Paul Hockenos: The social media played a key role across the Arab world in the upheavals of 2011, a theme you elaborate upon in your book The Arab Revolution. Why, then, do you caution not to exaggerate their importance?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Social networks, among them Facebook and Twitter, contributed to subverting the ubiquitous security control in Tunisia, and were the spark of the 25 January revolution in Egypt. By exposing the lies and crimes of the regime, they helped bring down the wall of fear. Moreover, the social media and the internet were the medium and laboratory of a new language - revolutionary and secular - that had never before existed in the Arab world.
But their role in the revolutionary process became secondary, even though the domestic and foreign media continued to emphasise it. This was because it was catchy and far easier to document than less virtual kinds of activism, like word-of-mouth, which is how much information was conveyed on the ground. There were no “Revolutions 2.0” but, certainly, another welcome instrument was added to the toolbox. The focus on the “Facebook kids” sometimes overshadowed the real novelty of the Arab revolution, namely that it was leaderless.
Paul Hockenos. So social media like Facebook and Twitter just greased the wheels?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Mostly. In both Tunisia and Egypt the messages and information from the social media were amplified through the satellite television channels, first and foremost al-Jazeera in Arabic as well as in English. Other networks, including western ones, then picked it up from al- Jazeera. In Tunisia, social media, YouTube, and internet blogs and sites like Flickr, made the protests visible to the foreign media. When Ben Ali’s regime shut down the satellite connections, it was through the cellphones and grassroots reporting that al-Jazeera could give unprecedented coverage to the Tunisian uprising. The same in Egypt where in Tahrir Square there was a huge screen with al-Jazeera live on it. These revolutions were definitely televised.
The new public sphere
Paul Hockenos: You talk about the emergence of an Arab public sphere…
Jean-Pierre Filiu: The emergence and energisation of an Arab public sphere was and remains crucial to the revolutionary dynamic, which is still in progress. This public sphere was created by the pan-Arab satellite channels, social media, and the internet. On al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya Arabs speak to Arabs. This pan-Arab sphere flows from Morocco to the Gulf linking around 100 million young Arab boys and girls, men and women who share the same experience of anger.
This forum also reaches deep into the diasporas, which had a voice in the revolutions, too. They all relied on this new public sphere to communicate with one another across national borders, to share ideas and “best practice” tactics for the uprisings. It radicalised the political agendas as unrest spread and gained momentum.
Paul Hockenos: So this isn’t a public sphere like anything in the west?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: These medias are public in a way that they’re not in the west. Cybercafes, for example, burgeoned not only as convenient venues for online activities but also as attractive, meeting places, in the same way that the satellite television Arab channels are not just watched in the home but also collectively in restaurants, universities, and cafes. The pinnacle of this were the giant screens in Tahrir Square and in Benghazi.
Paul Hockenos: What role does this public sphere play now in the countries like Tunisia and Egypt where the revolutions are over?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: No, stop, nothing is “over” yet! These revolutions are still going on, in fact they are just beginning, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and elsewhere. The issues that sparked the uprisings are by no means solved. This is why I don’t use the term “Arab spring” because this story will go on for many seasons and many years.
Also, “the Arab revolution” is much better than “revolutions” because the phenomenon is one, even though of course there were many differences from the Atlantic to the Gulf. There was nothing mechanical about them as the region is not a single bloc but a patchwork of nation-states. So although it is “one revolution” it is not a “pan-Arabic” revolution. Yet this is a transnational youth movement, similar to those in 1968. In fact, I argue it is an Arab renaissance, a second one following that begun in the 19th century, the Nahda. The revolution is completing this Arab renaissance, which is just beginning.
Paul Hockenos: But surely now the situation is different in countries where the dictatorships have been overthrown. There are new national and discourses and medias emerging…
Jean-Pierre Filiu: There is a permanent dialectic in play between the national and the Arab. You have literally a competition between the uprisings. The Egyptians saw what the Tunisians were doing and said “We can do that too! And even more!” And now in Syria they say, if Tunisia and Egypt and Libya can do it, so can we. You have this dissemination of the same slogans, propaganda, and programmes across the Arab world but they are then translated and adapted nationally. In Lebanon they want to overthrow the confessional regime. In Jordan they want to reform it.
Paul Hockenos: Is this still the case where transitions to democratic structures are underway?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Yes, of course. Look at how Tunisia has undergone an incredible, peaceful transition to parliamentary democracy. This a modern foil for Egypt that knows that if its transition is to be respected it has to be of the same quality. This is the formidable challenge now in Libya, which is why things are unfolding there at a relatively slower pace. The social media is still very relevant in this process.
Even the government institutions are now totally into social media. Just look at the Facebook page of the interior ministry in Tunisia where it was announced that they were dismantling the political police! I couldn’t believe it! The military in Egypt are basically addressing the Egyptian people through Facebook. Sometimes they have press conferences but these are identified with the previous order. Even the Syrian regime has taken to using Facebook to disseminate its own propaganda. In Morocco there’s a whole galaxy of pro- and anti-monarchy websites and social-media discourses, which parallels what is going on in the streets.
The new media landscape
Paul Hockenos: Back to al-Jazeera, since it is so important to your notion of an Arab public sphere. It is owned by the royal family of Qatar. The second Arab-language satellite channel is al-Arabiya, based in Dubai and owned by Saudi investors with royal connections. They’ve enjoyed a near duopoly over the past decade and are by no means independent media. Is this not a problem?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Of course al-Jazeera has an agenda. It barely reported the government crackdown on the uprising in Bahrain, a neighbour to Qatar. This was shocking. It was also a setback for al-Jazeera because it was heavily criticised across the Arab world. It lost a lot of prestige and trust. So there’s a price tag when you follow your patron’s guidelines too closely. But no matter how heavily they are backed, I believe they still are relatively autonomous and served the purposes of the revolution in many ways.
Paul Hockenos: Arabic-language television news is preparing for new competition in the form of two new twenty-four--hour news channels backed by Western media conglomerates. A Saudi billionaire will launch Alarab TV which will operate in partnership with Bloomberg. British Sky Broadcasting is launching Sky Arabia, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Media Investment, which is controlled by a member of the ruling family of the Gulf emirate.
Jean-Pierre Filiu: You already have a satellite market that is quite lively. It is not just al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera. There is France 24 and BBC Arabic Television. Al-Hurra is financed by the United States government, and there are Chinese, Russian, and Iranian Arabic-language channels.
Paul Hockenos: But what about independent media in countries like Egypt and Tunisia?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: Well, because of the do-it-yourself social medias that were operational in a matter of hours you had this from the very beginning. You also had an independent press in Egypt and Tunisia that predated the revolution. What is now very impressive is the revolutions going on within the private and governmental medias, much like what happened in the French television in 1968. You have committees of professional journalists who are collectively scrutinising their leadership and the staff, sometimes replacing the old staff, sometimes not.
Take the Tunisian press, which in most cases had been just unbearable. Now it is very lively even though most of the same people are running it. At least now they are writing when before they were copying according to guidelines from the ministry of information. Many of them were very decent, professional journalists who were doing their job the best they could. Now they do it the way they should do it.
Paul Hockenos: How best can the international community support independent, critical media in the Arab world?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: There’s already been such support, for example the Heinrich Böll Foundation has worked with Arab bloggers since 2008. There are of course transfers of knowledge and technology that are already happening. But we need to treat people there as equals. They’ve proved they are brave and professional. Arab media was covering the unfolding events weeks or even months before the western journalists with their fixers showed up. Show them the respect they deserve: they belong to these countries, they fought for them, many even died. We have a lot to learn from them.