Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the study of militant Islam. He was formerly a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and on the staff of the Israeli Consulate General in Atlanta. He received an M.A. in Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Recent coverage in the Middle East of the war in Iraq revealed some sobering truths about both the state of Arab media and international perceptions of the "Arab Street." In brief, Arab press coverage was monumentally disappointing, as political biases, distortions, and outright fabrications characterized much of it, including the highly touted al-Jazeera television network. These same news outlets also (unwittingly) dispelled important myths concerning Arab society and politics.
Weapons of Mass Deception
Historically, the Arab world has received most of its news from state sponsored agencies that served as the propaganda arms of regimes. Wartime reporting during Arab-Israeli wars was particularly skewed. Purveyors of news would often perpetuate a sense of inevitable victory. When victory failed to materialize, the coverage became silent, muted, or apologetic.
This is precisely what happened, once again, with Iraq. The Qatari-based station Al-Jazeera led the way in completely misleading Middle East audiences using both subtle and flagrant tools of deception to obscure the war. For example, Secretary Powell was a frequent guest of Al-Jazeera discussing the democratic aspirations of post-Saddam reconstruction. However, Powell was often followed by a vitriolic mouthpiece who would undercut the U.S. message by conjuring up exaggerated pictures of war and destruction. Equally unsettling were the Al-Jazeera montages, which would appear every ten to fifteen minutes under the slogan of "War against Iraq," reinforcing the belief that the coalition forces (sometimes called "occupation forces") were waging an all out campaign of violence against civilians instead of Saddam's totalitarian regime. Even news of stunning allied progress was obfuscated to convey an image of brave Iraqis repelling a "foreign invader." Indeed, Al-Jazeera reported that Saddam International Airport was not captured, and that "Iraqi forces" had managed to thwart the "aggressors."
Following the war, some Arab analysts began a period of introspection, seeking to answer a multitude of questions: How did this happen? How were we misled? What can we do to repair these serious credibility problems? Clearly, an answer has yet to emerge.However, the new U.S. government project of a Middle East Television Network that beams accurate information to the Middle East could be one element toward a possible solution. If done right, METV could force other indigenous news agencies to seek out real stories and report in a more objective manner.
For all its faults, the Arab media did manage to accomplish something with positive consequences – deflating the myths of the "invincible jihadist fighter" and a threatening "Arab street." It also further clarified the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel's existence.
The Afghan mujahidin's victory over the Soviet Union in 1989 led many Islamists to conclude that they could defeat any power, including the United States. This sense inspired jihadist volunteers to pour over the border from Pakistan in late 2001 to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan; and again now, to cross from Syria into Iraq. In both cases, many of those who actually reached the battlefield were easily killed or captured. One Defense Department official called them "cannon fodder." Thus, the notion that jihadist fighters were indomitable was seriously challenged.
Erroneous assumptions surrounding the "Arab Street" were also exposed. Prior to the war, regional leaders and analysts warned of massive uprisings on the streets of the Arab world. They warned that young men, angered by U.S. policy, could topple regimes and inflame an already volatile region. True, protests of various sizes did emerge, but nothing on the apocalyptic scale predicted. In fact, the "Western Street" overshadowed the "Arab Street." If tens of thousands protested in Beirut and Damascus, hundreds of thousands filled the streets of Washington, London, and Rome. And where larger numbers of protesters could be found in the Middle East, they were co-opted by the regimes. Indeed, several leaders harnessed genuine political expression to consolidate the control of opposition voices. Cairo experienced the largest demonstration - 500,000 protesters – in an event staged to bolster support for President Mubarak.
By way of background, it's worth noting that the "Arab Street" had little effect on events in the Middle East at other points in recent history. Only in a few rare cases, dating back four or five decades, has the Arab street played a role in regime change. The most consequential demonstrations have been consistently domestic in nature. Some responded to economic mismanagement – such as the bread riots in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan. Others concerned cultural matters; a Morocco demonstration of one million persons was directed against granting women equal rights.
Ironically, the demonstrations against the Iraq war constituted progress for freedom of expression and open dissent. For the first time in ten years, the opposition in Tunisia was allowed to march in protest. Thus the American-led war on Iraq created some additional space for the voicing of protest, taking the Arabic-speaking world a tiny step in the direction of liberalization.
Although the "Arab Street" principal failed to produce meaningful results, Washington would do well to take note of what happened on the Palestinian section of the "Arab Street." Many Palestinians rallied behind Saddam, whom they hoped would launch chemical weapons against Israel, or otherwise attack the country. That they were one of the few Arab communities to actually support Saddam – not just oppose the war – is an indication that the Palestinians have still not accepted the existence of the state of Israel, and may thus not be ready to implement the so-called "road map" for peace.
Summary account by Zachary Constantino, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum