The course of the past semester has been an incredible time to be studying the Middle East, and in particular the influence of media on the region. The Arab Spring brought a major focus to the boom of new media in the region, and the Arab world has changed in major ways in large part as a result of the growing culture of Arab media. Growth in the social media world since the overthrow of the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the civil war in Syria has forever changed the culture of revolutionary spirit worldwide, and will likely continue to have a major influence. Similarly, the effects of growing internet access in the region and access worldwide to Arab news sources such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have helped the outside world gain a new window into the perspectives of Arabs, as well as a greater understanding of the region than can be provided by longer-standing news sources with preexisting biases.
This class has helped me gain a much more in-depth understanding of Arab media and its effects on politics, and vice versa. The use of this blog to post content that may have been overlooked and discuss its significance has been a great opportunity, and has helped enrich the experience of the class. Reading classmates’ blogs has proven enlightening, and also provided a perspective of what others see as significant in the region, helping bring my attention to different perspectives and ways of looking at events and trends that I likely wouldn’t have noticed before. The truth is that as civil society reshapes itself in the Arab world, it seems the tail will wag the dog for a while, despite the government’s best efforts to crack down on media outlets that prove contrary to its interests (Egypt, anyone?).
Generally speaking, the focus among blogs has definitely covered a wide range of topics, though obviously the Syrian civil war has been a major point. However, the range of issues discussed has really been interesting and never became boring. The media brought in proved at times funny, sad, and truly shocking, and humanizes what could otherwise have seemed dry analysis. The resources that we pulled from showed a truly diverse offering of authors, perspectives, and subjects, and kept things from becoming too stagnant. One challenge at times was keeping an analysis of a blog from being colored by the opinion of the original author, but working to overcome this proved effective and helped strengthen analysis. On the whole, the class itself was definitely memorable and if I had to do it again, I would.
Amy Aisen Kallander makes bold claims that blogging played less of a role than perceived by the West in the Tunisian revolution in her article “From TUNeZINE to Nhar 3la 3mmar: A Reconsideration of the Role of Bloggers in Tunisia’s Revolution.” Kallander asserts by her conclusion that Westerners have blown up the concept of the use of social media as the tool of the oppressed while ignoring the reality that the majority of the mobilized population were so moved by other forms of media.
The truth is that as much as the West may think they know about the Arab Spring, without having experienced a similar revolution under similar circumstances Westerners have little actual understanding of how things happened. There is only so much that the news can explain – other factors are always at play. The establishment of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, for example, might have been predictable, but the real question of why is the most important. Cultural factors that emerge in dinner-table conversations are as common in the Arab world as the West, and these as much as anything else led to the revolutions that toppled long-standing governments. Social media such as blogging played a role, without a doubt, but to claim they are the sole impetus for creating social change in a region is naive. One must take full consideration of a region to understand why something happens, not just that it did.
Jadaliyya continues its series on Arab writers and bloggers with and interview of author Esam Al-Amin, author of “The Arab Awakening Unveiled.” Al-Amin’s book is an analysis of the Arab spring and the effects of history in its beginning, as well as the potential effects in the short and long term. Al-Amin intends the book to be directed at both the well-informed and not, to educate anyone with a curiosity about becoming more informed on the region.
Al-Amin’s book and its content are not the primary point of significance here, as there are many such titles and authors out there since the Arab Spring. However, the fact that in the face of all the talk of new media, a book still generates attention, is significant. Many have said that print media is dying a slow death – that newspapers will become completely digital, that with the close of chains such as Borders there is little demand for physical books since the inception of the tablet/ereader, yet the continuing release of such works seems to indicate the opposite. Authors are not writing exclusively for the digital audience, and seem to recognize that claims of societal degradation from the shorthand of twitter and texting are alarmist at worst. The written word is not going anywhere, and there will continue to be a wealth of literature available to those who choose to take advantage of it. Print media, and even digital forms of the written word, will not go anywhere, and the fact is that the Arab world, with its long history of high importance placed on this medium, will likely be a source of such for a long time to come.
Nour Youssef has posted a blog on The Arabist entitled “A Day at the Gun Market,” which discusses her experience with the illegal arms trade taking form in Cairo since the revolution. The video below was included in the blog, and shows the discussion between an arms dealer and a gun runner about the way business works today with the use of social media.
Gun running is a dangerous enough concept to begin with, as the black market is inherently risky, but the fact that much of Egypt is now being armed because of a lack of police efficiency could make the situation more volatile. While the same can be said for other countries around the world, including the United States, the difference in those states is that the police are willing and able to take action against crime, whereas the it would appear the police in Cairo are unable to monitor the city efficiently. However, the concept of everyone being armed as a security measure cannot be discounted – Reba, Nour’s taxi driver who brought her to the gun market, speaks to this point with the statement that “the point is everyone here is armed (or in the process of getting armed), if someone is provoked enough to shoot; everyone will start shooting.” The idea of mutually assured destruction worked on the large scale during the Cold War, apparently it can work on the small scale today as well.
Bassem Sabry, a blogger and writer in the Arab world, was interviewed by Jadaliyya during part of a series on local voices from the Arab population. His comments on the changing role of social media, in particular since the Arab Spring, showcase his opinions on the subject, and seem to in some ways reflect the opinions of the region as a whole. Sabry brings to the table, in his interview, his interpretation that much of the Arab world has adopted social media since the 2011 revolutions, and its role is still changing from one of organization and occasional political comment to a widespread source of discourse.
In truth, this can only be considered a good thing. The efforts of dictatorial governments to lock down such basic concepts as free speech and discourse are based in fear – fear that the spread of information and dissent among the populace will topple the regime. These fears are clearly well founded, as demonstrated in 2011. However, from the perspective of a citizen in a state where these freedoms have been enjoyed much longer than our lifetime, there is no threat to the government. Those who dissent do so within the system, and it is because of this that the system continues to function. This concept offers hope to those in the Middle East, who are just now beginning to understand the potential they have to shape the state of things to come. The short term potential of social media to allow the flow of discourse is a major reevaluation by the populations of respective nations to have an impact on their operation. Long term, this has potential to create a discourse community similar to that of the United States and Europe, and possibly allow a new sense of peace to enter the region.
Yomna Elsayed’s article “Revolutionary Media on a Budget: Facebook-only Social Journalism” brings to light the complex world of amateur journalism that has been fueled by the Arab Spring revolutions. Her assessment of its potential for growth is interesting and brings to light major factors in the media world, including the influence of major news outlets in comparison to these new homegrown sources. The growth of this burgeoning industry can be directly linked to the use of facebook as a major organizational tool during the Arab Spring itself. Since then, citizens seem to have taken it upon themselves to act as the voice of the populace at large, the most extreme case being the rebels in Syria, who post videos regularly of conditions in the country to counter the information being disseminated by the government. The significance of this is interesting. Growth of homegrown news leads to questions of veracity in reports, as well as professionalism and the influence of personal biases on reporting. That said, the prevalence of homegrown media has already been seen in Egypt, along with the potential for exposure of government policy indirectly. The outcry over the reporting by major news agencies over the arrest of Bassem Youssef came about because of Mr. Youssef’s popularity stemming from development and broadcast of youtube videos prior to the creation of his own program. The direct influence of one citizen on popular culture and regional media is staggering and speaks to the potential for growth of homegrown media throughout the Middle East.
The latest podcast on the Arabist discusses various elements of Middle Eastern art, culture, and censorship. The use of social media such as a podcast is a perfect example of adoption of new technology in much the same spirit as those who made ample use of facebook, twitter, texting, and other forms of new media, though its purpose is much different. However, the interesting thing is that the primary developer of the podcast is based in Egypt, a country in the midst of several issues involving free speech. However, he seems to have avoided the wrath of the Brotherhood government by not discussing government in Egypt.
Link to podcast – http://arabist.s3.amazonaws.com/arabistpodcast42.mp3
The fact is that the use of new technology such as this is a major step in the right direction for Arabs. Embracing such new media offers new opportunities for the spread of Arab culture among the rest of the world. Arab culture is sadly misunderstood and the opportunity to correct the misconceptions perpetuated by Hollywood, media, and preconceptions is phenomenal.