Reporting the Middle East: Please Go Back to the Streets
Irrespective of how one feels about the direction taken by various Arab revolutions in the last three years, a few facts remain incontestable. Arab revolts began in the streets of poor, despairing Arab cities, and Arabs had every right to rebel considering the dismal state of affairs in which they live. Few disagree with these two notions. However, the quarrel, in part, is concerned with the cost-benefit analysis of some of these revolutions, Syria being the prime example. Is it worth destroying a country, several times over and victimizing millions to achieve an uncertain democratic future?
The cost for Egypt was high as well, although not as high in comparison to Syria. The conundrum that Egyptians have been forced to contend with is that of ‘stability’ – based on the same old paradigm of powerful elites and a majority fighting for crumbs to survive on – vs. ‘instability’ within a relatively democratic system.
Although one must insist on appreciating the uniqueness of every collective Arab experience, one can hardly deny the parallels that began to emerge over the course of months and years. Part of the similarity between the various Arab experiences is inherit in the common historical, religious, cultural and linguistic rapports that continue to unite millions of Arabs, even if at an emotional level. The other part is concerned with the comparable strategies applied by Arab governments to control their peoples – the psychological manipulation, the fear mongering, the intense degrees of violence and oppression, the readiness to go to any length to ensure total control, and so on.
The last three years offer more such examples than what earlier decades have as a whole. The so-called Arab Spring has morphed into a model of state violence unequalled in modern Arab history.
While for journalists and reporters, the story is perplexing and too involved to explain with any degree of intellectual integrity, future historians are likely to have less difficulty deciphering the seemingly befuddling events. Some of us wrote with a measure of clarity from the revolutions’ very early days, warning of the possibility of mixing up the complex narratives from Tunisia and Morocco to Yemen and Bahrain. We contended that if the ‘Arab Spring’ were to be a triumph of any kind, it would mean that it brought back the ‘people’ factor to the Middle East’s political equation, which has been continually dominated by two competing, and at times harmonious parties: the local, ruling elites and regional and international foreign powers.
True, the ‘people’ were finally back as an integral part of that equation, but that alone is just not enough to guarantee that the wheel of history would start turning into the desired direction, based on a preferred speed. It simply meant that the future nature of conflicts in the Middle East and North African region would be more multifarious than ever.
From a historical point of view, the current conflict in the Middle East – the devastating war in Syria, the utter chaos and recurring coups in Libya, the push and pull involving the military in Egypt and the state of bedlam in Yemen, etc. – are not in the least unanticipated outcomes of an unprecedented historical conversion in a region associated with hopeless stagnation. But historians have the leverage of time. They can sit in their recluse offices and reflect on substantial phenomena, compare and contrast as they please and only regard their conclusions as serious when time attests to their academic realizations.
Reporters on the ground and media commentators hardly have such leverage. They are forced to react instantaneously to developing events, and quickly draw conclusions. Considering the lack of depth and understanding of the Middle East that many western reporters had to begin with – their interests in the region were mostly augmented and surrounded by US-western intervention in Iraq and elsewhere – reporting on the ‘Arab Spring’ was greatly lacking, if not at times outright embarrassing.
True, many reporters agreed that it all began when a despairing Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, lit himself on fire on December 17, 2010. That could in fact be the start of an intelligent discussion if it were coupled with an authentic understanding of Arab culture, language, history and political dynamics unique to every society. Unfortunately, there was little of that.
When then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali decided to step down on January 14, 2011, soon to be followed by Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the reporting moved from the street back to the same tired circle of self-serving political elites, western-funded NGOs, English-speaking social-media buffs and their likes. What could have been an equal revolution in the media’s understanding of the Middle East became a failed attempt at understanding what Arab people in the street truly aspire to achieve. If a regular Fatima or Mostafa does not speak English or tweet all-day long because they are busy surviving and all, they won’t receive funds from some EU-affiliated financier to sustain their NGO; then they are forgotten about and of no consequence to the story.
But the problem is a regular Fatima and a Mostafa stand at the heart of the story. The failure to respond to their pleas, understand their language, value or their aspirations is not their problem, but ours, in the media. It might have been too inconvenient for some to chase Fatima and Mostafa’s story because doing so can be dangerous, because they are not reachable by phone or because their social-media presence is too dismal. It might be out of sheer laziness, or complete ignorance of what matters and what doesn’t. It might also be that Fatima and Mostafa’s story doesn’t fit nicely into the fictitious discourse that we knitted on behalf of the media organizations for which we work. Fatima might be Shia, or Sunni and Mostafa might be Christian or anti-intervention, and that too can be too inconvenient to report.
Now that sham democratic elections are bringing dictators back to power, and that sanctioned intellectual elites of Arab countries have been proven to be no more than lackeys to existing regimes, it is time to go back to the streets, this time with true understanding of language, culture and people.
Unlike Mohamed Bouazizi, the Fatimas and Mostafas of the Middle East should not have to set themselves ablaze to become worthy of a news report. Their constant struggle and resistance is a story that must be told. In fact, it is the only story that should have mattered in the first place.