Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere

Marc Lynch, George Washington University

The uprisings which surged through the Arab world in 2011 did not come from nowhere. They represented in part the manifestation of a long, structural transformation in the region’s public sphere which radically undermined the ability of states to control or shape information. Challenges to authoritarian regimes, on the streets and online, had been growing visibly for over a decade before the region-wide explosion which followed the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali. The transforming information environment alone did not cause these revolutions — there are far deeper legacies of authoritarian rule, economic mismanagement, and social frustrations at their root. But the new public sphere helped make these uprisings possible, gave them their distinct characteristics, and in some ways limited their revolutionary potential.

The new Arab public sphere also offers potentially revolutionary opportunities to scholars of the Arab world, who were suddenly presented with an avalanche of potentially usable data about the attitudes, relationships, opinions and actions of millions of citizens increasingly living their lives online. If a scholar found a dozen diaries discussing the ‘Urabi revolt of the 1890s or the personal correspondence of two early Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the 1940s in a dusty attic in Cairo, entire dissertations would follow. Today, on Facebook and Twitter we have millions of such real time diaries and correspondence which are fundamentally transforming how we can and should study the region’s politics and societies. Information, images, documents and semi-public discussions from everything from disaffected Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood youth to activists in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province which once would have been found only through arduous fieldwork (if at all) is now easily available online. Most Middle East experts are poorly equipped to exploit such information, however.

The new Arab public sphere is more than a driver of change on the ground or a source of new information for scholars, however. It also offers profound new opportunities to engage with scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens from the Arab world, allowing them to enter into Western public spheres on their own terms. This should profoundly undermine traditions of privileged Western academic or journalistic interlocutors speaking on behalf of their subjects. These Arab voices are actively debating their own political identities and strategies, not only on Facebook but in an ever more diverse and contentious political press (online and offline), on satellite television, and in proliferating sites of political and social contention. Those encounters may prove unsettling, as they expose deep resentments of Western privilege, deep political critiques and challenges to claimed expertise. What do American scholars uniquely contribute to the study of Arab politics compared with Arab scholars and political analysts?

In short, the rise of the new Arab public sphere is transforming not only the politics of the Arab world but also the ways in which scholars must understand and engage with the region. As Lisa Anderson recently argued in this forum, scholars who opt out of social media or who don’t keep up with local press and media debates will be missing something fundamentally important about the new politics. In this brief essay, I will touch briefly on each of these three levels of change – and argue that it must fundamentally change how we as academics do our jobs.


The New Arab Public as a Driver of Change

The New Arab Public Sphere has been emerging for over a decade, gradually but palpably changing the very stuff of politics. During the heyday of Arab authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s, regimes were able to impose stifling conformity upon almost all national media and public debate. This control over the flow of information and ideas represented an essential, but underappreciated, component of their authoritarian domination. It is difficult to exaggerate how much of a black hole most Arab media had become in this period, with almost all national media tightly controlled by regimes and the slightly freer transnational newspapers read only by elites and financed by oil-rich states for political ends. By the early 2000s this overwhelming control had been largely – and incredibly rapidly – eroded in many Arab countries.

The rise of a new Arab public sphere was facilitated by new technologies, but the new media only became a public sphere through the emergence of new kinds of debates, identity claims, and political trends which evolved within those new spaces. Technology, in other words, was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of a new public sphere. Satellite television had become increasingly prevalent across the region (as in much of the world) over the course of the 1990s, but most of its content remained primarily entertainment-oriented along with tame, tightly limited news. It was only with the rise of the Qatari station al-Jazeera towards the end of the 1990s that the technological potential of satellite television was converted into a political significant regional public sphere.

Al-Jazeera, as I argued in my 2006 book Voices of the New Arab Public, helped to create a genuinely Arab public sphere through its choices of coverage, framing, and content. Al-Jazeera approached news coverage through an explicit lens of shared Arab identity, framing developments around the region within a common narrative of Arab concerns and shared interests. Regional issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq were naturally treated as areas of concern to all Arabs, which was nothing new. More novel was a narrative of regional discontent with authoritarian rule which tied together dissent and protests across the Arab world, with events in Morocco treated as naturally related to similar protests in Yemen. Its professional, taboo-shattering news coverage shattered the ability of any regime to conceal sensitive information from its own people, or to prevent them from hearing critical discussion of its meaning. The powerful framing of these popular struggles as a common Arab battle over the course of a decade then manifested itself in the early Arab spring, as protest repertoires rapidly moved from one Arab country to another. The five way al-Jazeera split screen showing simultaneous, nearly identical protests in multiple Arab capitals is the iconic image of the Arab spring.

Rather than simply imposing a single master narrative, however, al-Jazeera privileged argument and contentious debate about those shared interests. Its talk shows turned an Arab narrative into a common Arab public sphere through argument. It helped that al-Jazeera was by the early 2000s viewed almost universally across the region, creating a sort of common knowledge and shared platform. When carried out in a shared forum, rather than in a balkanized information environment of partisan media, the act of argument and acrimonious debate reinforces a sense of common identity and shared fate.

That unified focal point could not easily survive the pressures of market and political competition. Over the course of the 2000s a parade of imitators and competitors emerged, creating a fragmented public sphere which cumulatively created the expectation of the availability of such media. During periods of ordinary politics, Arab viewers increasingly switched between a dizzying variety of television stations, some local and some regional. But they generally turned back to al-Jazeera en masse during moments of regional crisis, whether the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah or the 2011 Arab spring.

The rapid rise of internet penetration and social media layered additional opportunities for the dissemination of information and ideas onto this top-down broadcasting model. Originally concentrated in urban elite youth, the internet and SMS texting or sharing of videos over mobile phones rapidly became accessible to growing sectors of society. Social media allowed for connections across society, the rapid sharing of information, the coordination of activism, and the expression of political beliefs – even through actions as cheap as the adoption of a revolutionary Twitter avatar. Social media had both unifying and fragmenting effects on the new Arab public. It turbocharged the evolution of a public sphere sensibility, as hundreds of thousands of individual Arabs joined into public arguments and debates on these new forums. Social media could also push towards localization and polarization, however, as the like-minded sought each other out in what seems to be close to an iron law of online behavior.

The new Arab public sphere played an absolutely vital role in building the networks among activists themselves, both inside of countries (i.e. Egyptian protest organizers were veterans of a decade of experiments with protest and information activism) and across the region (i.e. key protest organizers came to know each other personally and virtually and cooperated in sharing information and ideas). This new public sphere supported wide ranging debates and generated new ideas, forged new relationships, framed the rush of events within a coherent shared narrative and manifestly drove the regional and international political agenda. It is simply not possible to account for the intensity and speed of the spread of protests, their immediate absorption into a common Arab identity frame, or their rapid regional dissemination without this new public. Protestors across the region chanted identical slogans and held up identical posters, shared Twitter hashtags, and hung on every twist and curve in any Arab country. Arab social media users eagerly shared user-generated videos mocking Moammar Qaddafi’s “Zenga Zenga” speech or mashing up Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh with a Katy Perry song.

But this newly mobilized Arab public sphere also proved vulnerable.

First, the ownership of the key regional satellite television stations al-Jazeera (Qatar) and al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia) proved to be a liability. Those stations increasingly shaped their coverage to fit the interests of their owners, with badly distorting effects. Thus, the uprising in Bahrain, which at its height had more than half the citizen population in the streets, largely disappeared from the television screens as Qatar and Saudi Arabia moved to help the monarchy crush its opponents. The leaders of those Gulf countries used their television stations in increasingly blatant ways in supporting military intervention and fomenting protest against governments in Libya and Syria – a self-defeating exercise of power, as those stations lost credibility through their propaganda efforts. The instrumentalization of television stations wholly owned by wealthy Gulf leaders had always been a potential problem for the new Arab public, and now it became real.

The decline of al-Jazeera as a seemingly independent voice of the Arab street is not on its own the lethal blow to a new Arab public sphere which it might have been a decade earlier. The Arab public sphere has long since transcended reliance on any one forum. But the degraded status of the one site viewed by virtually all politically attuned Arabs eliminated a unique source of common knowledge and unified attention. The intense, often furious arguments which dominated al-Jazeera’s talk shows during its glory days highlighted disagreement and diversity of views, but unified the public around shared concern about the issues being debated. The shift towards more overtly partisan media, where viewers tend to seek out like-minded sources, promotes the polarization of Arab discourse into increasingly entrenched, mutually hostile camps. This privileges ever more extreme and exclusionary rhetoric over efforts to find middle ground, reducing both common identification and the prospect for meaningful public debate.

Second, the crushing of the uprising in Bahrain and then the turn to violent civil war in Syria helped to spread an increasingly nasty sectarianism through the region, dividing a once unified narrative and giving lie to any notion that the new Arab public sphere would be uniquely supportive of inclusive or non-violent discourses. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Bahrain’s ability with military support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council to crush a massively mobilized popular protest movement (as mentioned, at its height, more than half the citizen population was estimated to have been on the streets). Bahrain did not only rely on force, or even on the shocking wave of sectarian repression which followed. It also fully invaded the public sphere. Saudi and Qatari television stations (including al-Jazeera) largely ignored Bahrain in order to remove that struggle from the popular regional narrative, while the Bahraini regime launched a massive public relations campaign designed to tarnish peaceful human rights protestors as radical Iranian proxies. Bahraini regime supporters flooded social media sites to promote the regime narrative and relentlessly hound anyone expressing support for the opposition.

The sectarian Sunni-Shi’a dynamic and the vicious colonization of the public sphere by regime counter-protest forces unleashed by Bahrain were magnified a thousand-fold by the struggle for Syria. More than any other Arab arena, Syria proved extraordinarily divisive along both sectarian and political lines as many Arabs who valued the anti-Israeli “resistance” of the regime in Damascus pushed back against opposition narratives. The Syrian opposition relied heavily on the media, as with the promotion of videos of protests, fighting and alleged regime atrocities uploaded to YouTube. The Syrian regime pushed back with relentless propaganda of its own and a fiercely cultivated narrative of foreign conspiracy. The public sphere became a scorched-earth battlefield of arguments over the credibility of information and competing accusations of complicity in conspiracies against one side or the other. As the conflict ground on and the body count grew, many grew skeptical of almost all information about events in Syria disseminated by either the regime or the opposition, while discourse about the crisis divided and polarized sharply. If the early days of the Arab spring represented the best in a mobilized regional public sphere, the struggle for Syria manifested the worst.

Finally, Egypt’s troubled transition exposed the limitations of the mechanisms which allowed new political forces to punch above their weight in contentious politics when the action shifted to electoral politics. While the Egyptian public sphere became a vibrant arena of new voices, with active and deeply thoughtful debates about the constitution, elections, reform and revolutionary action, this did not easily translate into successfully navigating the democratic game. Elections privileged the choices of mass publics, not the efforts of empowered individual voices. Liberal and revolutionary groups found themselves unable to translate their self-declared revolutionary legitimacy into electoral success and increasingly found themselves back on the streets protesting a profoundly unsatisfying transition. The fault did not lie exclusively with the machinations of the military leadership. Too often, the allure of online presence and the thrill of street protest distracted from the tedious, plebian work of forming political parties or building civil society. Meanwhile, existing well-organized and popular movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood proved far better adapted to quickly preparing for election campaigns and institutional politics.

The emergence of a public sphere is a systemic transformation driven by powerful technological, demographic and political forces, not a fragile moment rooted in the success of any particular movement. It is unlikely that any Arab country will be able to avoid its insistent pressures. Perhaps the Saudi regime can repress and co-opt protestors in the short term, but there is no way it can avoid the contradictions between a young, deeply media-saturated public and a ruthless policing of public space. Its effects will not be uniformly positive, however, nor will the pace of change be even. As Syria has shown, the public sphere can all too easily be overwhelmed by sectarian and partisan passions or transformed into a zone of naked political warfare. Any public sphere detached from meaningfully democratic institutions, whether a transnational one with no authoritative actor to make decisions on its behalf or a domestically repressive one unwilling to do so will remain a weak public. If systematically frustrated, such publics can easily turn ugly.

These notes of caution should not lead us to miss the deeper significance of the structural transformation taking place. Empowered publics and new flows of information are fundamentally rewriting the rules of regional politics. What today seems natural and obvious – Facebook groups devoted to mocking kings, television talk show hosts grilling military leaders or top Muslim Brotherhood figures, electoral choices being openly debated everywhere from online to taxicabs – was unthinkable two decades ago. Authoritarian regimes will adapt, as will Islamist movements and liberal civil society actors, and no specific political outcome is preordained. But the new public sphere has already radically changed the basic stuff of political life across the region and its disruptive effects have only begun.


New Arab Public Sphere as a Source of Data

The discussion thus far has focused on what the new Arab public sphere is doing to Arab politics. But it also has to change the study of Arab politics. The wealth of new evidence available on the internet should not only transform Arab media studies, it should be integrated into almost all political science research programs. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms offer enormous quantities of publicly available data which can be accessed to varying degrees. There are many live-blogs and daily Storify collections, along with YouTube videos and Flickr images, which collect useful content which could be used to illustrate arguments or test hypotheses. Almost all Arabic newspapers now maintain online archives of news coverage and op-eds which eliminate the need for back-breaking hours with microfiche.

These data present unprecendented opportunities – but also dangers. This data has been most often used to track information flows, for instance through linking and retweeting patterns or through analysis of the quantity and rhythms of particular phrases and hashtags. These can be used to test propositions about everything from collective action to political polarization to regional diffusion effects to the impact of videos revealing graphic violence on international intervention. Other important potential uses remain less developed, such as sentiment analysis of Facebook or Twitter postings and comments (which might be used to evaluate expectations or attitudes in real time) and linkages between online social media and mass media content. Facebook postings, blogs and other social media could be used in historiographical fashion as online diaries rather than as large-n data sources.

But in all forms, researchers must be extremely careful about systematic bias in the data sources. Twitter, for instance, is likely the best suited data set for Big Data analysis since it is a self-contained universe in a research friendly format, but is among the least-often used social media platforms in countries such as Egypt (only 0.26% of Egyptians and 0.04% of Syrians use Twitter, according to a recent survey). Facebook is far more popular across the region, with Egypt’s 10 million accounts not even placing it in the top ten per capita among Arab countries, but it is less amenable to the needs of systematic research. Individual Facebook accounts are harder to access systematically for research purposes due to privacy concerns, although politically-oriented Facebook groups have become essential for research and for political action alike. Broadcast media tends to be less amenable to systematic quantitative analysis, and after all this time we still lack for the most part even rudimentary systematic content analysis, audience research, or careful tracing of impact on political attitudes or behavior.

In short, methodology matters. We do not want to become the proverbial drunks looking for keys under the streetlight because that’s the only illuminated place. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw, since the relevant population is defined by the question: if one’s question is about online activism, then online activists are a legitimate population to study. But if the goal is to generalize to mass publics, then caveat emptor. Unfortunately, the tendency to date is for researchers to acknowledge these limitations… and then to proceed with the data analysis nevertheless. If everybody interviews the same ten Egyptian activists because they are easily found tweeting in English, then we may end up knowing less about Egyptian politics than we did before.


New Publics, New Forms of Engagement

The new Arab publics should not be treated only as causal variables or sources of data, of course. They have brought forward a deluge of new voices who must be heeded, engaged, and incorporated into everything which scholars of the region do. Could anyone really attempt to discuss the Egyptian revolution without listening to the readily available accounts, thoughts, and beliefs of the many individuals who helped to create it? What, if anything, do American scholars uniquely contribute to the analysis of Arab politics now that the Arab public sphere has brought forward so many eloquent, informed and often brilliant local voices? The case can be made that they do… but the case must more than ever be made.

The participants in the Arab public sphere should be seen as fully equal partners in the production of knowledge about the region. This can not simply be the exploitation of these new voices as native informants, or the idolization of celebrity activists – two habits of which we have seen far too much already. Nor does it mean simply accepting what the locals say as gospel. Instead, it should mean the regular incorporation of Arab scholars, activists, writers, political figures and ordinary people into all stages of the production and dissemination of knowledge. It means treating them as fully equal actors, not simply objects to be analyzed. Their ideas, like ours, should be challenged, discussed, debated and vetted… but they must be included. I find myself unable to look approvingly these days at manuscripts which do not generously cite Arab editorials and online discussions of the relevant issues.

Scholars also will need to be on guard against abusing their own role in the process. It is all too easy to over-identify with one faction in a local struggle, to adopt their language and biases and blindspots and to promote rather than critically analyze their political projects. Such over-identification, whether with leftist Egyptian activists, the Syrian opposition, or one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is deeply problematic for the academic mission. In a recent essay (PDF) in Public Culture, outgoing SSRC President Craig Calhoun brilliantly laid out the problems, some real and some imagined, with the engagement by Western academics with Qaddafi’s Libya. The problem for individual scholars (as opposed to institutions seeking financial support), Calhoun concludes, was not the decision to travel to Libya or take part in dialogue with Qaddafi – both perfectly legitimate actions for the engaged academic. Instead, the distinction lay in how the scholar approached the encounter: “Critical public engagement and making scholarly, research-based knowledge available to inform public discussions are both different from being drawn into the efforts of public actors to manage their public relations or reputations. The boundary is of course not always clear.” Can, and should, academics apply that same standard to interactions with like-minded Arab activists?

Engaging with this new Arab public sphere will not necessarily be easy for academics. The need to keep up with dozens of online newspapers, to say nothing of Facebook groups, blogs and Twitter feeds, imposes a significant burden on already overworked scholars. So does the urgent need to publish in online venues such as ForeignPolicy.com and to maintain an online social media presence for those who hope to actually influence public debate. This public sphere moves quickly, has its own internal language and references, and has little regard for formal credentials. It demands relentless, inexhaustible attention which may cut against the instinct of many academics to retreat from the immediate and look at the longer view. For some, this will prove wise. But for those academics who hope to be relevant in the contemporary public sphere, Lisa Anderson is right that there is really no choice other than to recognize and adapt to these new structural realities about how information flows and ideas change.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: publicsphere@ssrc.org