Center for Strategic Communication

The Social Science Research Council’s Transformations of the Public Sphere Initiative has been publishing an outstanding series of  reflections by leading academics on the transformative effects of the evolving public sphere.  Some of the key contributions to the series thus far by political scientists include "Too Much Information," by Lisa Anderson; "Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century" and "The Public Responsibilities of Political Science," by Rogers Smith; "International Affairs and the Public Sphere," by Stephen Walt; and "Intellectuals and their Public," by Jurgen Habermas. I was honored to be invited to contribute to such a stellar series.  My new essay in the series, "Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere," appears here with the permission of the SSRC. [[BREAK]]

Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere

Marc Lynch, The George Washington University

The uprisings which surged through the Arab world in 2011 did
not come from nowhere. They represented in part the manifestation of a
long, structural transformation in the region’s public sphere which
radically undermined the ability of states to control or shape
information. Challenges to authoritarian regimes, on the streets and
online, had been growing visibly for over a decade before the
region-wide explosion which followed the fall of Tunisia’s President
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The transforming information environment alone
did not cause these revolutions – there are far deeper legacies of
authoritarian rule, economic mismanagement, and social frustrations at
their root. But the new public sphere helped make these uprisings
possible, gave them their distinct characteristics, and in some ways
limited their revolutionary potential.

The new Arab public sphere also offers potentially revolutionary
opportunities to scholars of the Arab world, who were suddenly presented
with an avalanche of potentially usable data about the attitudes,
relationships, opinions and actions of millions of citizens increasingly
living their lives online. If a scholar found a dozen diaries
discussing the ‘Urabi revolt of the 1890s or the personal correspondence
of two early Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the 1940s in a dusty attic
in Cairo, entire dissertations would follow. Today, on Facebook and
Twitter we have millions of such real time diaries and correspondence
which are fundamentally transforming how we can and should study the
region’s politics and societies. Information, images, documents and
semi-public discussions from everything from disaffected Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood youth to activists in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province which
once would have been found only through arduous fieldwork (if at all)
is now easily available online. Most Middle East experts are poorly
equipped to exploit such information, however.

The new Arab public sphere is more than a driver of change on the
ground or a source of new information for scholars, however. It also
offers profound new opportunities to engage with scholars,
activists, and ordinary citizens from the Arab world, allowing them to
enter into Western public spheres on their own terms. This should
profoundly undermine traditions of privileged Western academic or
journalistic interlocutors speaking on behalf of their subjects. These
Arab voices are actively debating their own political identities and
strategies, not only on Facebook but in an ever more diverse and
contentious political press (online and offline), on satellite
television, and in proliferating sites of political and social
contention. Those encounters may prove unsettling, as they expose deep
resentments of Western privilege, deep political critiques and
challenges to claimed expertise. What do American scholars uniquely
contribute to the study of Arab politics compared with Arab scholars and
political analysts?

In short, the rise of the new Arab public sphere is transforming not
only the politics of the Arab world but also the ways in which scholars
must understand and engage with the region. As Lisa Anderson recently argued in this forum,
scholars who opt out of social media or who don’t keep up with local
press and media debates will be missing something fundamentally
important about the new politics. In this brief essay, I will touch
briefly on each of these three levels of change – and argue that it must
fundamentally change how we as academics do our jobs.


The New Arab Public as a Driver of Change

The New Arab Public Sphere has been emerging for over a decade,
gradually but palpably changing the very stuff of politics. During the
heyday of Arab authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s, regimes were
able to impose stifling conformity upon almost all national media and
public debate. This control over the flow of information and ideas
represented an essential, but underappreciated, component of their
authoritarian domination. It is difficult to exaggerate how much of a
black hole most Arab media had become in this period, with almost all
national media tightly controlled by regimes and the slightly freer
transnational newspapers read only by elites and financed by oil-rich
states for political ends. By the early 2000s this overwhelming control
had been largely – and incredibly rapidly – eroded in many Arab

The rise of a new Arab public sphere was facilitated by new
technologies, but the new media only became a public sphere through the
emergence of new kinds of debates, identity claims, and political trends
which evolved within those new spaces. Technology, in other words, was a
necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of a new public
sphere. Satellite television had become increasingly prevalent across
the region (as in much of the world) over the course of the 1990s, but
most of its content remained primarily entertainment-oriented along with
tame, tightly limited news. It was only with the rise of the Qatari
station al-Jazeera towards the end of the 1990s that the technological
potential of satellite television was converted into a political
significant regional public sphere.

Al-Jazeera, as I argued in my 2006 book Voices of the New Arab Public,
helped to create a genuinely Arab public sphere through its choices of
coverage, framing, and content. Al-Jazeera approached news coverage
through an explicit lens of shared Arab identity, framing developments
around the region within a common narrative of Arab concerns and shared
interests. Regional issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and
the war in Iraq were naturally treated as areas of concern to all Arabs,
which was nothing new. More novel was a narrative of regional
discontent with authoritarian rule which tied together dissent and
protests across the Arab world, with events in Morocco treated as
naturally related to similar protests in Yemen. Its professional,
taboo-shattering news coverage shattered the ability of any regime to
conceal sensitive information from its own people, or to prevent them
from hearing critical discussion of its meaning. The powerful framing of
these popular struggles as a common Arab battle over the course of a
decade then manifested itself in the early Arab spring, as protest
repertoires rapidly moved from one Arab country to another. The five way
al-Jazeera split screen showing simultaneous, nearly identical protests
in multiple Arab capitals is the iconic image of the Arab spring.

Rather than simply imposing a single master narrative, however,
al-Jazeera privileged argument and contentious debate about those shared
interests. Its talk shows turned an Arab narrative into a common Arab public sphere
through argument. It helped that al-Jazeera was by the early 2000s
viewed almost universally across the region, creating a sort of common
knowledge and shared platform. When carried out in a shared forum,
rather than in a balkanized information environment of partisan media,
the act of argument and acrimonious debate reinforces a sense of common
identity and shared fate.

That unified focal point could not easily survive the pressures of
market and political competition. Over the course of the 2000s a parade
of imitators and competitors emerged, creating a fragmented public
sphere which cumulatively created the expectation of the availability of
such media. During periods of ordinary politics, Arab viewers
increasingly switched between a dizzying variety of television stations,
some local and some regional. But they generally turned back to
al-Jazeera en masse during moments of regional crisis, whether the 2006
Israeli war with Hezbollah or the 2011 Arab spring.

The rapid rise of internet penetration and social media layered
additional opportunities for the dissemination of information and ideas
onto this top-down broadcasting model. Originally concentrated in urban
elite youth, the internet and SMS texting or sharing of videos over
mobile phones rapidly became accessible to growing sectors of society.
Social media allowed for connections across society, the rapid sharing
of information, the coordination of activism, and the expression of
political beliefs – even through actions as cheap as the adoption of a
revolutionary Twitter avatar. Social media had both unifying and
fragmenting effects on the new Arab public. It turbocharged the
evolution of a public sphere sensibility, as hundreds of thousands of
individual Arabs joined into public arguments and debates on these new
forums. Social media could also push towards localization and
polarization, however, as the like-minded sought each other out in what
seems to be close to an iron law of online behavior.

The new Arab public sphere played an absolutely vital role in
building the networks among activists themselves, both inside of
countries (i.e. Egyptian protest organizers were veterans of a decade of
experiments with protest and information activism) and across the
region (i.e. key protest organizers came to know each other personally
and virtually and cooperated in sharing information and ideas). This new
public sphere supported wide ranging debates and generated new ideas,
forged new relationships, framed the rush of events within a coherent
shared narrative and manifestly drove the regional and international
political agenda. It is simply not possible to account for the intensity
and speed of the spread of protests, their immediate absorption into a
common Arab identity frame, or their rapid regional dissemination
without this new public. Protestors across the region chanted identical
slogans and held up identical posters, shared Twitter hashtags, and hung
on every twist and curve in any Arab country. Arab social media users
eagerly shared user-generated videos mocking Moammar Qaddafi’s "Zenga
Zenga" speech or mashing up Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh with a
Katy Perry song.

But this newly mobilized Arab public sphere also proved vulnerable.

First, the ownership of the key regional satellite television
stations al-Jazeera (Qatar) and al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia) proved to be a
liability. Those stations increasingly shaped their coverage to fit the
interests of their owners, with badly distorting effects. Thus, the
uprising in Bahrain, which at its height had more than half the citizen
population in the streets, largely disappeared from the television
screens as Qatar and Saudi Arabia moved to help the monarchy crush its
opponents. The leaders of those Gulf countries used their television
stations in increasingly blatant ways in supporting military
intervention and fomenting protest against governments in Libya and
Syria – a self-defeating exercise of power, as those stations lost
credibility through their propaganda efforts. The instrumentalization of
television stations wholly owned by wealthy Gulf leaders had always
been a potential problem for the new Arab public, and now it became

The decline of al-Jazeera as a seemingly independent voice of the
Arab street is not on its own the lethal blow to a new Arab public
sphere which it might have been a decade earlier. The Arab public sphere
has long since transcended reliance on any one forum. But the degraded
status of the one site viewed by virtually all politically attuned Arabs
eliminated a unique source of common knowledge and unified attention.
The intense, often furious arguments which dominated al-Jazeera’s talk
shows during its glory days highlighted disagreement and diversity of
views, but unified the public around shared concern about the issues
being debated. The shift towards more overtly partisan media, where
viewers tend to seek out like-minded sources, promotes the polarization
of Arab discourse into increasingly entrenched, mutually hostile camps.
This privileges ever more extreme and exclusionary rhetoric over efforts
to find middle ground, reducing both common identification and the
prospect for meaningful public debate.

Second, the crushing of the uprising in Bahrain and then the turn to
violent civil war in Syria helped to spread an increasingly nasty
sectarianism through the region, dividing a once unified narrative and
giving lie to any notion that the new Arab public sphere would be
uniquely supportive of inclusive or non-violent discourses. It is
difficult to exaggerate the importance of Bahrain’s ability with
military support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council to
crush a massively mobilized popular protest movement (as mentioned, at
its height, more than half the citizen population was estimated to have
been on the streets). Bahrain did not only rely on force, or even on the
shocking wave of sectarian repression which followed. It also fully
invaded the public sphere. Saudi and Qatari television stations
(including al-Jazeera) largely ignored Bahrain in order to remove that
struggle from the popular regional narrative, while the Bahraini regime
launched a massive public relations campaign designed to tarnish
peaceful human rights protestors as radical Iranian proxies. Bahraini
regime supporters flooded social media sites to promote the regime
narrative and relentlessly hound anyone expressing support for the

The sectarian Sunni-Shi’a dynamic and the vicious colonization of the
public sphere by regime counter-protest forces unleashed by Bahrain
were magnified a thousand-fold by the struggle for Syria. More than any
other Arab arena, Syria proved extraordinarily divisive along both
sectarian and political lines as many Arabs who valued the anti-Israeli
"resistance" of the regime in Damascus pushed back against opposition
narratives. The Syrian opposition relied heavily on the media, as with
the promotion of videos of protests, fighting and alleged regime
atrocities uploaded to YouTube. The Syrian regime pushed back with
relentless propaganda of its own and a fiercely cultivated narrative of
foreign conspiracy. The public sphere became a scorched-earth
battlefield of arguments over the credibility of information and
competing accusations of complicity in conspiracies against one side or
the other. As the conflict ground on and the body count grew, many grew
skeptical of almost all information about events in Syria disseminated
by either the regime or the opposition, while discourse about the crisis
divided and polarized sharply. If the early days of the Arab spring
represented the best in a mobilized regional public sphere, the struggle
for Syria manifested the worst.

Finally, Egypt’s troubled transition exposed the limitations of the
mechanisms which allowed new political forces to punch above their
weight in contentious politics when the action shifted to electoral
politics. While the Egyptian public sphere became a vibrant arena of new
voices, with active and deeply thoughtful debates about the
constitution, elections, reform and revolutionary action, this did not
easily translate into successfully navigating the democratic game.
Elections privileged the choices of mass publics, not the efforts of
empowered individual voices. Liberal and revolutionary groups found
themselves unable to translate their self-declared revolutionary
legitimacy into electoral success and increasingly found themselves back
on the streets protesting a profoundly unsatisfying transition. The
fault did not lie exclusively with the machinations of the military
leadership. Too often, the allure of online presence and the thrill of
street protest distracted from the tedious, plebian work of forming
political parties or building civil society. Meanwhile, existing
well-organized and popular movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood
proved far better adapted to quickly preparing for election campaigns
and institutional politics.

The emergence of a public sphere is a systemic transformation driven
by powerful technological, demographic and political forces, not a
fragile moment rooted in the success of any particular movement. It is
unlikely that any Arab country will be able to avoid its insistent
pressures. Perhaps the Saudi regime can repress and co-opt protestors in
the short term, but there is no way it can avoid the contradictions
between a young, deeply media-saturated public and a ruthless policing
of public space. Its effects will not be uniformly positive, however,
nor will the pace of change be even. As Syria has shown, the public
sphere can all too easily be overwhelmed by sectarian and partisan
passions or transformed into a zone of naked political warfare. Any
public sphere detached from meaningfully democratic institutions,
whether a transnational one with no authoritative actor to make
decisions on its behalf or a domestically repressive one unwilling to do
so will remain a weak public. If systematically frustrated, such
publics can easily turn ugly.

These notes of caution should not lead us to miss the deeper
significance of the structural transformation taking place. Empowered
publics and new flows of information are fundamentally rewriting the
rules of regional politics. What today seems natural and obvious –
Facebook groups devoted to mocking kings, television talk show hosts
grilling military leaders or top Muslim Brotherhood figures, electoral
choices being openly debated everywhere from online to taxicabs – was
unthinkable two decades ago. Authoritarian regimes will adapt, as will
Islamist movements and liberal civil society actors, and no specific
political outcome is preordained. But the new public sphere has already
radically changed the basic stuff of political life across the region
and its disruptive effects have only begun.


New Arab Public Sphere as a Source of Data

The discussion thus far has focused on what the new Arab public
sphere is doing to Arab politics. But it also has to change the study of
Arab politics. The wealth of new evidence available on the internet
should not only transform Arab media studies, it should be integrated
into almost all political science research programs. Twitter, Facebook,
YouTube and other social media platforms offer enormous quantities of
publicly available data which can be accessed to varying degrees. There
are many live-blogs and daily Storify collections, along with YouTube
videos and Flickr images, which collect useful content which could be
used to illustrate arguments or test hypotheses. Almost all Arabic
newspapers now maintain online archives of news coverage and op-eds
which eliminate the need for back-breaking hours with microfiche.

These data present unprecendented opportunities – but also dangers. This data has been most often used to track information flows,
for instance through linking and retweeting patterns or through
analysis of the quantity and rhythms of particular phrases and hashtags.
These can be used to test propositions about everything from collective
action to political polarization to regional diffusion effects to the
impact of videos revealing graphic violence on international
intervention. Other important potential uses remain less developed, such
as sentiment analysis of Facebook or Twitter postings and comments
(which might be used to evaluate expectations or attitudes in real time)
and linkages between online social media and mass media content.
Facebook postings, blogs and other social media could be used in
historiographical fashion as online diaries rather than as large-n data

But in all forms, researchers must be extremely careful about
systematic bias in the data sources. Twitter, for instance, is likely
the best suited data set for Big Data analysis since it is a
self-contained universe in a research friendly format, but is among the
least-often used social media platforms in countries such as Egypt (only
0.26% of Egyptians and 0.04% of Syrians use Twitter, according to a recent survey).
Facebook is far more popular across the region, with Egypt’s 10 million
accounts not even placing it in the top ten per capita among Arab
countries, but it is less amenable to the needs of systematic research.
Individual Facebook accounts are harder to access systematically for
research purposes due to privacy concerns, although politically-oriented
Facebook groups have become essential for research and for political
action alike. Broadcast media tends to be less amenable to systematic
quantitative analysis, and after all this time we still lack for the
most part even rudimentary systematic content analysis, audience
research, or careful tracing of impact on political attitudes or

In short, methodology matters. We do not want to become the
proverbial drunks looking for keys under the streetlight because that’s
the only illuminated place. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw, since
the relevant population is defined by the question: if one’s question is
about online activism, then online activists are a legitimate
population to study. But if the goal is to generalize to mass publics,
then caveat emptor. Unfortunately, the tendency to date is for
researchers to acknowledge these limitations… and then to proceed with
the data analysis nevertheless. If everybody interviews the same ten
Egyptian activists because they are easily found tweeting in English,
then we may end up knowing less about Egyptian politics than we did


New Publics, New Forms of Engagement

The new Arab publics should not be treated only as causal variables
or sources of data, of course. They have brought forward a deluge of new
voices who must be heeded, engaged, and incorporated into everything
which scholars of the region do. Could anyone really attempt to discuss
the Egyptian revolution without listening to the readily available
accounts, thoughts, and beliefs of the many individuals who helped to
create it? What, if anything, do American scholars uniquely contribute
to the analysis of Arab politics now that the Arab public sphere has
brought forward so many eloquent, informed and often brilliant local
voices? The case can be made that they do… but the case must more than
ever be made.

The participants in the Arab public sphere should be seen as fully
equal partners in the production of knowledge about the region. This can
not simply be the exploitation of these new voices as native
informants, or the idolization of celebrity activists – two habits of
which we have seen far too much already. Nor does it mean simply
accepting what the locals say as gospel. Instead, it should mean the
regular incorporation of Arab scholars, activists, writers, political
figures and ordinary people into all stages of the production and
dissemination of knowledge. It means treating them as fully equal
actors, not simply objects to be analyzed. Their ideas, like ours,
should be challenged, discussed, debated and vetted… but they must be
included. I find myself unable to look approvingly these days at
manuscripts which do not generously cite Arab editorials and online
discussions of the relevant issues.

Scholars also will need to be on guard against abusing their own role
in the process. It is all too easy to over-identify with one faction in
a local struggle, to adopt their language and biases and blindspots and
to promote rather than critically analyze their political projects.
Such over-identification, whether with leftist Egyptian activists, the
Syrian opposition, or one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is
deeply problematic for the academic mission. In a recent essay (PDF) in Public Culture, outgoing SSRC President Craig Calhoun
brilliantly laid out the problems, some real and some imagined, with
the engagement by Western academics with Qaddafi’s Libya. The problem
for individual scholars (as opposed to institutions seeking financial
support), Calhoun concludes, was not the decision to travel to Libya or
take part in dialogue with Qaddafi – both perfectly legitimate actions
for the engaged academic. Instead, the distinction lay in how the
scholar approached the encounter: "Critical public engagement and making
scholarly, research-based knowledge available to inform public
discussions are both different from being drawn into the efforts of
public actors to manage their public relations or reputations. The
boundary is of course not always clear." Can, and should, academics
apply that same standard to interactions with like-minded Arab

Engaging with this new Arab public sphere will not necessarily be
easy for academics. The need to keep up with dozens of online
newspapers, to say nothing of Facebook groups, blogs and Twitter feeds,
imposes a significant burden on already overworked scholars. So does the
urgent need to publish in online venues such as and
to maintain an online social media presence for those who hope to
actually influence public debate. This public sphere moves quickly, has
its own internal language and references, and has little regard for
formal credentials. It demands relentless, inexhaustible attention which
may cut against the instinct of many academics to retreat from the
immediate and look at the longer view. For some, this will prove wise.
But for those academics who hope to be relevant in the contemporary
public sphere, Lisa Anderson
is right that there is really no choice other than to recognize and
adapt to these new structural realities about how information flows and
ideas change.

Originally published by the Social Science Research Council’s Transformation of the Public Sphere Initiative