Al Jazeera’s Victory and the Shadow of a Counter-revolution
Akeel Bilgrami 13 October 2011

Much has been written on the role of social media in the uprisings but I think it is worth stressing another institution and another phenomenon which is related to them but which is far more basic.

One television station has transformed the Middle East over the last decade. There has been nothing like this in history. What is remarkable is not just its causal role in laying the ground over many years of what we have seen is a prodigious mobilization but of doing this by creating what are perhaps best called the cognitive conditions that make possible such changes through mobilizations.

People have to know what is going before they can be moved to act rationally and effectively (or if they are living in a democracy, before they can vote rationally).  What Al Jazeera has done, against great odds, is to inform the populations of many countries in the Middle East just how corrupt their rulers and governments are. This is a great achievement, and since it is not very easy to achieve this even in democracies like America, it is all the more remarkable that it should happen under oppressive regimes in the Middle East.

It should be a truism that it is essential in democracy not just to vote every four years but to be informed day by day about what one’s government is really doing and how conditions around one are to be correctly understood and analyzed. And I have always thought that if the United States had a TV channel like Al Jazeera, its people would be very different as citizens than what they presently are. Even though there is no country with freedoms quite like America, to exercise this freedom without people knowing what is going on is in fact undermining of that freedom itself. Without that, it is a merely formal freedom. It is still, of course, great to have that freedom. Nobody can deny that. It is great to know that one won’t be locked up or tortured (or even because libel laws are not excessive as they are in some places like the UK, that one won’t constantly be sued) for saying certain things, as many often are in various parts of the world. But, despite this, there are serious cognitive or epistemic deficits in the citizenry in America because its television stations and its widely read newspaper tabloids withhold the truth about what is really going on in the country and even more about what its government is doing to other countries. As a result much of the populace of the United States is not really informed about who really controls power and what they do with it in the fundamental decisions made that affect millions of peoples’ lives, not just the lives of the American people but people all over the world who are affected by US government policies.

Somehow – and this needs study – Al Jazeera managed to get across to millions of people in the middle east things that no widely watched media instrument has managed to do in the United States. Indeed the media instruments in the US that are widely watched have created an ignorant and biased citizenry for the most part.

So, let me conclude this point by saying that though the more recent types of social media forms were of great instrumental value for the immediate mobilizations of the Arab Spring and for keeping people informed of immediate events and developments during the uprising, the more conventional media factor of one remarkable television station was to prepare for the uprising in a sustained way over several years through the dissemination of information and through acute and fearless analysis, a transformation and reshaping of people’s attitudes that had never been done before. So, I want to get across first that we must not fail to acknowledge the role of Al Jazeera in the midst of all the excitement around the role of the new social media.

Moving to the current situation, it seems now to be a great pity that these uprisings of courageous people didn’t continue for longer. The fact is that people really learn about their societies at the site of popular movements.  There is talk, there is argument, there is debate and deliberation that such movements give rise to among the solidarities it creates. There is a danger that when ordinary people disband and go back home from the squares and the streets, those who don’t form part of their solidarities – people in state power or in corporations among whom there is no talk or debate except for what is going to advance or preserve the interests of those in power, political and financial – will then begin to shape things all over again.  One got a fearful sense that the counter-revolution would begin in Egypt as soon as the streets and squares cleared. And it seems to be happening.

This point is generally quite true and is by no means unique to the middle east. Even in America, popular movements in the past provided a sort of political education and instruction for people that schools never did and, as I was saying earlier, the media does not either. It is hard to get real information and fresh forms of analysis about politics in the schools and universities and in most media (at least the media that is widely read by people who don’t have the time to pour over obscure sites on the internet) because these institutions produce a formula of learning which is conventional, routine and often dictated by the elites. But at the sight of popular movements people really gain public education. The crucial truths of their society’s underlying structures are not withheld as they are even in highly regarded newspapers. Let me give you an example from the sixties in America. Much was talked about racial equality in classrooms and in the editorials about national newspapers but the first time people really learned about it in a way that was not arcane and academic was during the civil rights movement in the 60s.

I will conclude by saying a few scattered and miscellaneous things now about the events of the spring.

Tunisia in one respect was very different from Egypt. There were public education and neighborhood committees set up which were then centralized into what is called the Committee of Public Salvation.

But in both cases, Egypt and Tunisia, one has to understand that the movements trying to get rid of brutal repressive regimes had their origins in labour movements, that is in a long tradition of union labor unrest. In Tunisia, what happened in January and February was a move to Tunis, of what had already been happening in the inner regions of the country. The protests in the southern regions of Tunisia in 2008 never made it to Tunis then, but they finally succeeded to reach the city last January.

And, remarkably, they were joined by a very large population of lawyers and other professionals, many of whom were unemployed. Don’t forget that compared to other Muslim countries, Tunisia has a very educated and professionally sophisticated population but the unemployment is up to 30-35%. So being joined by the professional classes initially gave a great vibrancy to the movement.

But inevitably to some extent, after the labor movements were joined by these professional classes, there emerged something of a division: the educated class is anxious about stability and order while the workers believe that worrying too much about it will produce the same conditions they tried to escape.

Another thing that needs to be noted is that part of the unrest, arose due to, not only the  unemployment, but also due to food shortages which were in turn partly a result of neo liberal policies imposed by the governments and the elites they represented who had made their alliances with Western powers (they were also partly a result of climate change effects in different parts of the world).  One of the things that would have been positive for these movements to bring to the surface is how much the European countries and the USA have been influential in the imposition of these policies that were responsible for the food shortages and for massive unemployment they have suffered from in recent years. The people have vague instincts about this but not any detailed knowledge and analysis.

Finally, let me say that though Seyla Benhabib expressed anxiety about potential Jacobin aftermaths to the revolutionary uprisings of the Spring, I’m afraid I am more anxious about the counterrevolutionary reaction to the movements. The plain fact is that it is much too important for the USA to keep control not only of the energy resources but to keep control of a range of client states in the region in order to keep overall control of those resources and of general geo political influence.  All the familiar issues are at stake.  To name just one, as Eisenhower pointed out a long time ago, a military industrial complex needs these regimes in various parts of the world for its arms – a country with an economy such as in the United States has to create an outlet for its arms, since the arms industry subsidizes a whole swath of the technology corporate sector. This is just one example. As I said oil is obviously another.  So, there is a tremendous stake in keeping things as they were.  For that reason, I think the primary worry is about counterrevolution, and only secondarily about a Jacobin aftermath.



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