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Politics

Al-Jazeera and Arab Democracy

10 January 2003

Al-Jazeera and Arab Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Given that well over two-thirds of the countries on the planet are now democracies, how come none of the 18 Arabic-speaking countries is genuinely democratic? There are a number of sham democracies like Egypt where the elections are always rigged, a couple of half-way democracies like Jordan where the king still has the last word, and one brave experiment in tiny Qatar, but that’s it.

Much of the rage and violence that disfigures the Arab world is connected with this democratic deficit: frustrated and powerless people can be walking time-bombs. And it is a problem specific to the 300 million people of the Arab world, not to the broader world of Islam: more than half of the billion Muslims who are not Arabs, from Turkey to Indonesia, live in functioning democracies. Why have the Arabs been left so far behind?

Part of the reason is the curse of oil, which has led foreigners to meddle non-stop in the Arab world. Certainly the half-century of confrontation with Israel, marked by repeated Arab defeats, also played a role. But rather than trying to answer the question, maybe we should note instead that the situation is probably about to change, because at last there is uncensored news available in Arabic.

Once information starts to flow freely, it’s hard to stop democracy. Consider former East Germany, whose Communist rulers were unable to block West German television broadcasts. Seventy percent of the East German population could pick up uncensored news in their own language with only a twisted coat-hanger for an antenna — and the television told them all the things their rulers didn’t want them to know.

In particular, it showed them the non-violent democratic revolutions in Asian countries in the late 1980s, especially the one where Chinese students tried to overthrow their own Communist regime in the spring of 1989. “We could do that,” the East Germans said to themselves, and six months later they began their own non-violent revolution, starting the avalanche that swept away all the Communist regimes of Europe with hardly a shot fired.

The Arab world has never had that kind of access to uncensored news and free debate — at least, not until five years ago, when al-Jazeera went on the air. It’s only a single television channel, but it broadcasts by satellite 24 hours a day, and can be picked up by anybody with a dish almost anywhere in the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera has 600 journalists operating in all the Arab capitals (except those where they have been expelled), plus London, Paris, New York and Washington, and it has single-handedly transformed the nature of political debate everywhere. It has interviewed Israeli cabinet ministers live. It has broadcast tapes sent to it by Osama bin Laden. It has allowed Saudi Arabian dissidents to criticise the monarchy. It has even given air time to critics of the Qatar government where it is based.

This may seem like no big thing. After all, it’s only one channel, and you have to be rich enough to own a dish to get it. But that is to misunderstand the nature of the media environment. When a major outlet starts to tell the truth, even if only one Arab in ten sees it (al-Jazeera claims a regular audience of 35 million), the word gets around very fast.

Al-Jazeera grew out a failed attempt by the British Broadcasting Corporation to create an Arabic-language TV service. It was a joint venture with a Saudi company that tried to censor a documentary hostile to the Saudi regime, so the BBC pulled out — leaving behind a talented team of Arab TV journalists who had got a whiff of editorial freedom. So they went to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the British-educated ruler of the small Gulf state of Qatar, and pitched the idea of al-Jazeera to him.

They picked the right man. Only recently come to power, he was starting to introduce democracy in his own tiny sheikhdom, and was so attracted by the idea of providing uncensored news to the whole Arab world that he agreed to bankroll the channel to the tune of $150 million over five years. It still isn’t making a profit — partly because a lot of local companies, and some multinational ones too, have been instructed not to advertise on al-Jazeera — but in five years it has transformed the political environment in the Middle East.

That may seem an exaggeration, since there has been no major change yet in any of the regimes that run the region. But as Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch said ten years ago (to his everlasting mortification, for it wrecked a lucrative deal he was making in China), direct broadcasting from satellites is “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” The free flow of information opens people’s minds, and then change can happen.

“I think that if al-Jazeera had been there 15 years ago, there would have been no 11 September,” said marketing director Ali Mohammad Kamal three months ago. If it is still in business 15 years from now, there will be a lot fewer dictatorships and absolute monarchies in the Arab world.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“Much…behind” and”Al-Jazeera…based”)