Given that over two-thirds of the countries in the world are now democracies, how come none of the 18 Arabic-speaking countries is genuinely democratic' There are sham democracies like Egypt where the elections are always rigged, a couple of half-way democracies like Jordan where the king still has the last word, and one brave experiment in tiny Qatar, but that’s it.
Part of the reason is the curse of oil, which has led foreigners to meddle non-stop in the Arab world. Certainly the half-century of confrontation with Israel, marked by repeated Arab defeats, also played a role. But rather than trying to answer the question, we should note instead that the situation is probably about to change, because at last there is uncensored news available in Arabic.
Once information starts to flow freely, it’s hard to stop democracy. Consider former East Germany, whose communist rulers were unable to block West German television broadcasts. Seventy per cent of the East German population could pick up uncensored news in their own language with only a twisted coat-hanger for an antenna — and the television told them all the things their rulers didn’t want them to know.
Word gets around
In particular, it showed them the non-violent democratic revolutions in Asian countries in the late Eighties, especially the one where Chinese students tried to overthrow their own communist regime in 1989. Six months later, the East Germans began their own non-violent revolution, starting the avalanche that swept away all the communist regimes of Europe with hardly a shot fired.
The Arab world has never had access to uncensored news and debates — at least, not until five years ago, when al-Jazeera went on air. It’s only a single television channel, but it broadcasts by satellite 24 hours a day, and can be picked up by anybody with a dish almost anywhere in the Arab world.
This may seem like no big thing. After all, it’s only one channel, and you have to be rich enough to own a dish. But that is to misunderstand the nature of the media environment. When a major outlet starts to tell the truth, even if only one Arab in ten sees it (al-Jazeera claims a regular audience of 35 million), the word gets around very fast.
Al-Jazeera grew out of a failed attempt by the BBC to create an Arabic-language TV service. It was a joint venture with a Saudi company that tried to censor a documentary hostile to the Saudi regime, so the BBC pulled out — leaving behind a talented team of Arab TV journalists who had got a whiff of editorial freedom. So they went to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the British-educated ruler of Qatar, and pitched the idea of al-Jazeera to him.
They picked the right man. Only recently come to power, he was starting to introduce democracy in his own tiny sheikhdom, and was so attracted by the idea of providing uncensored news to the whole Arab world that he agreed to bankroll the channel to the tune of $ 150 million over five years. It still isn’t making a profit — partly because a lot of local companies, and some multinationals too, have been instructed not to advertise on al-Jazeera — but in five years it has transformed the political environment in west Asia.
That may seem an exaggeration, since there has been no major change yet in any of the regimes that run the region. But as the Australian media magnate, Rupert Murdoch, said ten years ago (to his everlasting mortification, for it wrecked a lucrative deal he was making in China), direct broadcasting from satellites is “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere”. The free flow of information opens people’s minds, and then change can happen.
“I think that if al-Jazeera had been there 15 years ago, there would have been no September 11,” said marketing director, Ali Mohammad Kamal, three months ago. If it is still in business 15 years from now, there will be a lot fewer dictatorships and absolute monarchies in the Arab world.