Arabic broadcast and social media were key factors in transforming Tunisia’s and Egypt’s 2011 uprisings into broader Arab uprisings. Media allowed Arabs across the region to view events there as part of their own story. For the relatively small but influential portion of urban youth online, social media linked the protests through shared hashtags and by circulating powerful images, videos, and slogans. However, broadcast media, above all Qatar’s pan-Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera, were critical for bringing this protest narrative to a mass audience.
Recently, mass protests have demanded the departure of long-ruling presidents in Algeria and Sudan. The decision on Monday of Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika not to seek a fifth term appeared to reflect the success of Algerian demonstrators. In the past two years, major protests have also hit Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan. The conditions are there for the reemergence of an “Arab uprising” narrative. Many activists online have again attempted to craft one, built around solidarity among different Arab societies. But thus far, key pan-Arab satellite television stations have largely avoided doing the same. Why is that the case?
The major pan-Arab stations are not exactly ignoring Algeria and Sudan. News broadcasts and the occasional talk show are addressing the main developments. Some individual media personalities have been enthusiastic online. But these stations have, noticeably, not gone into full mobilization mode as they had in 2011, when they covered the protests as the single most important development in regional politics. Today, rather than linking the protests into a single Arab story, the coverage largely presents them as isolated national events. There has been a noticeable uptick in Arab Spring framing only during the past week, after Algeria’s protests forced Bouteflika to announce he would not run again.
The relatively weak pan-Arab media support for these uprisings has been noted by many activists and observers. To test that observation, I used a tool developed by my colleague Deen Freelon to grab the last 3,200 tweets on the main Twitter feed of the two leading satellite television stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Those stations represent the two major dueling camps in Arab politics: Al-Jazeera has long been the standard bearer of Arab populism and is now more closely aligned with Qatari foreign policy than in the past; Al-Arabiya is the mouthpiece of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) counterrevolutionary bloc. The tweets, which at least approximate each station’s broadcasting, dated back to January and ended just before this week’s dramatic events in Algeria.
Approximately 7 percent of Al-Jazeera’s tweets were about Algeria after the first protests took place on February 22; and 4 percent involved Sudan after the protests started there. Al-Arabiya has also tweeted about Algeria approximately 7 percent of the time since February 22, and Sudan about 3 percent. Even given the crowded news agenda, those percentages seem low relative to the significance and public interest in the protests.
I also looked at the retweets of Algeria- and Sudan-related topics as a measure of audience interest. For Al-Jazeera, Algeria retweets received just over half the overall average of retweets while Sudan received almost double the average. For Al-Arabiya, Algeria retweets on average received 15 percent of the overall average of retweets, while Sudan received 30 percent. In other words only Al-Jazeera’s retweets about Sudan were more popular than the average retweet.
Perhaps the relatively low interest was because of the tone of the coverage. Both stations for the most part covered these as local issues, not as part of a broader regional trend. Shared hashtags (where two or more countries are linked in a single tweet) were almost nonexistent. By far the most retweeted Al-Jazeera tweet on either country during this period, interestingly, was of a video that put Sudan and Algeria together to ask whether events there signaled a new Arab Spring.
Why aren’t Arab media embracing these uprisings as they did in 2011? There are media business explanations, of course. The news agenda in the Arab world is crowded. Sudan and Algeria are both distant from the priorities of most of the viewers of these stations. Still, the same could have been said for Tunisia in 2011, and protests typically make for excellent television.
The coverage is clearly shaped by politics. Leading pan-Arab stations cannot completely ignore consequential political developments such as the Sudanese and Algerian protests. But they have little incentive in these two cases to go into all out promotion mode. The regional order is deeply in the grip of a years-long autocratic backlash designed to prevent a new wave of public protest. That grip has tightened as protests have nonetheless broken out repeatedly. Almost every regime in the Arab world today is desperately worried about the eruption of another regional uprising. They remember all too well that the spark for the original uprising came from distant, marginal Tunisia. Even the slightest chance that the same could happen with Algeria or Sudan is worrisome to security-obsessed regimes. The success of Algeria’s protestors has thus been accompanied by warnings from leaders such as Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi against “riots.” Commentary in the Gulf has framed the protests as a problem of Arab republics, not monarchies.
While Arab powers may feel an incentive to encourage uprisings against hostile regimes, Sudan and Algeria are both swing states in today’s highly polarized regional arena. Algeria remained neutral in the conflict between Qatar and the Saudi-Emirati bloc. Neither Qatar nor the Saudi-UAE bloc saw an advantage in alienating the Algerian military, or in pushing Algiers toward the other side of the regional divide because of hostile coverage in their media outlets. Each will be careful to ensure that the likely leadership change in Algeria will not tip the country into the other’s camp.
Similarly, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are invested in, if not enthusiastic about, the survival of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir. Sudan recently rebuilt relations with Saudi Arabia by distancing itself from Iran and volunteering troops for the Yemen war. In return, Saudi Arabia has pushed for Bashir’s rehabilitation despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. But Sudan has also maintained good relations with Qatar. Bashir visited Doha in January, receiving public support but no new economic aid. Qatar worries that any replacement for the Sudanese president could align his country with Egypt and the UAE, which would represent a strategic setback for Doha.
Ambivalent Qatari and Saudi relations with the Sudanese and Algerian regimes mean that while they may not completely silence coverage as they might over protests against close allies, they also have no incentive to encourage protests. That may change, however, now that the protests in Algeria have prevented Bouteflika from standing for a new term. When Arab leaders fall, the satellite television stations have a hard time avoiding the still potent “Arab Spring” framework for coverage. Moreover, their broadcasting diverges as they seek to shape the nature of successor regimes.