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The Political Impact of Arab Satellite Television On Post-Iraq War Arab World

The decade just passed, which will be remembered by many as the decade of America's invasion of the Arab world, may also be remembered as the decade which saw the beginning of the collapse of the Arab political order.

Two key factors contributing to the deconstruction of this political order are informational and psychological. For the collapse will not only be the result of the invasion itself, but also the result of the way in which it was presented and interpreted by the Arab satellite channels and understood by the Arab people. In the process of presenting and explaining the events of the recent years of destruction and humiliation in Iraq and Palestine, these channels had a profound impact on the Arab people's thinking and attitude. Nothing in the modern history of the Arabs, including the revolutionary ideologies of the sixties and seventies, parallels the power of the Arab satellite networks in altering consciousness and attitude on a mass scale.

Of the 30 or so channels, four stand out as particularly effective and influential: Al Jazira, Al Manar, Abu Dhabi, and LBC. These channels are watched by probably 70 to 80 percent of viewers in the Arab world. Two, Al Manar and LBC, are privately owned; Al Jazira and Abu Dhabi are government supported; all four appear to enjoy broad editorial freedom and political independence. They all operate 24 hours a day and feature an hourly news report and analysis.

Up until the end of the first Gulf war (1991), news coverage in the Arab world was provided by foreign media (e.g. CNN) and mostly in a foreign language. Now news and news analyses are presented in Arabic by Arab reporters and analysts. As a result, reality for the Arab viewer (for example what's happening in Palestine and Iraq) has drastically changed. It is no longer an alien, disjointed reality presented from a foreign perspective and slanted by hidden interests, it is a reality presented through Arab eyes. For the first time, Arab viewers could experience the Palestinian people's ordeal not as a distant, abstract event but as a live, daily reality in which they feel directly involved. Palestinian spokesmen now appear regularly on satellite channels and freely express their views and tell their own story to their Arab brethren and the world.

Beside the news reports, other programs feature panel discussions, political commentaries, women's programs, special investigative reports etc. These focus on issues, ideas and problems that were hardly ever aired in public by the Arab media: old taboos have been broken. For example, Arab journalists now criticize state policies, attack corruption in government and call for political and social change. Freedom of speech, at least in this indirect form, is now a real experience for many.

Among the most popular regular programs are panel discussions which range from sedate academic discussion on topics dealing with history, economics or literature, to political debate with audience participation and even confrontational encounters on sensitive and controversial issues. In most of these programs viewers are actively encouraged to call in with their views and comments, which are often relentlessly scathing. Interestingly, most callers, judging by their dialect and use of classical Arabic, come from the lower middle and working classes.

Also popular are the interview programs featuring individuals of varying specialties and backgrounds, including government officials, foreign correspondents, intellectuals, labor and women's activists, and so on. Their analyses and views are presented in a clear and almost colloquial Arabic rarely used before. One of the most striking recent development has been the growing interest in discussion programs dealing with women's issues. Panel discussions by and about women have proliferated, with both Islamist and secularist women participating. Equally noteworthy is the role of women in the new TV organizations, where many serve as anchors, announcers, interviewers, panel moderators as well as special correspondents. How is one to assess the effect of all this on political attitudes and potential future behavior in the Arab world today?

Clearly, no conclusive evaluation can be made at this point. However, one can perhaps point to certain observable tendencies. 
1.) On the level of awareness, where a new political knowledge or perspective has been acquired, a "raising" of political consciousness among large segments of the population has definitely taken place. 
2.) On the level of attitude, a corresponding capacity has been gained for making judgements, and for taking definite political stands.
3.) On the level of potential political practice, commitment and action have become possible on a mass scale never known before.

In an era of American hegemony, little meaningful social change can be expected in the region as a whole. There will be no easy way out from the patriarchal and neo-patriarchal systems that have dominated Arab political life over the last half-century. Under American imperial sway what will be cultivated are not the democratic forces of civil society but the authoritarian power of "friendly" patriarchal regimes. Already most of these regimes have accommodated themselves to the will of the "single superpower". In all Arab countries, the only refuge for the mass of the population is not the vague and false promises of democracy, equality and human rights, but traditional Islam. For the foreseeable future, Islam, in its varied forms from moderate or non-violent movements to ones advocating Jihad and martyrdom, will provide the social and political structures through which the Arab people will struggle for freedom and independence.

From this perspective, the prospects for the immediate future look pretty discouraging to most activists and reformers who dream of secular democracy and radical reform. Barring a sudden collapse of the American occupation regime (which some see as not wholly unlikely) the general trend will continue favor further authoritarianism, mass poverty, hopelessness and spiraling violence. Although resistance to American occupation in Iraq will inevitably occur and revolutionary explosions against the patriarchal status quo will sooner or later break out, the situation in the Arab world in the immediate future will continue to deteriorate until something gives in one or all of the three largest, richest and most powerful Arab states: Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq; something that would restore their inner unity, independence and sovereignty and change the balance of power in the region.

About Hisham Sharabi

Hisham Sharabi is professor emeritus at Georgetown University and chairman of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center. He spends his time between Washington, DC and the Middle East and may be contacted at Hsharabi@cyberia.net.lb. A summary of this article first appeared in the Palestine Center's "For the Record" No 168, June 24, 2003.

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