Arabs seize the ‘permission to narrate’

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The Egyptian revolution as covered by Al Jazeera (left) and Fox News (right).
Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them. . . . as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”
– Edward Said, Permission to Narrate (1984)

The Egyptian revolution is bringing with it countless stories about how it happened and what it means for Egypt and the Middle East. Having spent a good number of hours the past two weeks watching and marveling at Al Jazeera’s coverage, I sense that one of the stories taking shape amounts to a meta narrative about a shifting balance of media influence between the region and the United States. Just as the Egyptian revolution has liberated the Egyptian people from the grasp of a US-backed authoritarian leader and seems likely to wrench Egypt out of its nearly total reliance on US support and largesse, the Egyptian people–as covered by AlJazeera–may be bringing about a new international media order.

In a presentation before a room of about 50 people at DC’s Busboys and Poets last week, an AlJazeera reporter and anchor discussed with the audience the effect the ongoing revolution is having on the station’s reach in the US. Despite the fact that AlJazeera English is available by cable in only a small handful of US locales, its reputation and visibility have skyrocketed since January 25, mostly because Americans have been watching the live stream of the AJE broadcast on the station’s web site. As someone from the audience pointed out, the Egyptian uprising is doing for AJE what the first US Gulf war did for CNN.

So, as we watch the unfolding drama of Egyptians reclaiming their voice and destiny, we watch and are enlightened by young and extremely well-informed Arab, and in many cases Egyptian, reporters and analysts. There is no western filter of former government officials, DC think tankers, former military officers, and other US policy wonks. No, what we are now witnessing is Arabs and Egyptians, not only making their own history, but having the international stature and reach to narrate it as well.

Dan Sisken maintains the website Mideast Brief.

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