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March 23, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 3695

Al-Jazeera Host: The Satellite Channels Are the Real Engines of the Revolutions in the Arab World; Giving Facebook Credit for the Revolutions Is 'A Lie and a Distortion of the Truth'

March 23, 2011
Qatar, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 3695

Dr. Faisal Al-Qassem, who hosts the popular Al-Jazeera talk show "The Opposite Direction," wrote in an op-ed in the Qatari daily Al-Sharq that it is the satellite channels that are the real engine behind the revolutions in the Arab world, not the online social networks. He added that the latter have not yet gained much currency among the Arab public.

The following are excerpts from his op-ed:[1]

"Millions of People in These Countries Don't Even Know What Facebook is"

"We cannot help but appreciate the blessed media revolution that has freed the Arab peoples from the yoke of the recruited media, and thanks to which everyone [now] has a [personal] computer, a mobile phone, and Internet... after a [long period in which] for millions of people publishing two sentences in the newspaper was a distant dream.

"[True], one cannot deny the positive role played by social networks like Facebook and Twitter in organizing the popular revolutions that have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait, and will soon take place in many other Arab countries... One must also mention the role of video-sharing websites like YouTube, which captured the protests in sound and image and supplied [videos] to other media, especially in countries where the satellite channels cannot cover events due to strict censorship.

"As everyone knows, many young people managed to film the events in Tunisia and elsewhere using their mobile phones, and posted [the videos] to YouTube and other sites, thus documenting these revolutions.

"However, it will be a terrible injustice if, in our enthusiasm, we ascribe these mighty revolutions to Facebook... The number of Internet users in the Arab world is nothing like what it is in the U.S., where 80% of the public has Internet access. [In fact,] the percentage of Internet users in the Arab world is low not only compared to the U.S., but also compared to ther third world countries. Egypt has a population of over 80 million, but the percentage of Internet users there is very low. In Syria, there are no more than 800,000 Internet users, in a population of over 23 million – not to mention Sudan, Somalia or the countries of the Arab Maghreb. It is surely no exaggeration to say that millions of people in these countries don't even know what Facebook is, and certainly do not have a Facebook account or [even] a computer. For the overwhelming majority in Egypt and in other [Arab] countries, that is a distant dream...

"Hence, one cannot claim that the mighty Egyptian revolution was carried out by the Facebook youth. That is a complete lie and a distortion of the truth. Millions of workers and farmers, and [the poor] who live in cemeteries and in improvised shacks... rose up in Egypt's cities and villages. I do not think they rose up and [became] a formidable revolutionary force thanks to Facebook, of which most of them have never heard...

"A Libyan revolutionary told me that many of his fellow revolutionaries, who are now fighting on the front lines, have never visited Facebook or any other website. True, some Libyans living abroad launched Facebook pages calling for a revolution. But most of the fighting is not done with a keyboard and mouse."

"Without TV Coverage, the Revolutions Would Never Have Assumed Such Proportions"

"[One must also keep in mind that] in the Arab countries, Internet is usually slow and annoying, and makes users lose patience. It is well-known that in some Arab countries they praise the impact of 'electronic jihad' – but [the fact is that] due to the turtle pace of the Internet in these countries, it is easier to travel to London to receive a message than to send it by email...

"In Tunisia, which had the privilege of starting the blessed Arab revolution, [former president] Ben 'Ali throttled the Internet with unprecedented barbarity. He even established an Internet Ministry, and purchased mega-computers for millions of dollars, in order to control the Internet and its users... So neither the Internet nor Facebook sparked the Tunisian revolution. If they [had any role at all], it was very small.

"The same is surely true for the other republics of fear, that make people show their IDs before entering an Internet café so as to keep tabs on them and intimidate them. In these [countries], entering a banned website is an offence punishable by decades in prison. Whoever starts a blog, or writes anything against the president, will surely find himself in the dungeons of the Interior Ministry [investigation apparatuses]."

"How Can [Facebook] Impact Revolutions If In Many Countries It Is Inaccessible?"

"The oddest thing is that some people applaud the immense impact of Facebook and its ilk, and then complain that these websites are blocked. How can [Facebook] impact revolutions if in many countries it is inaccessible? [As a matter of fact,] the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes managed to cut off the Internet and control it just prior to, and during, the revolutions, so that no Internet communication was possible. We must not overstate the influence of the Internet when the rulers can cut it off at the touch of a button...

"I don't want to give the impression that I am completely dismissing the electronic revolution [and recognize only the role of] satellite TV... but without TV coverage, the revolutions would never have assumed such proportions. When people followed the revolutions, to what extent did they use the Internet, versus the extent to which they watched them on the TV channels, which gave them continuous coverage? Clearly, there is no comparison...

"The best proof [of the impact of] the TV channels is that any popular activity that they do not cover, in any country, will die before it can get off the ground. Some Arab countries are currently seeing... protests and the beginnings of a revolution, but these [events] are not getting the necessary TV coverage, because of the focus on the escalating revolution in Libya. As a result, [these protests] will not gain much momentum... but will fade away and be forgotten.

"Some might argue that the images broadcast on the satellite channels were often taken from the Internet. That is true, but had the [channels] not repeatedly aired these images, their impact would have remained limited. I have yet to hear any [protesters]... complain of insufficient coverage of their activity on the Internet or on Facebook. But [some protesters are] very angry at the satellite channels, which, they claim, are not giving their activity the necessary media coverage..."

"It Is [the Satellite Channels] That Truly Fuel the Revolutions – With Image and Sound, Which Remain More Powerful Than Any Other Weapon"

"It is [the satellite channels] that truly fuel the revolutions – with image and sound, which remain more powerful than any other weapon... It is no exaggeration to say that one TV report on a certain country has an impact equal to that of all the websites visited by all the Arabs put together – so much so that [activists] have sometimes said, 'Let's postpone our protest, because some satellite channel is busy covering another revolution'..."

Endnote:

[1] Al-Sharq (Qatar), March 13, 2011.

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