First, when I talk about the recent revolutions I use the expression ‘Arab Awakening’. I don’t like to call it an ‘Arab Spring’. For me this phrase sounds like something that has been dreamed up in Hollywood. If we are to give it a name, it is in danger of becoming a ‘Blood Spring’. It is for this reason I prefer my descriptor.
‘The Arab Awakening’ is the title of the great history book by George Antonius, about the Arab revolt of 1916. The first thing to keep in mind when reporting on the awakening is to is to bear in mind that Egypt is not Tunisia, Bahrain is not Egypt, Libya is not Bahrain, Yemen is not Bahrain and Syria is not Libya. It would be incredible to think that the Arab Awakening goes on within the colonial borders. But the Jordanian army didn’t stop the Syrian opposition. Tunisians did not go to Libya to help the opponents of Gaddafi. The majority of the time revolutions stays confined to the old colonial borders. Why? I certainly don’t know. Maybe you have an idea?
For me a nation ‘awakens’. It is my belief that countries in which unions are powerful prior to the uprising suffer the least in the way of bloodshed. In Tunisia for instance you have strong unions, which is the case in Egypt too. In Egypt, 140 kilometres north of Cairo, sits the town of Mahalla. In 2006 in this big, industrial city, replete with textile factories – a very important industry for the Egyptian economy – a revolt occurred in 2006. The population gathered in the main square, also called Tahrir Square incidentally, using emails and Facebook to organise themselves. The police soon arrived with tear gas and restored order, five years before the Egyptian revolution proper. Five years later in the dying days of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the workers of Mahalla came to support their Cairo friends.
In Arab countries where unions do not exist – or when they do, simply as ‘tools’ of the regime – such as Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and beyond, there were bloodbaths. Why? Because when unions are strong, the people’s mobilisation has already occurred before the revolution.
So when did the Arab Awakening begin? Personally, I believe it began in Beirut back in 2005, when over a million people assembled in the centre of Beirut. After some time and a UN resolution, their protest was a success. I was in Iran during the crisis after the elections which brought Ahmadinejad to power – you know the story very well – one million people were in the streets of Tehran to protest against the government. When I spoke to Iranian protesters and they learnt I had been in Beirut during the 2005 protests, they wanted to know how the Lebanese had used new communication technologies to organise exactly the same kind of protest.
It could be argued that the Arab Awakening really started with the war between the English and the people of Egypt in 1926, but for me, it started in Beirut, then Tehran, Tunisia and Egypt. Here in Tunisia the fire was lit by Mr Bouazizi. This is what happens after 30 or 40 years of dictatorship.
How is it possible to create a dictatorship? I believe that dictators begin by infantilising their own people. When individuals become too dangerous, the police execute them. Mr Mohammed Husayn Haykal the great Egyptian writer, said that when a dictator is in power, he is met with a sea of silence. Silence because he is not listening to the people.
What happened next? After 40 years, three things happened. First, the people became adults, thanks to new information technologies. Second, many Arabs began travelling more, spreading to Europe, America and beyond. The third shift was towards education. With this combination of education, technology and travel, infantilisation simply cannot continue. When people lose their fear, the dictatorship dies. And once you lose your fear, you simply can’t get it back. That’s the victory of the Iranians opposing Ahmadinejad: they have gained their dignity and lost their fear.
Then what happens? In Egypt, there is presently a crisis. Incredibly, Americans believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the greatest danger in Egypt. But the greater danger there by far is the Egyptian army.
In Tunisia after 40 years of dictatorship there was a ‘soft’ revolution, but there are still considerable problems for the media: for instance decrees 115 and 116, and the question of whether Ennahda is moderate or not? What’s the relationship between Ennahda and the Salafists? I know there are problems. But it’s very important to always remember – and I have seen it in all the protests that took place against dictators – that through all the protests none has ever been done in the name of Osama Bin Laden. Not one. This is not an Islamist revolution, this is a people’s revolution. The people have woken up – not the Islamists.
I met Osama Bin Laden on three occasions. The last time I did was before September 11. We met in a mountain near a big training camp – built by the CIA obviously – and he said: “Robert, on this mountain we won the war against the Soviets and the Red Army.” He continued: “But Robert, I pray most of all that God helps us defeat America.”
On September 11, I was on a plane to America and through the plane’s mobile phone system, my foreign editor told me that three planes had hit New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Washington. I thought, “this is no accident”. Because I travel a lot I knew the plane’s crew well and asked to speak to the co-pilot and told him about the situation. He asked me if I would help look through the plane to try to identify potentially suspicious passangers. We did, and after four minutes I had a list of 14 suspicious passengers. He had 15, including four in business class. They were all Muslims, with prayer beads and a copy of the Koran. They had looked at me suspiciously as I passed through the plane, but then I was looking at them suspiciously. In two minutes, the good Robert – Robert the Liberal – became Robert the racist. It was an immediate effect, on a plane, on its way to America in just one day.
When we got back to Europe – we had to do a U-turn as planes could not land in America anymore – my mobile phone rang continuously: I was called by TV channels across Europe, with just two questions: ‘How?’ The answer to this question was simple: with knives. The second question was ‘Who?’ Everyone’s answer to the question was the same: ‘the Arabs’. But the question they refused to ask was the most important question: ‘Why?’ If there’s a crime in the streets of Tunis, the first question a policeman will ask is ‘why?’ So why did no one ask the question at the time? Because to ask that question at that moment would have required an examination of the entire relationship between the West and the Middle East, America and the Arab world, America and the Israelis.
How did we end up with a press that merely echoes the official releases of the government, rather than a press that asks the right questions? I would like to quote you some extracts of an article by the New York Times from 2005 about the war in Iraq. They cite the following sources: “the American authorities said”, “American officials said”, “said an official from the counter-terrorism department of the US Department of Justice”, “officials said”, “American authorities said”. Then on page two: “a US civil servant said”, “officials said” etc. 23 times in a single article. That is the main source of the report. Why is it necessary to echo the words of power?
I believe that the relationship between the press and the government in America both parasitic and osmotic. For instance, look at the current CNN Whitehouse correspondent (I don’t think you should watch CNN by the way). He regularly says in his report “the Whitehouse spokesperson said…” If you are going to report like this then why do you need a journalist? Why can’t the New York Times stop saying: “officials said…”? This is a major issue.
Part of the problem is journalism schools in America who teach that impartial journalism is all about “50-50 reports”. Impartiality is good if you are reporting on a football match or a public inquiry into a new motorway. But the Middle East is not a football game – it’s a bloodbath. In such cases 50-50 reports are insufficient. For instance, if you wanted to report on the 18th century slave trade would you think you were covering it fairly by talking to both the slave ships’ captains as well as the slaves? And after the Second World War, during the liberation of concentration camps, do you think it would have been fair to do ‘equal time’ between the SS officers and the Jewish survivors? And in Palestine today, in a report on the massacre of Shatila, should you give 50% of the article to the Israeli’s excuses and the Lebanese militias – or should the majority of the article focus on the Palestinian survivors? It is a very important question.
There are a number of clichés which have come as gifts to Westerners: “the War on Terror”, “the peace process”, “weapons of mass destruction”, ”doves and hawks”, and “black gold”. Using them is against the very principles of journalism. Why? For instance, during the Bahrain protests two days ago, I read a report by Reuters. Now, in my reports on Syria, we always say in the first paragraph “the regime of the Shiite minority community”, but in Reuters’ report, there was no mention that the majority of protesters were Shiite and that the minority is the government made of Sunnis. There was no mention of this because Bahrain is our friend, it is the West’s ally. It is the headquarters of the American Navy’s third largest flotilla. And therefore we accept it. Why?
I once had a very long conversation with the famous Israeli journalist Amira Hass who writes for Haaretz. If you don’t read her at the moment you should start reading her tomorrow. Four years ago I asked her: “What is the main thing we should do as foreign correspondents? What’s our primary role as journalists?” she replied: “Our duty is to watch the centres of power. Not just echo the words of those in power but to watch them, particularly when they start a war with justifications made up of lies”. Hubert Beuve-Mery, founder of French newspaper Le Monde, said: “Objectivity does not exist. You need to lean towards an ‘disinterested’ subjectivity”. For me it is even greater than that. For me our duty is to report on events impartially from the perspective of those suffering. If we do that then we communicate the tragedy of the Middle East to the rest of the world. If we only rely on governments, official sources or the powerful, we are finished as journalists.
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