Arab Spring Media Monitor Report: One Year of Coverage

Under-reported Tunisia

Summarized by Maya Babla

Since December 2010, the symbolism of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation has been oft-cited as the signal of the start of turbulence, revolution, and a new Middle East. Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, received a posthumous Sakharov Prize for Freedom Thought, not only for the effect of his martyrdom in Tunisia, but for the domino effect it had on the region. English-language media coverage of the Arab Spring, however, did neglect Tunisia in many ways, typically mentioning it as the spark, but rarely focusing on the small North African state itself.

Instead, Tunisia was quickly lumped together with Egypt, and perhaps overpowered by the media appeal of Tahrir Square, which persisted for so many weeks. The stories specifically focused on Tunisia that did appear were those that connected Tunisia to the European Union in some way, as European powers sought to fill the paucity of official leadership with their own. The New York Times reported on February 24, 2011 that President Sarkozy was “scrambling to signal to the world that France is back on track…treading with a sure foot in the changed Middle East”, while the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague launched a “reform tour” including a visit to Tunisia, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton referred to North Africa as “our neighborhood,” suggesting Europe’s claim on the region. Meanwhile, the United States was seemingly absent from the public discussion about Tunisia, besides offering its official stamp of approval on January 9. When outgoing Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale visited Tunisia in April, the tour received little media attention.

The significance of the ousting of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was that it transformed the will of the people into a tangible reality, indicating that big changes would follow throughout the region. With Tunisia an example, authoritarian leaders from all over the world began questioning if they were next, from Yemen to South Africa to Azerbaijan.

The other aspect of the Tunisia story that made headlines was the question of immigration, noting the optimism of Tunisian diaspora communities in Italy and Spain. Other media mentions of Tunisia focused on Tunisians that made the journey by boat to Europe and was referred to as an immigration “crisis” in the press – as European officials struggled to enforce migration policies in cooperation with their Tunisian counterparts. However, media coverage of Tunisians fleeing their country for Italy can best be characterized as sympathetic, as suggested by the March 23, 2011 headline, “Now Feeling Free, but Still Without Work, Tunisians Look Toward Europe.”

Ever Changing Egypt

Summarized by Rachel Chan

In January 2011, when the Arab world’s most populous Muslim country erupted in mass demonstrations in retaliation to the heavy-handed rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak and his police state, the world turned its focus to the role of social media like Twitter and Facebook and the Qatari satellite network Al Jazeera. Not only did these communication technologies bear witness to the unfolding of events in real-time, with up-to-the-minute groundbreaking coverage of the revolution, they also played a role in rallying protestors while acting as a mouthpiece of the crowds in Cairo. Following 18 days of anti-government street protests, Mubarak relinquished power to the military on February 11, 2011.

Emerging from media coverage of the Egyptian revolution was a demystification of this region for much of the world, painting a very different picture to that shown on state-owned media which broadcast deceptive scenes of order and happy Egyptians set to the tune of the national anthem. Al Jazeera provided 24-hour Arabic and English coverage of the Arab Spring protests, broadcast on satellite television and streamed live on its website, with its Twitter feed regularly updated. Network journalists in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria stayed on the ground with ordinary Egyptians, documenting footage of demonstrators as they resisted authorities. For Al Jazeera, this is what its former head Wadah Khanfar dubbed “journalism of depth,” in which the media “regards the collective conscience of the masses to be its point of departure” and “seeks to give the masses a voice and a platform”.

On the part of social media, the depth of engagement that it offers “provides a complex and deep infrastructure perfect for the activist processes of social transformation” writes Simon Mainwaring, that are “accessible to everyone, available 24/7, infinitely scalable, real time and free”. Rather than actually starting the revolution, Mainwaring emphasizes that social media is neutral but is used to “tell the story of the future” and echo the “wants and needs of more people”. In reality, the revolution broke out in response to widespread unhappiness with corruption, unemployment and economic woes, but these factors often get overlooked by the prominent role given to social media.

At the same time, the Egyptian crisis has put U.S. public diplomacy in the spotlight, given the tenuous relationship between the two countries. Calling to mind President Obama’s grand speech in Cairo in 2009, U.S. public diplomacy in Egypt has, for all its intentions, failed to produce a lasting and meaningful impact on its target audience. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review by the U.S. Department of State underscored the importance of undertaking initiatives that truly make a positive impact in the lives of Egyptians in order to win friends rather than simply extolling the virtues of the United States. As Philip Seib argues, U.S. public diplomacy in Egypt must eschew “self-serving propaganda” and “put greater emphasis on service to the individuals around the world whom America wants to court”. 

This January, Egypt commemorated the first anniversary of the uprising and the country continues to struggle with the unpredictability that necessarily follows after any revolution.  The Egyptian military still remains in charge, as “the sole institution that remained cohesive after the revolution”. What has changed, however, is a sense of conviction among citizens of the power of people and the media in effecting transformative change.

International Intervention in Libya

Summarized by Molly Krasnodebska

Events in Libya featured prominently in international media in early February 2011, as the protest movements began to gain momentum. After the breakout of a large-scale revolt on February 22 and the Gadhafi regime’s violent attempts to suppress it, a robust discussion about international response, including a possible UN resolution condemning the Libyan government’s actions, arose.

Many governments, especially Western nations, recognized the events as an opportunity not only for Libya, but also for themselves. Supporting the democratization efforts in North Africa could help nations to foster their own soft power appeal in the eyes of the international community. The European Union and some of its member states in particular, viewed the crisis as a chance to test their role as global players. “If we can succeed in bringing more democracy and more stability to North Africa and to the wider Middle East, then that will be the greatest achievement of the European Union since the enlargement of the EU,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

France became the first Western nation to recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council, established by anti-Gadhafi forces. As The New York Times reported, “France’s aggressive diplomatic stance is seen as a way of showing commitment to the popular uprisings and democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa.”

As Gulf News remarked, these efforts were not unrelated to a certain degree of embarrassment among Western leaders for the “West’s disgraceful handling of Libya” in the past, illustrated by close economic and diplomatic relations of countries like the U.S., Britain, France, or Germany with the Gadhafi regime.

As some commentators remarked, the United States remained more restrained in the Libyan intervention than expected. Although initially leading the military campaign, President Obama was quick to announce that the U.S. role in Libya would be limited, and declared that America “would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners.” The Obama Administration was careful to present the war as an international effort, rather than a U.S.-led intervention, wrote Michael D. Shear in The Caucus.

The allied operation in Libya also brought the U.S. African Command into the spotlight.  The fairly new command mainly focused on smart power and public diplomacy, working closely with the State Department. Now, it had to face its first military operation, “setting aside public diplomacy talks and other civilian-military duties to led the initial phase of a complex, multinational shooting war with Libya.”

Nonetheless, soft power and public diplomacy were not abandoned when the decision on a no-fly zone and international intervention fell through. On the contrary – international public diplomacy efforts began to focus more strongly on supporting the rebels and the weakening of Gadhafi’s power. The use of new technology as a means of defeating the regime became a widely discussed theme. As the BBC reported, Internet traffic in Libya had “dropped to almost nothing in early March when Colonel Gadhafi’s government pulled the plug in an attempt to suppress dissent”. 

The U.S. efforts to connect Libyan citizens to the Internet by providing cell phone access, exemplifies the use of technology to empower the people “so that they can acquire and disseminate accurate information, freedom of speech, ability to organize,” noted Matt Armstrong.

The success or failure of the intervention was recognized as crucial, not only for Libya, but for the entire region. “If Western and Arab governments actually manage to work together to help bring some measure of peace and freedom to Libya, might it create a powerful and positive new model for the Middle East?”, wrote Tom Madigan in the National Journal.

Efforts to secure peace and democracy in Libya after the defeat of Gadhafi’s forces were launched as early as March. At a London meeting on March 29 hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron a broad “contact group” was developed comprising representatives from 15 nations including the Arab League, United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the United States and Islamic authorities. The group demonstrated “the soft power side of the international operation” and sought to “provide a focal point […] for contact with the Libyan parties”.

The use of soft power continued after the end of military intervention. In September 2011, the first international aid conference was scheduled in Qatar. This was not surprising, since Qatar was one of the most involved countries in financially supporting the rebels. “Not least, Qatar provided invaluable moral support with its exhaustive coverage of the rebels on the Al Jazeera TV network, the emir’s powerful public diplomacy wing.”

Bahrain and New Media

Summarized by Rachel Chan

One of the underreported cases of the Arab Spring, Bahrain erupted in protests in February 2011. The uprising that unfolded was inspired by Tunisia and Egypt and spread through social media, transforming the landscape of a nation where freedom of expression had been reined in by the repressive police force and heavy penalties.

Bahrain carries strategic importance because it shares a special relationship with the West – specifically, it is the Persian Gulf Base for the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Its leader, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is also regarded as a key ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, especially in the war against terror and the curbing of Iranian influence. Yet, the protests have received scant attention by foreign media – only because the international press were unable to extend or secure visas from the monarchy. The result has been near monopoly for BTV, the country’s state-run media. Like Egypt, it has broadcast scenes of deception to hide the truth of what actually happened in Pearl Square, Bahrain’s symbolic center that has now been demolished. While protestors urged mainly for economic provisions and a constitutional monarchy, BTV has focused on the deep-seated tensions between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims as the driving force of the protests. Leigh writes that this has served as “a symbol of the Sunni regime’s ongoing propaganda campaign against Shi’ites, the 70 percent majority they claim are responsible for the entirety of the political and economic unrest that has swept this country since…the early hours of February 14”.

There are implications too for Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatar monarchy, and for all of the network’s strength in covering the Egyptian revolution, it has remained largely silent on Qatar’s northern neighbor Bahrain. A reason for its reticence stems from its royal patronage by the emir of Qatar which has brought about the need to avoid inflaming tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the latter having a vested interest in Bahrain. By staying “conspicuously silent on the repression”, it has allowed the free and unchallenged run of state propaganda over the airwaves of Bahrain. The sensitive bilateral relations imply that Al Jazeera’s effects in broadcasting the revolution across the Middle East may be limited and temporary if state pressures gain the upper hand, arm-twisting the network to gloss over sensitive issues in order to protect Qatar from its larger and more powerful neighbors.

The U.S. response to Bahrain has likewise been muted. In voicing support for pro-democracy movements in countries like Syria and Libya, Obama has been criticized for changing his tone when it came to Bahrain at his address to the United Nations in September 2011. Fisher aptly sums this up, writing that “his words sounded more like those of so many U.S. presidential foreign policy addresses of before the Arab Spring: we support our ally, call on him to lead reform, but would rather not discuss his autocratic rule or use of violence against protesters”. Fisher argues further that this speech was defined by “more muted choice of adjectives, oblique non-reference to the brutal crackdown and entrenching autocracy, even his use of passive voice all echo the older style of U.S. rhetoric on reform in the Middle East”. Attempts to explain this have run the gamut from Obama preferring a “behind the scenes” negotiated settlement to the U.S. never really changing its policy of backing pro-American dictators to Bahrain’s relative insignificance in the grand scale of international relations. As Fisher postulates, “the “soft power” dividends of pushing Bahrain to reform, the U.S. may have decided, just aren’t there”.

Throughout all this, however, what emerges is that the United States is not keen to damage its close ties with Bahrain. Together with the dearth of coverage on the uprisings by foreign media, the voices of activists and ordinary citizens are very much going unheard. 

Instability in Syria

Summarized by Alex Laverty

Discussion of unrest in the Arab world focused on speculations about Syria as early as January 2011. An interview that The Wall Street Journal conducted with President Bashar al-Assad, gives an informative look at the state of mind of the Syrian government in the midst of the Arab Spring. The speed at which the media turned its attention to Syria shows that even in the early days of the Arab Spring, there were reports of the Twitter and Facebook campaigns that were calling for a ‘day of rage’ based on the demonstrations on January 25 in Egypt, despite the fact that Facebook was temporarily blocked in the country.

The first story in PDiN that covered Syria in the regional context appeared in The Christian Science Monitor which referenced the ‘winds of change’ terminology that former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan first used in his 1960 speech to the South African Parliament. This reference equated the independence and liberation movements of Sub-Saharan Africa to the unrest caused by the Arab Spring in 2011. In a surprise move, the Syrian government lifted the ban on Facebook and other Internet sites, with some commentators speculating that the lifting of restrictions was an attempt to not be seen in the same light as other repressive regimes in the region, despite its reputation as one of the most politically restrictive. American public diplomacy was served with a challenge when Assad made a speech that was anticipated to contain references to reform, but instead put security and stability as the primary needs of the country. This gave the impression that forceful crackdowns on reformers were in the pipeline.

Three public diplomacy themes emerged from the crisis in Syria, each providing insight into the challenges and tools of 21st century statecraft. The first theme highlighted the growing influence of the Syrian crisis, as well as the consequences the events on the ground had on engagement with the Assad regime. Second, there was an increasing spotlight on Turkey’s response to the pro-democracy protestors. While Turkey had been engaged with many of the Arab Spring uprisings, the proximity of Syria added a different dynamic to Turkey’s soft power approach to mediation. Finally, the use of social media by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was the third theme. His engagement came as a response to the critics of the U.S. administration who began to draw contrasts between its military response to Libya and the lack of a clear U.S. message in regard to protests in Syria.

Consequences of the Syrian uprising and the government’s brutal crackdown have included the canceling of culture exchanges in the form of film festivals, the rescinding of an invitation to the royal wedding, and serious ramifications for Iran’s soft power in the region. Iran tried to protect their Syrian allies by contrasting the uprising in Syria with those protests in countries where previous rulers had been “stooges of the USA”. Syria also brought up the policy debate over sanctions with some policymakers calling for ‘smart sanctions’ as a tool of foreign policy, while others suggested that the history of sanctions juxtaposed with intervention showed that sanctions were not necessarily the most effective tool.

Turkey’s engagement with Syria became a matter of national interest when refugees from the violence stricken nation began to pour into Turkey. The stability of Syria thus became a pressing issue for Turkish leaders in a way that other Arab Spring uprisings had not. The need for Turkey to seize the opportunity to increase its soft power while traditional hegemon Egypt was rebuilding was also noted as a reason for Ankara to take action.

While U.S. public diplomacy engagement with Syria had been underway before the outbreak of major violence in the form of a cross-cultural youth collaboration on a comic book superhero, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to voice her concerns beginning mid-2011. She said that the meeting of opposition figures in June was an insufficient response to the demands of the demonstrators. However, the U.S. administration did not call for the departure of Assad, and this brought criticisms of the use of American ‘smart power’. The lack of functioning public diplomacy programs in the region meant that Clinton and Obama had to be the primary vehicles of U.S. public diplomacy. The fact that the administration was seen to be adapting its stance based on changing situations on the ground rather than sticking to their democratic ideals was viewed as a disappointing failure to communicate a consistent message from the United States.

Eventually, the American engagement with the Syrian people came through the medium of choice for 21st century youths of the world: social networks. The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford was originally a controversial recess appointment but his actions soon brought acclaim from Congressional leadership for his role. His use of social media did not endear Ford to Syrian officials, nor did his personal visits to opposition members outside of Damascus. Ford’s criticism of the Assad government mounted as reports of abuses rose. Ford’s public diplomacy work came to an end when credible threats to his safety were made that caused his departure from the country in late October 2011, just as the U.S. embassy staff had posted links on Facebook to stories that implied the Syrian government was violating human rights against anti-government protestors. Much like the other countries touched by the Arab Spring, Syria’s future remains uncertain, but it is clear that the region will never be quite the same again.

Click here to view CPD's PD News coverage of the Arab Spring

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