Expert Discusses Al Jazeera's Impact on the Egyptian Protests and the Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

Arab cable channels like al Jazeera promotes a pan-Arab identity at the expense of national, or state-centric, political identities. What role has this played in the recent uprisings across the Arab world?

Scholars and foreign policy experts have long argued that channels like al Jazeera have fundamentally redefined how Arab audiences view politics by recasting political issues in regional terms and embedding Pan-Muslim and Pan-Arab narratives within its news content.

This question has gained significant political attention over the past two weeks with the protests in Egypt.  Most notably, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly has gone so far as to outrageously suggest that Al Jazeera has incited the Egyptian people to riot. To provide insight on this debate and the role of Al Jazeera relative to the Egyptian uprising, I turned to my brother Erik Nisbet, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University, and a leading expert on Arab media and politics.--Matthew Nisbet

A recent study that I co-authored empirically tests the effects of pan-Arab television news on how audiences define themselves politically in six Arab countries, including Egypt, based on survey data collected between 2004 and 2008. Our findings suggest that exposure to channels like al Jazeera significantly increases the salience of transnational political identities, especially Muslim, at the expense of national, or state-centric, political identity among Arab audiences - even "overpowering" other agents of political socialization such as education that tend to promote state-centric identification.

This identity shift has important implications for domestic and international politics in the Arab world as political identity is a key interpretive lens through which Arab audiences make sense of politics and a basis upon which they often mobilize politically.

From a domestic perspective, the growth of transnational Muslim identity, propagated by the new communicative space of cable news, diminishes the long-term political viability and institutional capacity of Arab states that already have considerable institutional weaknesses.   On the international side, Arab states may be increasingly forced to redefine their international policies and relations with the United States to be in congruence with the foreign policy interests of a growing transnational Muslim political identity among their publics.

Behind the Egyptian Protests: A Communication Driven Identity Shift

In the short term, the Pan-Muslim and Pan-Arab narratives typically embedded in al Jazeera content, in combination with growing Pan-Muslim and Pan-Arab identification among Arab audiences, most likely facilitate the "contagion" began by the successful Tunisian revolt.  A large portion of Arab audiences who watched al Jazeera's extensive month-long coverage of Tunisia, and now Egypt, are interpreting these events and outcomes through transnational Muslim and Arab political lenses, rather than as Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, Moroccan, Yemini etc, etc.

In turn, this may influence the lessons learned, the applicability of the Tunisian and Egyptian events to their own political circumstances, and the (increased) likelihood of audiences to challenge their own state political institutions.

There are longer-term implications within Egypt as well. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in shaping the anti-Mubarak protests has been heavily debated over the last week.  Though most acknowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood was not the primary instigator of the protest movement and only joined the protests rather late, it still is one of largest, most organized, and broad-based opposition organizations within Egypt.  

Furthermore, Muslim political identity is strong in Egypt. The University of Maryland 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll conducted by Shibley Telhami found that 37% of Egyptian respondents believed their government should base its decisions on what is best for Muslims in general, rather than Egypt specifically (34% cited Egypt in comparison).  About one-third (31%) also responded that their Muslim identity was most important, compared to 37% which cited their Egyptian identity.

Thus, if the political space opens up in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood becomes a legal and legitimate political actor, the increasing salience of Muslim political identity may provide a reservoir of political support upon which the Muslim Brotherhood can capitalize.  These trends in political identification may influence the character of a reformulated Egyptian state and shape how Egyptian political institutions balance competing national, Muslim, and Arab identities and interests. 

Al Jazeera’s Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy and Strategy

The trends identified by our paper also have important long-term foreign policy implications for the United States. Egypt's unique set of bilateral relations with Israel and the United States has not been without a great deal of domestic opposition within Egypt, despite the material benefits of such relations.  Taking a constructivist perspective that perceived interests are shaped by identity, the dominant framing of American foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine conflict into regional Pan-Muslim and Pan-Arab narratives by channels like al Jazeera, in combination with the growth of Pan-Muslim and Pan-Arab identities, poses a serious challenge for Egyptian relations with the United States and Israel.

Egyptians who view the United States and Israel through a transnational Muslim -- rather than Egyptian -- political lens may perceive a very different set of (self) interests, policy choices, and relations than currently exist.  In turn, if a new, more democratic regime emerges in Egypt, it will need to be responsive to public sentiment in order to gain and maintain long-term legitimacy -- which may mean shifting the nature of its relations with the United States and Israel.

In addition, these factors are not unique to Egypt. As Egypt is the largest, and arguably most prominent Arab country in the world, the political changes we are witnessing may spread throughout the region. Greater political liberalization combined with the growth of transnational political identification may challenge the United States to enact foreign policy within a regional context dominated by transnational political identities whose interests may be more opposed, or at least less amenable, to U.S. foreign policy goals compared to state-centric identities.

--Guest post by Erik Nisbet, professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

See Also: 

Public Diplomacy: Ohio State Study Examines the Impact of Al Jazeera on Muslim Identity, Arab Nationalism, and Views of the United States

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