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The Best Hope for Democracy in the Arab World: a Crooning TV “Idol”?

It is a perfect summer evening in Damascus; a cool wind sweeps in from the desert, soothing scorched pavements and carrying the smells of strong coffee and cured meat from roadside stalls up into the clotheslines and concrete hulks of the Syrian skyline. Normally the city's streets would be packed with cruising teenagers, strolling newlyweds, and fully robed Gulf tourists well past midnight. It is simply too hot to do anything active during the day, so they wait until after the muezzin's sunset call to prayer and then stream outdoors to walk and talk and play. But tonight the city seems completely deserted. I peer down from my terrace overlooking a major Damascene thoroughfare and the only movement to catch my eye comes from a stream of lights emitted by the large apartment complex across the way. I notice that each window in the twenty-story structure is flickering in unison. Struck by a sudden idea I switch on the TV in my room and turn to Channel 4. I realize immediately the source of the flashing windows and the reason for the city's strange emptiness tonight: Super Star.

Every Sunday and Monday night this past summer, an entire nation of Syrian men and women, young and old, sat huddled around their TV sets to take part in Super Star, the Arab version of American Idol (itself a version of Britain's Pop Idol). The format of the Lebanon-based program is similar to its prototype: aspiring pop stars compete their way through ever-winnowing rounds, this time singing a combination of modern and classical Arab favorites, until a winner stands alone. To decide who moves on, audience members cast their votes through the Internet, an automated telephone service, and cell-phone text-messaging.

In the US, the winners enjoy a spurt of celebrity and then fade from public view. In the Arab world, last year's winner and all three runners-up are still icons, with legions of fans and the kind of publicity normally reserved for national leaders and religious figures. Super Star and its contestants are everywhere--radio, TV, print, billboards. Pirated copies of their music are traded on street corners, glossy headshots hawked alongside lottery tickets and family pictures of the President.

According to the producers of Super Star, 15 million votes were cast over the summer, with 3.2 million received in just the final few days. It is unclear exactly how many individuals participated due to the laxity of the competition's rules on multiple voting, but these figures certainly indicate the involvement of a significant part of the Arab population.

Why has this show become so wildly popular in the Arab world? Why have Arabs of every sect, creed, and social stratum in more than a dozen countries turned to this single program out of a host of satellite channels? The answer lies largely in its participatory nature and appeal to a people long denied freedom of expression and representation in other spheres of life.

It is almost a truism to state that the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa have never known what Westerners would call a liberal democracy. To be sure, over the past century many Arab nations have experimented with democratic reforms, some going so far as to establish constitutions, regular elections, and institutional checks and balances. But in the end the overwhelming tendency has been to assume the rhetoric and rituals of democracy without actually putting it in place. Millions of Arabs in the '60s and '70s placed their hopes in the ideology of Pan-Arabism, betting on its champion, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to deliver on his promise to establish an egalitarian, fully unified Arab republic that could stand up to the West and reassert the rightful dignity of the Arab people. In reality, Nasser's regime was thoroughly autocratic from the beginning, built around the strength of his own personality and a fragile web of alliances with other regional autocrats.

Into this environment of limited freedom and marginalized identity comes an independently produced TV program that both celebrates personal achievement in an authentically Arab musical tradition, and puts Arab audiences at the center of the decision-making process. Young men and women representing different Arab nations test their vocal skills against each other on a public stage, while audiences from these nations, no longer passive spectators, share their own voices to determine the outcome. Super Star encourages, and in fact depends on, the active involvement of ordinary Arabs in a "democratic" endeavor with real-time, mutually beneficial results. If the Arab people cannot choose their political representatives free from coercion, at least they can select a cultural representative to champion their musical tastes.

"It's great to see young Arabs with normal jobs and normal problems on stage every night, and then to be able to help them rise through the competition and stand out as the best," says Georges Hafez, 17, part-time manager at a family-owned Internet café in Damascus. "I voted twice for Ayman al-Attar, the Libyan. Did you know he was studying to be a dentist? That's so cool." 

Beyond the allure of participating in a cultural phenomenon and helping to steer its course, Super Star cultivates a rousing inter-Arab rivalry by including each contestant's national affiliation as part of his identity on the show. A few weeks ago, "Hadi from Syria" was eliminated, boosting "Ayman from Libya" and "Ammar from Palestine" into the final round. 

According to the English-language Al-Bawaba.com, when Ammar was asked why his tone was so sorrowful, he answered, "I can't separate myself from the situation of my people." 

Rahaf Tahseen, a second year accounting student at the University of Damascus, expressed her feelings for the Syrian singer: "He is the pride of the country. Everybody voted for him. When he sings it feels like he's singing for all of us, his voice is so pure and strong." 

No doubt part of the appeal of voting in Super Star is the chance to side with your countrymen and snub the audiences of rival Arab countries. Along with the usual squealing teenybopper crowd clutching homemade glitter-and-paste banners and fainting on cue, the studio is normally filled with enraptured fans of all ages waving a sea of flags in solidarity with their compatriots onstage. At the climactic moment when Ayman from Libya and Ammar from Palestine stood together for the last time to hear the results of the final vote, a stagehand brought to each singer their nation's colors. Interestingly, Ayman and Ammar then exchanged flags and draped them around their bodies to await the announcement. A Libyan and Palestinian stood side by side in recognition of each other's talents, acknowledging at once both the distinctions inherent in their national backgrounds and the power of artistic expression to transcend these barriers in the spirit of true camaraderie. Yet, when Ayman was declared the winner, a member of Ammar's entourage walked to the end of the stage and unfurled his flag directly in front of the camera, so that millions of viewers saw nothing but the green, black, white and red of Palestine for a few moments. 

It is perhaps this aspect of Super Star more than anything else that distinguishes the program from other cultural phenomena to have taken hold in the modern Middle East. Super Star does not pretend to promote, and in fact goes out of its way to reject, the kind of Pan-Arabism that blends all Arab individuals and nations into an undifferentiated mob of identical interests and backgrounds. In some ways the Pan-Arab ideology of Nasser and like-minded political and religious leaders was doomed from the outset because it sought to impose an untenable, over-simplified commonality upon the Arab peoples in denial of their myriad social, cultural, and spiritual distinctions. Super Star bucks this trend by celebrating individual achievements and the different socio-cultural experiences that fostered them within a common linguistic group. In the end, the only thing shared by all the contestants and all the audiences is the admiration for Arabic music--a commonality that does not require the subjugation of individual wills to some lofty cause. 

Unfortunately, it turns out that Super Star's equal playing field may not have been quite so equal after all. Al-Bawaba.com reported accusations from "high-level" Palestinian authorities that Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi staged "a costly nationwide publicity campaign" in favor of the Libyan contestant and even provided free phone calls for citizens who wished to vote. The biggest Palestinian cell-phone company, for its part, openly admits having given similar discounts to its subscribers, but says it did so only to counter the unfair intervention of Gaddafi. 

Though skeptics might justifiably point to this backbiting as evidence that the Arab world is simply not ready to cast aside old tendencies, the redeeming fact is that huge numbers of ordinary Arab men and women chose to participate in this "liberal" process in the first place. And for the most part their participation resulted in the nomination of superb musical talents whose qualifications were merit-based and representative of common interests. Besides, as anyone on the Gore 2000 campaign could tell you, sometimes even the best-intentioned democratic processes can be marred by allegations of fraud.

Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, mobile phones, and satellite television stations operating beyond the sphere of government control, Arabs from every nation can watch a single Lebanese television show and take responsibility for its outcome. The contestants and the audiences both have an integral part to play in the direction of the competition, and each represents to varying degrees their own national and personal interests. In effect, Super Star provides the only common platform for popular participation in the Arab world--the only accessible, properly "democratic" institution in a region dominated by authoritarian elites.

At a time when so much energy and attention is being focused on exporting democratic values through nation-building and strong-arm diplomacy, who would have thought that the best hope for Arab democracy lay in American pop culture and a crooning TV "Idol"?

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