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Nabil Echchaibi

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Al Jazeera and the Promise of the Arab Revolution

Posted: 02/09/11 07:09 PM ET

Since Tunisians ousted their president and inspired Egyptians to rise up against Hosni Mubarak, many have asked whether this Arab revolution has been manufactured by Al Jazeera through its spirited coverage and propping up of the voices of street protesters in Sidi Bouzid, Tunis, Alexandria and Cairo. There is an easy answer to this question, and it is a resounding yes. In the absence of a genuine representative democracy, in the face of lingering dictatorships that rule with the whip and never with the voting booth, and an official journalism that abets the status quo, why are we surprised that Al Jazeera covers these uprisings with a revolutionary zeal and passion? This Arab revolution is without a doubt the poster child of Al Jazeera.

If we frame the question around purist expectations of journalistic objectivity, then Al Jazeera will simply appear as a propaganda tool. But if we situate its controversial coverage in a general climate of political profiteering and impunity of leaders, then Al Jazeera appears more a network on a mission, not only to report but to restore Arab dignity and replace muzzled politics with a new culture of civil dialogue. As Faisal Al Qasim, host of Al Jazeera's flagship debate show Opposite Direction once told a student at the American University in Sharjah who was worried about the loud tone of guests on his show, "We have been sorting out our problems in the Arab world with bullets and iron. Why don't we sort them out for a change with shouting? So let us shout." Or as Samir Khader, a former Al Jazeera senior producer said in the documentary Control Room, "Nothing is called taboo. Everything should be dealt with intelligently and in openness and try by using all these things to shake up these [Arab] rigid societies. To awaken them. Tell them, wake up wake up. There is a world around you. Something is happening in the world. You're still sleeping. Wake up. This is the message of Al Jazeera."

And shouting and waking Al Jazeera has done more than its share. Before the uprising in Egypt, Arabs heard loud and clear the Egyptian opposition yet again fume over the sham that was their last parliamentary elections, the brutal killing, allegedly by police, of Khaled Said, an Egyptian businessman who intended to post a video showing police officers dividing what they got from a drug bust, and the grooming of the current president's son to replace his aging father. Arabs heard Yemenis incredulous over their leader's callous proposal to modify the country's constitution so he can become president for life. We heard the Algerian rage over their president clinging to power as if it were a throne as he apparently prepares his brother to take over the presidency. And we heard about how desperation over the status quo is leading young educated Arabs with no prospects to set themselves on fire. We did not need WikiLeaks or Twitter to know just how dysfunctional our political systems are. Tunisians have known for years about the pillaging of their country at the hand of an overpowering mafia that was their presidential family. They finally gathered the courage needed to chase away the villains behind their political and economic paralysis. And yes, Al Jazeera has been instrumental in funneling every sentiment of pent-up frustration and humiliation. It was just a matter of time before this media spectacle that gave equal time to exiled dissidents and government officials turned into street protests and an overwhelming sense of fearlessness and a couldn't-care-less-anymore attitude.

The visceral anger of protesters in Tahrir Square as they tell the world they do not fear President Mubarak and his police anymore is an eloquent testimony to Al Jazeera's success in finally relieving the stress of each and every Arab living in fear of expressing themselves freely. As an ordinary Arab it's hard not to feel emboldened by the temerity of the Tunisian and Egyptian people and their revolutionary heroes from Mohamed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation helped spark the massive protests across Tunisia, to Khaled Said, whose brutal killing led to an incredible social media campaign to start a social uprising in Egypt. In a way, the desperation of Bouazizi and the political maturity of Said are both Al Jazeera's creation. Bouazizi's radical plea for change through self destruction is nothing but a reaction to years of social and economic humiliation which Al Jazeera has helped document through a consistent and passionate coverage of corruption, thwarted modernization plans, and lack of political accountability. It is also Al Jazeera's vigorous investigative journalism which may have pushed Said to document police corruption intending, like many others before him, to upload a video on YouTube.

Since its inception in 1996, Al Jazeera has acted as the visionary leader and the ultimate activist the Arab world has failed to produce. Al Jazeera is the radical leader Arabs needed to articulate their aspirations, fears, and concerns. There have been secular nationalist and religious leaders who dreamed to fulfill this role, but never have Arab streets seen similar widespread support and unity against the tyranny of their governments. And for the first time, it was not a nationalist or religious ideology that animated these massive uprisings. Now that Egyptians and Tunisians have taken to the streets, Al Jazeera is seen not only reporting but also managing to secure the Arab revolution. At the time of this writing, a live feed from Al Jazeera is carrying a long statement from Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman blaming foreign elements for instigating the street protests while a video showed a police van driving into a crowd of people in Cairo. Much like the unyielding anti-Mubarak protesters, Al Jazeera will not retreat until change is complete or at least until the biggest psychological hurdle, which Mubarak's regime symbolizes now, falls and capitulates to its own citizens.

Al Jazeera, as the events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown, acts like a real political party in a place where political parties have little or no legitimacy and where democracy is a cunning rhetorical scheme. Al Jazeera is not a perfect news network, but it serves a critical purpose in the Arab world: it speaks on behalf of ordinary people. In a 2001 mordant critique in the New York Times magazine, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins wrote, "Al Jazeera is not subtle television... It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force. And it should be treated as such by Washington." A few days ago, in an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Ajami wrote about the "rebellion in the land of the Pharaohs," but he never mentioned Al Jazeera. "Reigns like Mr. Mubarak's," he writes, "devour the green and the dry, as a favored Arab expression has it. The sycophants come to the fore and steal what they can. Those with heart and character and pride are hauled off to prison, or banished to the outer margins of public life." I wonder if Ajami knows just how many times the bureau of Al Jazeera has been closed in Cairo and why. The answer is multiple times and mostly over coverage of the Egyptians' discontents with this modern Pharaohs.