nations Publications, 2003), 63.

11. www.isu.net.sa. 

12. Susan B. Glasser and Steve Coll, “The Web as Weapon,” Washington Post, August 9, 2005, A 1.

13. Nicholas Watt and Leo Cendrowicz, “Brussels Calls for Media Code to Avoid Aiding Terrorists,”Guardian, September 21, 2005.

14. Madeleine K. Albright and Vin Weber, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2005), 30.

15. Cathy Hong, “New Political Tool: Text Messaging,” USA Today, June 30, 2005.

16. Coll, “In the Gulf, Dissidence Goes Digital.”

17. Arab Human Development Report 2003, 64.

18. Hugh Miles, Al-Jazeera (New York: Grove: 2005), 327, 328.

19. Zayani, “Introduction,” 35.

20. Marc Lynch, “Watching Al Jazeera,” Wilson Quarterly, summer 2005, 44.

21. Miles, Al-Jazeera, 328.

22. Jon Alterman, “The Information Revolution and the Middle East,” in Nora Bensahel and Daniel L. Byman, eds., The Future Security Environment in the Middle East (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2004), 243.

23. United Nations Development Program, Arab Human Development Report 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations Publications, 2005), 22.

24. “A World Through Their Eyes,” The Economist, February 26, 2005, 24.

25. Hassan Fattah, “Voting, Not Violence, Is the Big Story on Arab TV,” New York Times, January 30, 2005.

26. Arab Advisors Group, “48 Percent of Households in Cairo Use the Internet and 46 Percent Have Satellite TV,” news release, January 26, 2005.

27. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 151.

28. Alterman, “The Information Revolution and the Middle East,” 244.

29. Arab Human Development Report 2004, 65.

About Philip Seib

Philip Seib is a professor at the University of Southern California and is the author of Beyond the Front Lines, The Al Jazeera Effect, and many other books.

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