What is new, or not, about media and the 2019 ‘uprisings’ in the Arab world?

By Dina Matar|May 13, 2019|Arab uprisings, Latest news|0 comments

2019 may be as significant a moment as 2011 for media and communication scholarship focusing on the Arab World. As in the uprisings that disrupted the political order in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria in 2011, the highly mediated and visible protests in Sudan and Algeria, two of the least covered countries in the region, have, too, managed to challenge long-standing power structures, catching media analysts and scholars somewhat by surprise. And, as in the 2011 events, these latest waves of protest against power and corruption have re-ignited the debate between those who see them as part of ongoing (albeit not always visible to Western publics) popular struggles for change and those who see them as lacking an ideological framework and leadership and, as such, likely to be hijacked by counter-revolutionaries, as had happened in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

For those concerned with the dynamics between communication, politics and culture, a sense of déjà vu is palpable. Like in 2011, the protests in Algeria and Sudan have shown a disruption in political communication processes and a change in popular perceptions of political agency and participation, manifest, in its most dramatic forms, in collective public acts of disruptive politics, and, in its most expressive forms, in the plethora of individual and collective voices engaged in creative telling and witnessing. In both countries, as in the 2011 uprisings and since, we have seen ordinary people use social media platforms and other public spaces to disseminate a culturally-meaningful grassroots web language that speaks to present and past histories and a creative remixing of iconic images, humour and memes with locally-meaningful narratives. Like in 2011, the mainstream Western media has continued to draw on Orientalist and (neo) liberal tropes in describing the popular movements in Algeria and Sudan, with much media attention focusing on the ‘civility’ of the movements while focusing on images of young, technically-savvy protesters, thus systematically rendering invisible protestors from rural and working-class communities as well those with beards and headscarves. This selective framing tacitly and subconsciously links all that is peaceful, orderly and civic with liberalism and democracy, while associating beards and headscarves with a ‘traditional’ Arab Street, repeating the premise of modernization theories. What seems to be largely forgotten in these representations is that human concerns around political rights, freedom and dignity are global concerns that are also historically situated, which, in the case of Sudan and Algeria, mean the colonial past and the post-colonial present remain relevant.

For scholars working on media and the Arab world, this latest wave of protests throws into relief old and difficult-to- resolve questions about the role of social media in these protests; about how and why people mobilize against power when the consequences are likely to cost lives and livelihoods and what do media-related practices – the many commentaries and counter-commentaries by political elites and media producers around these events – tell us about the dynamics between media, politics and power. These are not easy questions to answer given the multiple constructions and interpretations around any transformative events particularly because these events almost always invoke complex and yet fraught connotations tied to geographical, historical, social and political realities. But it is in addressing these questions that we can begin to understand power and structure.

Welcome to the discussion

Dina Matar


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