This is an edited collection of chapters by 10 contributors, organized by the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar. The first two chapters, by the co-editors, provide a general introduction to the subject. Suzi Mirghani, an independent filmmaker based in Qatar, correctly emphasizes the point that Arab media reflect each country’s underlying political system. She argues that one major characteristic has been authoritarian control over the media, but that this has been diminished by the advent and expansion of social-media technology providing outlets for nonstate voices.
In the other introductory chapter, Mohamed Zayani, an associate professor at Georgetown in Qatar, describes several media characteristics, most of them predating the Arab uprising. He stresses the singular impact of Al Jazeera television in providing unprecedented levels of information to Arab audiences since it began two decades ago. He compares it to Gamal Abdal Nasser’s promotion of Voice of the Arabs to serve Arab nationalist agendas, and Khomeini’s use of cassette tapes to support the Iranian revolution. Zayani also reviews the rise of Islamic television programming that came on the scene some time ago. He deals with some aspects of the current scene, such as the academic debate between those who give considerable weight to the role of social media in the Arab uprising, and those who downplay its impact. He takes sides only to argue that Al Jazeera did play a central role.
Naila Hamdy, chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo, contributes a chapter devoted primarily to the period before the Arab spring. This chapter is useful for anyone completely unfamiliar with the history of Arab media, since she presents a concise and balanced review of it, starting with the early nineteenth century and continuing to the uprising, without going into detail about what happened after 2010.
The rest of this essay collection deals with rather specific issues. All of the authors, however, feel compelled to provide information on the pre-uprising situation in the Arab world, both the underlying political situation and key media developments. Four of the chapters are limited to selected countries.
First, Fatima el Issawi, a senior lecturer at Essex University and a research fellow at the London School of Economics, presents a comparative study of media transitions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. She undertook 200 "semi-structured interviews" and makes use of some of them, but much of the chapter relies on publications by others to make points about governmental media regulations, journalists’ ethics and media relations with regimes. She concludes that, despite the uprisings that brought about the downfall of the leaders in all three counties, the media are still very restricted in their ability to "question politics" or challenge the governments in power.
Second, Abeer AlNajjar, an associate professor of media studies at the American University of Sharjah and a former journalist, also discusses the media in Egypt, but from the narrow perspective of how political Islam has been treated. This topic is interesting because of the role that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has played in Egyptian politics. Its leader, Muhammad Mursi, was president for one year, after which he and the MB leadership were jailed by General al-Sissi, who declared the MB a terrorist organization. AlNajjar describes how various Egyptian media have now "framed" the discussion of Islamists in a mostly negative way to serve the narrative of the new leader.
Third, Zahera Harb, a senior lecturer in journalism at the City University London writes about one of Lebanon’s several television channels, focusing on Al-Manar, the outlet controlled by Hezbollah. This is also a very narrow subject. Although Hezbollah is regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, in Lebanon it is seen as a Shiite political party, with seats in parliament and an armed militia that plays a significant role in politics. Harb makes the interesting point that Al-Manar has supported uprisings everywhere in the region except in Syria, where Hezbollah has deployed fighters in support of the regime.
Fourth, Dina Matar, a senior lecturer in Arab media and international communication at the University of London, writes about Syria. The bulk of her chapter deals with the period before the Arab spring, and she depends heavily on published studies. She tries to relate the situation in Syria to non-Syrian communication studies, using such terms as "resource mobilization theory (RMT)," "political opportunity structures (POS)," "New Social Movements (NSMs)," and "Regime Narratives of Identity," an approach that may appeal to other academics but is probably opaque to the average reader.
Three other chapters deal with specific aspects of communication in the region. An essay by Marwan Kraidy, who holds the Shadid Chair at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, discusses "Public Space, Street Art and Communication in the Arab Uprisings." This author has produced some groundbreaking studies of Arab media with new data, but in this chapter he turns to a systematic analysis, in four different dimensions, of the important Arab Spring phenomenon. He sees its street art as 1) space for expressing social and political opinion, 2) space for political communication, 3) a field of action for political bodies, and 4) a symbol of political struggle. For anyone who has seen the street art near Tahrir Square, this analysis is helpful in explaining an aspect of what is going on in Egypt.
Joe Khalil, an associate professor at the Northwestern School in Qatar, writes about media cities, a topic the literature has largely ignored. A study of media cities necessarily deals with economic matters such as costs, revenues, advertising and so on, which tend to have characteristics in the Arab world that are different from those in the West because of overwhelming government influence over the media. Khalil devotes most of his chapter to the pre-uprising history of media cities and then reports that they have not changed much since the uprising began. He concedes that Arab media have become somewhat more professional, more diverse, more competitive and more accessible, but concludes that they really have not changed very much due to the uprising.
Finally, Philip Seib, professor of journalism, public diplomacy and international communications at the University of Southern California, writes on U.S. public diplomacy, a topic not well known except to students of international communications. Seib presents a readable summary of the basics that should be very useful to the specialist in Arab affairs as well as the general reader. He discusses the challenges facing American practitioners of public diplomacy. They must deal with the enormously popular Al Jazeera, which does not necessarily help Arab audiences understand America; they must be credible at a time when Arabs are critical of American policy and doubt Washington’s intentions; and they must deal with social media that have added greatly to the narrative competition in the international space. He concludes that the failure of the uprising to bring about greater Arab democracy is an additional problem for U.S. public diplomacy that he hopes will be overcome with time.
The authors start from the correct premise that the characteristics and behavior of media in the Arab world are highly dependent on the political environment in which they function. In writing a book about media "in the wake of the Arab uprisings," however, they have faced the challenge that the "wake" is continuing. Civil wars are in progress in Syria and Yemen, and political systems throughout the region are under ongoing stresses that also affect the media. The book therefore suffers from a problem of timing. It was published in 2016, but the new data stops at 2013. Since the uprising began at the start of 2011, the topic announced in the title only deals with the first two years of a process of change in the Arab world that is still going on in 2017. The authors admit that they cannot predict the ultimate outcome of the Arab spring; this is a brief snapshot that prevents any definitive conclusions.
In writing about what appears to be just the start of a longer process, the authors have been compelled to devote considerable space to the situation of the media before the uprisings began. In doing so, they have drawn heavily on what is already in print. Many of the paragraphs in each essay are replete with footnotes, as they rely heavily on previously published studies. Most of this book is, therefore, not for anyone already knowledgeable about Arab media who has read the basic literature about it and is primarily seeking new information. However, the book might be useful to the student who knows little about Arab media and could read it alongside other basic studies. The many footnotes are conducive to looking up previously published basic material on the topic.