Over the last few weeks I have spoken with politicians, activists and journalists across the Middle East who have helped me understand the media climate surrounding the protests in the region. The mainstream Western media has analyzed these issues with a haphazard framework that has obscured the breadth and profundity of their underlying social and political motivations. By observing the region as a whole and considering the grievances that many in the Middle East hold for American policy, the recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Jordan come into far clearer perspective.
The media has overflowed with reports of the protests in Egypt and failed to depict a complete picture of the region. For one, it has ignored Lebanon. On Jan. 12, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the Lebanese Cabinet, toppling the government while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was visiting President Obama in Washington. Hezbollah had claimed for months that the United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri was an American tool to indict Hezbollah members. They weren’t the only skeptical party. Osman Bukhach, a media director for the international Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, stated, “We do not trust that the tribunal will be fair, … neutral [or] objective. As such we do suspect that yes, it is politicized and as such we fear that it could be manipulated or directed to serve the agenda for the influential powers behind it.” Bukhach believes that there is a “struggle between Western powers — their struggles are manifested on the Lebanese scene.” And Najah Wakim, president of the opposition group the People’s Movement, claimed that “we support a changing of the system, not simply a changing of the government.” When asked about his doubts of the tribunal’s motives, he responded skeptically, “Why would America care so much about the details of the assassination?”
The fall of the Lebanese government during Hariri’s visit to Washington came as a slap in the face to American-backed rule across the Middle East. Western fear of Hezbollah diverted attention from the local anger toward America’s influence in the Middle East — the grievance that really lay behind the fall of Hariri. Two days later, the president of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country as the U.S. offered weak support to the Tunisian people as they protested against their authoritarian president. A week and a half later, on Jan. 25, the Egyptian protests erupted. Since then, the unrest has spilled over to Yemen, Jordan and several other countries.
The Western media has analyzed these events in a way that has deflected attention from a consistent and challenging theme — that America’s politics in the Middle East are antithetical to our domestic values and proclaimed democratic aims; we support dictators and puppet regimes to enhance our own interests. The media has lumped the protests together as either the product of social media, typical Arab unrest, Islamic radicalism or democratic idealism. This dilutes and misinterprets the profound message that the people of these countries are giving to the world. Islamic radicalism is much less of an issue than the imprecise, one-size-fits-all analysis in which the West engages.
In order to delve beneath the media’s superficial portrayal of the unfolding events, it may help to compare secular and religious viewpoints on the current unrest. Not only does Bukhach believe that action must be taken against the flawed American politics in the Middle East, but so do the secular anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo. Iman al-Badawi, a protester in Tahrir Square, as well as Mohamed Ibrahim Elmasry, an Egyptian professor who is filming the demonstrations, stated that the protesters’ language is generally devoid of religiosity. Addressing the prediction that the protests on Jan. 28 would take on a religious flavor due to the Friday prayers, Elmasry said that the Western tendency to see religion as the hegemonic social force in the Middle East was invalid. It seems that both the secular and the religious have been taking a pragmatic stance in the recent weeks — from Lebanon to Tunisia to Cairo and beyond.
Our media sources understandably shift focus from issue to issue as headline-grabbing news unfolds. But this can lead to a very spotty picture of the events. Incomplete notions of causation, association and motivation have seriously distorted many Americans’ view of the situation. I do not wish to offer the imperfect, one-dose solution the mainstream media often provides. But I must stress that we consider the structural backdrop of American politics in the Middle East an underlying cause in the current crises.
Max Budovitch is a sophomore in Calhoun College.