Arab political discourse is characterized by cacophony and an utter absence of comprehensive analysis. Any attempt to systematically address or analyze the recurrent political crises and failures in the Arab world is thwarted by the reality of this discourse. A brief examination of the media coverage of recent events demonstrates this weakness.
Let us look, for a start, at the continued fighting between the Yemeni armed forces and the Hawthi rebels in the northern province of Saada. Sound and incisive media coverage would have focused on the roots of the problem. Yemen is a frail state, in danger of collapsing under a social fabric unraveled by years of persecution and corruption, unable to gain legitimacy due to a lack of democratic mechanisms to ensure social participation. Instead, the Arab media opted for an overtly simplistic analysis of the Yemeni predicament. The media focused on the sectarian background of the Hawthis as the only rationale justifying their rebellion and on the presumed role of regional forces suspected of supporting them. Such coverage fell in line with the official Yemeni narrative, which is keen on rebuffing any allegations that the government might have a role in creating the factors which sustain this conflict.
The same simplistic approach was adopted in the media coverage of the latest terrorist bombings in Iraq and the subsequent tensions that arose between the Iraqi government and its Syrian counterpart. The problem in Iraq, in my opinion, is threefold. First, there is the incapacity of Arab countries to address the production and financing of transborder terrorism, an issue that has plagued Iraq since the beginning of the American invasion in 2003. Second, there is the persistent political marginalization of influential communities, as punishment for their previous ties with Saddam’s regime. Their inclusion in the Iraqi system is a prerequisite for national reconciliation. Finally, there is the propensity of some regional powers to desecrate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weak and unstable countries, in order to reinforce their own position in negotiations with international powers or to settle their own accounts with other regional players.
After the latest terrorist attacks in Iraq, these crucial issues of violence in the Arab world, national reconciliation in an occupied country attempting to rebuild itself on the remains of an old regime and infringements on the sovereignty of unstable countries should have been subjected to a thorough analysis. The media chose, instead, to indulge in lengthy commentaries detailing accusations exchanged between Syria and Iraq, often aligning with one against the other, or to dwell on unsubstantiated insinuations regarding Iranian involvement.
A third example of the weakness of Arab political discourse in the media can be found with the latest phase of the Lebanese post election cabinet crisis, when the prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, submitted the cabinet formation to President Michel Sleiman. This crisis has gained both local and international media attention. It mirrors a political system governed by contradictory rules. On the one hand, political life in Lebanon is founded on democratic mechanisms involving periodical elections, which should normally generate cabinets with parliamentary majority. On the other hand, democracy in Lebanon is controlled by constitutional and customary prerequisites which impose a distribution of power along sectarian grounds. Thus, to safeguard coexistence in a pluralistic community that has, until recently, been prone to violence, any government formed must be one of national unity and must ensure that none of the players can be considered a winner and none a loser.
Public institutions in Lebanon endeavor to spread their sovereignty over all Lebanese territories by monopolizing the right to bear arms. They are confronted, however, with internal opposing forces, some of which rally behind a sectarian group, and all of which are supported by regional and international alliances that allow them to infiltrate state institutions at all levels. This renders the already enfeebled government utterly helpless. The result is that political life in Lebanon is partially crippled by democratic mechanisms void of legitimacy and content. All of this is found amidst a political discourse filled with statements that would seem odd anywhere other than Lebanon, such as the claim that a parliamentary majority does not negate demographic majority. Again, with few exceptions, these quintessential Lebanese problems find no voice in the current media, which fails to address the issue in an analytical way that might lead to possible solutions. Instead, the Arab media prefers to engage in endless debate about swapping ministerial portfolios and regional or international deals and conflicts affecting the Lebanese scene.
Unfortunately, the chaos that characterizes Arab analysis of political issues is not restricted to these three examples. It includes other internal and external affairs, from the opportunities for political transformation in the Arab world, to sustainable development, to the role of religion within social and political spheres, to regional conflicts and interactions with international parties. Those participating in the discourse either wallow in pointless old debates or avoid honest discussions of real problems.
There are, of course, some efforts to promote deep and comprehensive political debate in new forums. Regardless, ending the chaos in political discourse will only occur through real change in Arab societies. This change would bring Arabs closer to democratic societies, where the lines constraining political and social life would withdraw, allowing greater communication between practitioners and debaters of politics. This would bestow vibrancy and legitimacy on their discussions. Yet these are fundamentals that we lack in the Arab world, whose many ailments require first and foremost the inauguration of a true democracy.
This article was first published in Al Hayat newspaper, August, 2009
Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.