Downloading Democracy In the Middle East (With Some Help From America)

By Yossi Alpher

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.

Anyone who followed media coverage of the Gaza disengagement last month had to be struck by the presence of Arab satellite television networks in and among the settlements. Tens of millions of viewers of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya could watch live broadcasts in which reporters, usually Israeli-Arab journalists, stuck their microphones in the faces of anguished settlers and weeping soldiers, and even occasionally expressed empathy for their plight. They even interviewed the Israeli military’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz.

And while the reverse is not possible — rarely is an Israeli television network able to venture into an Arab country that does not have a peace treaty with Israel — the phenomenon of Arab media bringing a relatively straightforward portrayal of Israel into living rooms in Riyadh, Baghdad and Beirut is food for thought.

Something really is happening with the way the electronic media affect our perceptions of one another in the Middle East. I was drawn to this conclusion in reviewing the surprising recent responses to bitterlemons-international.org, the regional Internet dialogue project I co-edit with Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib.

Our Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, bitterlemons.org, never has had any problem attracting writers, because Israelis and Palestinians are used to dialoguing and discussing their differences in a variety of informal forums. But since launching bitterlemons-international two years ago, we’ve had a harder time persuading Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese and Saudis to write.

For some, it’s illegal to interact in any way with an Israeli — even one partnered with a Palestinian. For others, depending on what milieu they inhabit in their countries, it might be socially or politically problematic. In all cases, my Palestinian partner and I had to work hard to locate potential writers and then persuade them to participate.

Now, recent dramatic events in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon appear to have had a liberating effect. Suddenly, after the Rafiq Hariri assassination in Beirut and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal, a few Lebanese intellectuals volunteered to write. An Iranian academic contacted me the day after arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. He was begging for a chance to air his anger for the entire Middle East to read. Egyptian and Syrian writers are now easier to recruit. A Saudi daily reprinted an article of mine from bitterlemons.org and referred readers to the site.

This is an incremental but dramatic change in the way that Arabs, Israelis, Iranians and Turks interact: Not a revolution, but nevertheless a change. Things didn’t happen overnight: Israelis, this writer included, have been interviewed by the Arab satellite networks for several years now. A Syrian Web site has been translating bitterlemons into Arabic from the outset, and a Lebanese newspaper has been reprinting one of our articles every week. But the pace definitely has picked up.

How do I explain this phenomenon? All in all, I am inclined to credit innovations in the electronic media more than any other factor: satellite television, the Internet and the widespread and largely uncensored access to them throughout the region have made the difference. But I wonder, too, whether the American campaign for democratic reform in the Arab world also has had a positive effect on the degree of civil courage that people of good will in the Middle East are now able to muster.

When an Al Arabiya producer makes the decision to send a reporter into an Israeli settlement, or puts an Israeli on an electronic panel, is he or she that much more emboldened to take this step because Washington is so insistently preaching “freedom”? When a Lebanese professor accosts me at an informal meeting in Europe and tells me he no longer will turn down my requests that he write, is the American and French demand that Syria cease occupying his country giving him a positive sense that powerful forces are now behind him?

I’m no fan of George W. Bush, and I’m critical of many aspects of his Middle East policy. His adventure in Iraq is a disaster, and his commitment to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians appears thus far to be largely cosmetic. But I can’t help noticing that his campaign for democratic reform does have the admirable effect of empowering people in the region.

And the electronic media are perhaps the ideal vehicle for giving expression to this new-found sense of power.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.



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