Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Politics and the Media in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East Working Group I

Politics and the Media in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East Working Group I

On January 5–6, 2013, CIRS held a working group meeting under the research initiative “Politics and the Media in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East.” Given the profound socio-political transitions within Arab states in the wake of the Arab Spring, participants used a multidisciplinary approach to analyze shifts in the role of the media and how it is articulated in everyday spaces of cultural production within the region.

With the rise of new media and its increasing integration within traditional media, participants discussed how media is positioned in the new political scene. Evolving ruling bargains in the region have been translated into evolving information bargains where distinctions between processes of information production and reception have become increasingly blurred. The notion of the public becoming an active participant in media processes, translates into a society that has increasingly become in a state of self-information. This is evident in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where people have bypassed state operations and sidelined leaders by taking media tools such as Twitter into their own hands in what is indicative of a move from centralization to decentralization of information.

The media landscape in countries that successfully toppled their dictators exhibits elements of both continuity and change, as countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are in the process of re-articulating the position of the state in relation to society. Remnants of authoritarianism continue to impact Egypt where state media institutions are perceived as being “ikhwanized,” while signs of political liberalization are emerging in neighboring Libya, where media practitioners are allowed to more freely criticize political leadership.

In addition to understanding the changing political dynamics of the region, the media landscape gives insight on the current socio-political forces at play. With the rise of Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the secular-Islamist divide has dominated much of the discourse around the region. However, closer analysis of Islamic television in the region provides a more nuanced understanding of the different Islamic movements gaining ascendency. Participants discussed the Da’wa movement (the Islamic outreach movement) as a field of cultural battle that is internally divided and diverse. Islamic channels are not the normative alternative to secular channels as commonly misconceived, rather Islamic television as a social practice addresses moral notions of citizenship by providing competing forms on what it means to be Muslim.

As with most long-scale and prolonged political upheavals, Arab transitional media is offering mobilizing information and is increasingly being used as a platform for voicing opinions. Historically, Arab journalists have viewed themselves as agents of social change; much more than just purveyors of information, they are interpreters of public life.

While discussing whether there is an Arab journalism culture that can be attributed to the region as a whole, the participants advocated for a de-westernization of media studies that assesses the intricate micro-processes evident in Arab journalism, and studies how people negotiate their subjectivity within their broader socio-political constraints.

Participants also discussed the “multi-vocality” present in the media in terms of language, cultural spaces of production, and social actors. Arab graffiti, regarded as a visible form of politics, has exploded in the region, yet remains greatly understudied. Going beyond the content of “visible politics” and understanding the style and aesthetics of graffiti gives greater understanding of the language utilized to resonate with people’s interests, grievances, and needs. Other forms of production, such as musalsalat (serialized television shows), were discussed by working group members as avenues for understanding socio-political phenomena of the revolutions.

Various social movements have also used the media as an instrument of activism. These social movements have a myriad of players that utilize numerous media tools and adapt them to their respective needs. Social media has enabled diasporic communities to organize, mobilize, and contribute decisively to issues playing out in their homelands. Wary of the misconception that social media is all inclusive, participants pointed to the class-based accessibility of the internet and social media sites. Notions of inclusion and exclusion led participants to question what media spaces marginalized communities use to speak and who their audience is.

In the wake of the Arab revolts, Hezbollah has become an increasingly controversial player in the region. Although the popular uprisings did not occur in Lebanon as they did in other Arab countries, the political mosaic of Lebanon reflects the politics of the region, and understanding the media strategies of Hezbollah gives insight into how people interact with the media as sectarian sensibilities in the region are heightened. While Hezbollah is a Shia organization, its affiliated television station, Al-Manar, avoids sectarian rhetoric, portraying itself as pan-Islamist and pan-Arabist and boasts of a wide variety of audiences coming from different sectarian affiliations.

In tackling the political economy of media in the Middle East, working group participants questioned whether state policies are directly reflected in the strategies and content of state-owned or state-sponsored media outlets. The range of actors involved in media production, from directors and producers to journalists in the newsroom, merits a distinction between funders and creators of various media forms. Media cities were also discussed as useful sites of cultural production where structures of power and forms of resistance can be understood. An example of such is the strict control of the Egyptian Media Production City by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, where a supposed beacon of media freedom is dominated by the ruling political party.

Over the last decade, there has been growing localization of news providers in the Arab world as people become increasingly concerned with issues pertaining to their daily lives. In what is dubbed as the “post Al-Jazeera era,” participants discussed what this means for US public diplomacy in the region. The failure of Al-Hurra to operate as an effective foreign policy tool for the US government, begs the question “what media tools and mechanisms will the US government utilize in the face of increasing competition from localized news providers?” As media becomes increasingly dispersed, social actors and governments alike will alter their communication strategies to accommodate the shifting Arab media landscape.

Participants and Discussants:

Marwa Abdel Samei, Cairo UniversityWalter Armbrust, University of OxfordZahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarFatima El Issawi, London School of EconomicsNaila Hamdy, American University in CairoManata Hashemi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarJoe Khalil, Northwestern University in QatarSahar Khamis, University of MarylandMarwan Kraidy, University of PennsylvaniaZahera Harb, City University LondonDina Matar, SOAS, University of LondonNourredine Miladi, Qatar UniversitySuzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarYasmin Moll, New York UniversityDwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarLarbi Sadiki, University of Exeter; Qatar UniversityPhilip Seib, University of Southern CaliforniaNadia Talpur, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMohamed Zayani, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS