Saad Eddin Ibrahim
everybody. Let me start by expressing my gratitude at being
invited to this event and also for the very strong start that
we had last night, which makes my job easier this morning.
to Prof. Telhami last night telling us about the impact of Arab
satellites--especially Al Jazeera. Today I would like to share
with you some personal experiences in my encounter with Arab
satellites both as a contributor to their programs, as their
victim sometimes, and also hopefully sometimes as their interlocutor.
Let me say
a few words--a background--about why Arab satellites have done
probably for the Arab world more than any organized critical
movement could have done, in opening up the public space, in
giving Arab citizens a newly found opportunity to assert themselves.
A few words
about the background: in the last fifty years, the Arabs--the
average Arab--was the victim of state controlled media that
distorted his consciousness, that misled him, and that created
at the end a general malaise, confusion, and alienation. These
are not just words, these are again not only the result of direct
observation but also the result of the systematic research people
like myself have done in the last thirty years in the Arab world.
It all started
with dramatic events like the 1948 first Arab-Israel war--what
we call the Palestinian nakba, or disaster--and that
as you all know (I don't intend to retell history) but among
other things, the feeling of nakba was a result of the
incipient demagoguery of media that framed the conflict in ways
that made the average Arab expect a quick settlement of the
problem by sending the newly formed seven Arab armies from seven
Arab countries to deal with gangs--Zionist gangs--and everybody
thought that was going to be a picnic and that it was going
to be over in a week, two weeks, a month at the most and the
whole thing would be over!
as you all know, was quite different, and the defeated army
coming home was as frustrated, as shamed, as was the entire
nation. Therefore they had to find a scapegoat. The scapegoat
was the government that sent them to Palestine. Therefore one
coup d'etat after another began, starting with Syria
then Egypt then Iraq and the story goes on.
that did not exist as independent countries, like Libya, when
they had a coup d'etat, Palestine was there in their
first communiqué. Always the first communiqué
issued following an Arab coup d'etat would mention
Palestine as prime mover behind the coup d'etat--all
of whose perpetrators were called revolutionary by the way.
was the start of a certain type of media that distorted Arab
consciousness and created much of the crisis that we are still
living with and trying to get out of.
the crisis? If you belittle your enemy and despite of this belittling
you get defeated, you have to find an explanation and the explanation
was always a conspiracy somewhere. So we lived in the last fifty
years moving from one conspiratorial explanation to another.
The conspiracy is either that foreign powers are conspiring
against us or local domestic agents are helping the enemy. And
much public energy and thinking went into looking for conspirators,
traitors, agents, inside, outside, or somewhere in between,
instead of dealing with the problem head on, looking at the
problem, analyzing it, seeing what it takes, dealing with it
to settle it, to solve it. That is not why the media and the
politicians have conspired to alienate their people and to give
them a false make-believe world full of agents, as if every
morning the world wakes up and says, "What are we going
to do to the Arabs today?" That is always the question:
what are they doing to us today? When you read the media, there
is a remnant of this until today.
Sudan are next after Afghanistan, after Iraq. It is Sudan, then
Syria. So the world has nothing to do but to plot to defeat,
humiliate, and exploit the Arabs.
the perspective you get in much of the media and it all started
from 1948. Then came '67--an even bigger defeat than '48--then
the war in Lebanon, then the First Gulf war and the Second Gulf
war. Well of course, it is always appearance that makes a conspiracy
theory credible. It is always the circumstantial evidence that
makes the role of the media, the state-controlled media, very
this have do with our theme of Arab satellites? What Arab satellites
did was to break and shake this pattern by virtue of giving
you some diverse perspectives, some different interpretations,
by allowing people to be inter-reactive with the media. This
is new to the Arab world and that takes me to one very important
personal note in which I say. I am indebted to Arab satellites.
ordeal, during my incarceration during the Ibn Khaldoun case,
we have two interesting sharp contrasts: at the one end a very
powerful Egyptian state media concentrating on framing one individual
and his associate researcher for the simple reason that they
had called a spade a spade and said that there appears to us--at
Ibn Khaldoun--that there is an attempt to turn republics in
the Arab world into monarchies, starting with Syria via Iraq,
via Egypt, via Libya, via Yemen.
And we gave
our own view of what was happening. That made us enemies, not
of Mubarak's regime, but of Egypt and of the Arab nations and
of Islam. And it caused us to be dubbed as traitors and so on.
It was only
the Arab media, the Arab satellites, that gave me an opportunity
to break out of this. We were able to answer them. I did not
reach every Egyptian home like state-controlled media, but satellite
allowed me to try. That is one thing I owe to Arab satellites.
It is true
also that the Arab satellites took their clue from Western media.
It was CNN that interviewed me first after I got out of jail.
It was Jonathan Mann of Insight and so on that again gave the
Arab media the lead to live up to international standards--the
space, the opportunity to interview me, my family and my colleagues,
to get a different perspective after three years of systematic
character assassination. And it was not just for personal issues,
it was for issues we in Ibn Khaldoun and others like us stood
more we can talk about in the discussion and there is the framing
of important issues. What the case was about was not "hereditary
republics." That was a term I coined. The day that article
appeared in al-Magalla magazine was the day that I was
arrested. Again the interfacing between the print media and
the Arab satellites is very interesting because that issue became
the subject the Arab satellites would take up. It appeared first
in the print media a few years earlier, after the Iraq war,
when again another piece appeared from us, from Ibn Khaldoun,
that argued that if we do not change, then the reform may be
imposed on us from outside. And we gave our perspective. The
Arab world is too important to be left to its dictators, to
its despots, to engage all kinds of adventures and to budge
the world with them, from one crisis to another. If we do not
reform ourselves, the world may have to do it for us. So let
us do it by our own volition and at our own pace instead of
waiting and waiting until the situation gets out of hand and
then outside forces compel us to do it according to their own
the message that appeared in an article in Al-Hayat,
and triggered a series of debates on the Arab satellites. I
was a party to six or seven of them. The debate still goes on,
the change by our own hand from the inside or the outside, and
that debate compelled the regime to take on the agenda of reform--whether
they are sincere about it or not, we can debate--but the agenda
of change and the items of change, the reforming of the constitutions,
the creating of constitutions, having an electoral system, having
competitive elections. No more plebiscites for the president,
no more 99.99 percent majority. All of this became the agenda
for the reform advocates in the Arab world today.
have to give credit to Arab satellite for making these issues
daily issues in the language of discourse. Whether or not it
amounts to the language of change we all want is a different
matter. But at least it is there, at least there is an opportunity
for us. It is Arab satellites that have to take the credit for
that, for making that issue a pressing issue.
I must ask, "What has this done to Arab public life?"
As a pan-Arabist who lived a good deal of my earlier life working
for Arab unity and for Arab liberty and like many people of
my generation, the defeat of '67 was devastating and the dream
of Arab unity gradually faded to the background.
in many ways Arab satellites de facto or by default are
creating the infrastructure for the dream of Arab unity. In
what sense? Around the first half of the 20th century it was
things like al-Hilal, al-Risala, Umm Kalthoum,
Farid Al-Atrash. These were the voices that created Arab consciousness
from Morocco to Bahrain and then came the authoritarian Arab
regimes that created cement borders between Arab countries.
And ideas and books became more lethal to those regimes than
drugs, hashish, and opium and so on. So we went through a natural
spontaneous creation of Arab consciousness through culture though
the first half of the century, let's say from Jibran Khalil
Jibran to Dar Al-Hilal, to Al-Risala, to Arab
art to Egyptian movies and so on.
we begin to get those authoritarian publicist regimes that despite
the slogans really fragmented the Arab land more than ever,
more than the colonialists, and now the Arab satellites are
re-shaping that consciousness on new grounds by creating themes,
discussions, discourse so that people from Al Arabiya in London
to Al Jazeera in Qatar to LBC, to all of these satellites, are
now creating a new consciousness. Creating an agenda where people
may disagree but at least speak the language. They interact
with this media, they react with it. We heard a great deal about
And I am
actually one of those who always is looking for hope in any
small ray here and there. I say that my dream as a young Arab
activist for unity, a student like you studying and living abroad--my
earliest activist role was as an Arabist president of the Student
Union in North America--was all predicated on the dream of Arab
unity. Now I see that happening again. Not because of the Baath
party, not because of the Arab nationalist movement, not because
of the Nasserite movement, but because of Arab satellites and
Arab satellite sponsored by whom? By people at one time we thought
would never have thought of.
do not think that these people who are perpetuating these satellites
or giving them birth are necessarily Pan-Arabists. But as we
say sometimes, in sociological language, "Unintended causes
sometimes result from human action."
Sheikh of Qatar gets into a dispute with Saudi Arabia and that
dispute leads to a rivalry, and when Saudi Arabia's old Orbit
satellite revokes its contract with the BBC, the Qataris rush
to London and say, "Right. We will take the whole team
that was doing Orbit news"--which was created by the BBC
and dubbed into Arabic. They took the whole team to Doha and
gave them one acre of land to create Al Jazeera.
It was a
rivalry between two monarchical regimes that gave rise to Al
Jazeera and the internal consequences of an internal Arab feud
that created space for people from Morocco to Bahrain to enjoy
some margin of freedom to assert themselves, to get some joy
from listening to debates and to lively talk shows, and that
is the kind of seed of empowerment that probably makes the future
for us as Arabs a little better than it was yesterday. Thank
you very much.
Eddin Ibrahim is director of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for
Development Studies, Cairo, and teaches at the American University