The Angry, Angry Arab

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As’ad AbuKhalil is a serious-minded political scientist and an erudite commentator on Middle Eastern politics. He is a tenured professor at California State University and the author of three books, including Historical Dictionary of Lebanon. But AbuKhalil is not nearly as popular as the Angry Arab, his alter ego and the voice behind the prolifically trenchant Angry Arab News Service blog. On the Internet, the Angry Arab assails nearly every political actor in the region and directs particular vitriol against the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. His posts, which can number well above thirty per day, range from terse (verging on monosyllabic) assertions to frenzied rants that contain no paragraph breaks and little regard for punctuation. But his indifference to presentation seems not to have alienated his readers: the AANS garners tens of thousands of hits every month and has made him a preferred pundit both on English- and Arabic-language television. The Angry Arab spurns journalistic and academic formalism and offers a furious reaction to the day’s news, calling bullshit where he sees it — which, by the look of his blog, is everywhere. His favorite food is fried eggplant.

We first saw As’ad AbuKhalil speak at what seemed very much to be an Iranian government–funded Islamic center off Edgware Road in London, a modest space stocked with an array of bubbly English-language Iranian propaganda magazines (and even a few real-life mullahs). The talk took place during the London mayor’s Shubbak festival, brought to us all by HSBC, which aimed to carve out “A Window on the Arab World” for Londoners. Although planned many seasons in advance of the Arab Spring, the festival rapidly adjusted to prevailing winds, flying in the fresh-faced revolutionaries made famous by Al Jazeera and Time magazine. We were there on behalf of our own English-language Iranian propaganda magazine, Bidoun, with our travel and lodgings comped by the same deep and interconnected set of pockets. That is to say: we first saw the Angry Arab, As’ad AbuKhalil, speaking in a free and open forum sometime in the early twenty-first century.

Babak Radboy: I have a friend who was in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. He would talk about how the time directly following was the freest press he had ever witnessed. This was not because people were telling the truth, but because there were so many different interested parties at play that telling the truth about something was always interesting to someone else — a kind of biodiversity of propaganda. I think we are weirdly in a parallel moment today with all of these different international news outlets. I would be interested in your thoughts about Al Jazeera in this context.

As’ad AbuKhalil: I think it is fair to say, as Pierre Bourdieu said in his book On Television, that in capitalism in the modern age we are presented with a multiplicity of channels, but it’s like going to the supermarket and seeing hundreds of different cereal boxes only to find that they are all made by General Mills. It is the same with the media. In the Arab world, basically the media is owned by the Saudi or Qatari royal families and their affiliates. But Al Jazeera’s role has gone through a few distinct phases. When it first started in 1996, it seemed truly to aim at providing a free media with free expression — something unprecedented — to gain as many viewers as quickly possible. They were very successful. The second aim was to go after the Saudi royal family, something that the Arab media has not allowed for decades and decades. Since 1957, no major Arab media outlet has spoken against the House of Saud. After September 11th, however, Al Jazeera had a rapprochement with the Saudi royal family and it affected the channel in a major way. It narrowed the parameters for debate. The channel became less interesting. They were too afraid to disturb the many sensitivities of the Saudis.

BR: What was the nature of this change? Why did it happen?

AA: The Saudis were interested in reconciling with them because they were afraid of what Al Jazeera would do to affect stability inside the kingdom. Both parties calculated — both being clients of the United States — to get along for their own mutual benefit.

BR: Do you think there’s a big difference between what the Saudis want and what the Qataris want?

AA: There were different things that they wanted, but since the uprising in Bahrain they have converged. When they saw that a fellow Gulf country was under the threat of a popular uprising, they decided to close ranks, and that’s when Al Jazeera primarily became a propaganda channel. It’s not at all neutral anymore. It’s so propagandistic it’s almost funny.

EP Licursi: You were talking on the blog recently about the uniformity of the Syria coverage on Al Jazeera and the Saudi-owned media outlets. Every Friday for the last couple of weeks, every broadcast was falsely reporting that protests had reached Damascus and Aleppo. Almost similar to the coverage of Libya earlier, that feeling of incitement or mobilization.

AA: These are not news channels. They are now used as vehicles for mobilization and education and for the spread of rumors and deception — with very little news left in between. The Palestine story is so weak. There is so little Palestine coverage on Al Jazeera now.

BR: How would you compare Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic?

AA: I don’t watch Al Jazeera English that much, to be honest. Every time I see it, I find it less crazy, less frenzied, less propagandist than the Arabic channel. But many people who watch it closely send me emails saying it’s just as bad.

BR: I seem to remember you saying that you had a meeting with the emir of Qatar?

AA: On two occasions, yes. The second one, in 2010, was very long.

BR: Can you tell us about that?

AA: Well, I was in Qatar, as I sometimes am, for interviews on Al Jazeera Arabic. The second time he asked to meet with me, Wadah Khanfar, the director of Al Jazeera, drove me to this private resort where he was staying. We were there for three hours. I began by joking, “So you are friends with Saudi Arabia now?” He was like, “Oh no!” and started speaking about them in very negative terms. I said, “I would volunteer my services if you want to resume the conflict with Saudi Arabia.” Or something to that effect. [Laughs] I also complained that it was clear that Al Jazeera had less freedom since his reconciliation with Saudi, and he responded, “Not by orders from me.”

BR: Whose order, then?

AA: I told him that I was not able to speak about Arab politics on Al Jazeera, I could only speak about American foreign policy. He said, “That is not in any way my intention,” and so on. He said he would speak to the director of Al Jazeera, but I don’t think he was sincere.

BR: When the previous director of Al Jazeera left, right around the time of the Bahrain uprisings, was there more to that story?

AA: From what I have heard from a friend at Al Jazeera, he hasn’t really left.

BR: Really?

EPL: Really?

AA: Yeah.

BR: So it’s just symbolic?

AA: Yeah, they are working very closely with him.

BR: Sounds like a conspiracy.

AA: Whose?

BR: The Qataris?

AA: Well, it’s not only the Qataris. They are playing a role in coordination with the United States and Saudi Arabia. There is a very aggressive movement going on by America, the Saudis, the Qataris, and so on. That movement is not succeeding on all fronts, Syria being the obvious example. Egypt was very successful with the election, but things are still not getting done.

BR: But is this a geopolitical concern or a financial concern? It seems to me Egypt and Libya were geopolitically stable. If someone stood to gain from regime change, it would have been a business concern.

AA: On behalf of whom?

BR: International corporations.

AA: No, I don’t see it that way. If you look at Syria and so on, the imperial interests and the interests of Israel far exceed the corporate concerns. In that sense, I don’t view the political economy approach as the target. America in many ways and at many times has sacrificed its economic interests for Israel.

EPL: Well, but how do you see the Qatari regime’s interests manifesting in its coverage of Egypt?

AA: Well, it’s working, is it not? They banked on the Muslim Brotherhood — they gave them a lot of money — and they did very well in the election. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has changed its tune on foreign policy a lot. They have become far less militant. They have become far less strident, and all of that squares with American and Qatari foreign policy.

BR: Speaking directly on Syria, I would be interested to get your opinion. It seems like a strange position to be in, when you are simultaneously against intervention and against the regime.

AA: Well, my view is that there was a popular uprising very early on. Genuine. And it was hijacked by the Arab counterrevolution — by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Hariri family in Lebanon on behalf of the US military. It was hijacked, and they created this vehicle, the Syrian National Council, and it is now less about Syria and more about a regional conflict. An international conflict pitting Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on the one side and Saudi Arabia, Israel, America, and Qatar on the other. That is what the conflict is, and they are using the rebels as pawns.

BR: I guess my question is a bit more terrible — it’s hard to find an example of a revolution that doesn’t get co-opted or utilized by some non-egalitarian power in order to succeed…

AA: Not always. You are talking as if there is a sense of finality to these uprisings. But all world revolutions took years to form. Certainly we are not at that point.