Thursday, February 17, 2011

Blogger fatigue (and more on Bahrain and Libya)

Michael Dunn, Editor in chief of the Middle East Journal, had a blog up yesterday that hits on a serious issue that resonated with me – Middle East blogger fatigue. I’ve only been doing this for the past three weeks, and the scale of what’s going on is overwhelming and shows no signs of slowing down.

As the old saying goes – If all of us are special than none of us are special – if things are blowing up (metaphorically) all over, then how do you know what to focus on? The news media is certainly getting crushed by the breadth of the events at hand. How many Arabic speakers does CNN have on hand? Or the BBC? The only news agencies that are really in a position to cover what’s going on in the Arabic-speaking world are the Arabic news agencies like Al-Arrabiya and al-Jazeera (neither of which are available on cable in much of the US).

Even these news agencies are limited in their coverage; they can only put so many people on the ground at any given time. In the case of al-Jazeera (as we saw in Egypt) their presence is unwelcome, risky, or blocked outright in some of the places where the real action is. This leads to a sort of news triage on the part of the news agencies – put the reporters in the places where the big spectacular things are at (that you can get to). Locations where the protests are small or unlikely to bear short-term fruit (i.e. Jordan, or Syria) and places where the reporters would be at serious risk (Libya and Yemen) just aren’t going to get the attention they deserve.

The length of time involved is another serious issue. None of this will be resolved anytime soon. We will be seeing the aftershocks from the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings for the rest of our lives. When the Iranian post-election protests hit their third week their coverage in the US news was starting to weaken and taper off. When the situation was at an ebb all it took was the death of an American pop icon to drag the attention of a news-fatigued public away from the events on the other side of the planet. Fortunately for Egypt, they were able to reach the point of critical mass before the world lost interest. But now, what? 20011 is going to be a year of amazing political events, will we be able to keep track of it all? It’s only February. Will we still be able to care ten months from now in December when, say, Belarus is the twenty-second country to collapse under the pressure of a populace that has grown weary of indignity?

Then there’s the issue of specialization – the sheer diversity of Middle East/North African culture is staggering. (This is one of the most frustrating aspects about listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about as they paint the region’s inhabitants with broad brushes, “the Arabs are like this..”) Most serious Mid-east scholars, historians, political scientists, and Foreign Service specialists have a relatively good grasp of the broad facts of the region with some very specific areas of expertise. To expect a Farsi speaking Iran-focused analyst to weigh in on Tunisia is folly. To look to an Israeli/Palestine expert for insight into Bahrain is going to limit the depth of possible analysis.

There aren’t a lot of Tunisia or Bahrain experts weighing in on the events in Tunisia or Bahrain because there aren’t a lot of American experts on Tunisia or Bahrain.

You may ask, “What about you? What makes you think that you have the wherewithal to presume to blog about the Middle East? ”

Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m not really a specialist I don’t work in the Middle East right now, and my current day job doesn’t really have much to do with Middle East issues. I’m more of a new-media/social-media analyst than a Middle East expert. Despite that, I’ve got a very strong foundation in modern Middle East history, politics, and culture, as well as a few years of Arabic training, a rough handle on Hebrew, and a smattering of Farsi. This makes it easy for me to consume, filter, and assess a tremendous amount of information as it pours out of the intertubes in both traditional and new-media forms. I’m not so much a generalist as I am a synthesist – I follow everything and look for common threads and nodes. There are a few areas that I know a bit more about, but right now my main concern is to walk you (and myself) through the media fatigue.

Having said that, just two quick updates today


Bahrain – the situation in Bahrain is getting much more serious. Nicholas Kristof is there now, probably angling for another Pulitzer. Several more protesters were killed during a middle-of-the-night military raid, and the reports from the hospitals are horrifying.

There are two larger issues that are in play that I’d like to bring your attention to here:

1. As I mentioned earlier, Bahrain is 60-70% Shi’a, but ruled by a Sunni royal family. Although the country is relatively prosperous, many of the Shi’a populace feels that their opportunities and political representation are abridged and limited by structural favoritism on the part of the Sunni leadership. This is compounded by an ongoing policy that makes it very easy for Sunnis from other Arabic-speaking countries to get jobs and citizenship in Bahrain (this is an attempt by the Sunnis to counterbalance their relative demographic weakness). As a result, many of the police responding to the protests are not native Bahraini, but rather immigrants from elsewhere in the Arab world with little respect for the Shi’a protesters.

2. The Bahraini police have (as of yesterday) been supplemented by equipment and soldiers from Saudi Arabia. This is very bad. Not only are Saudis notoriously anti-Shi’a, it shows a dramatic position of weakness on the part of the Bahraini leadership. Additionally, this could potentially create a flashpoint that inflames Sunni/Shi’a hostilities elsewhere in the gulf.

Oh, yea, also the US navy 5th fleet is stationed at Bahrain. This isn’t looking good


Libya – Who knows. 14 dead? Maybe… probably more. Information has become even harder to get since yesterday. If you missed yesterday’s post you should go back and check it out.

I agree with Issandr el Amrani’s assessment – the protests in Libya are the most important protests now taking place in North Africa. Read his analysis, he says it better than I can.


  1. Note that al-Jazeera is available online both in English and Arabic, but it is not the same news, i.e. al-Jazeera English is not a translation of al-Jazeera Arabic. This was pointed out to me by a native speaker here in Qatar. -Ed.

  2. Indeed, thank you for the clarification.