There was an expectation that the English channel would be a more sober and sophisticated Al Jazeera, less parochial and operating with higher journalistic standards. While this perception may have played to the English service’s favor, it reflected poorly on the broad Al Jazeera brand, and that implication was never strenuously enough denied. Almost the entire staff were imported, with few of them having any real experience of the Middle East, and fewer still speaking any Arabic. There was a barely concealed discomfort with the sister Arabic channel amongst many of the new arrivals, coupled with the widespread belief that the path to success for Al Jazeera International, as the English service was initially called, was to emphasize the distance between the two.
This tension between the channels did not go unnoticed by outsiders, and soon there were attempts to exploit it. On a visit to the State Department to promote Al Jazeera English, it was suggested to me that any pressure I could exert on my Arabic colleagues to tone down their reporting would be rewarded with increased access. The discontent at Al Jazeera Arabic was palpable, at the perceived slight to the legacy in which so much blood and toil had been invested, and it soon reached the ears of the Qatari owners. Again they called on Khanfar, to repair the rift, and rescue the brand from confusion. He more than rose to the occasion.
Overnight, Khanfar was transformed from the managing director of the Arabic channel to the director general of a global network, with a diverse portfolio of channels broadcasting in both Arabic and English. He immediately set about bridging the chasm between the two news channels. One of the first steps was to change the name of Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English, to make it clear that both channels shared the same perspective and were animated by the same spirit, while being separated only by language. Achieving coherence between the two was a long process, and it involved some key personnel changes along with the rebranding, but the universally celebrated coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East is a testament to his ultimate success.
Khanfar in many ways prefigured the Arab Spring. His overarching vision was that the network be the voice of a world in transition. He could be mesmerizing in both Arabic and English, as he spoke from the horizon of aspirations yet to be realized but that were already shaping the course of current events. It was also why he made plenty of people nervous. Bursting with impatience at the autocratic regimes smothering Middle Eastern societies, he is emblematic of the generation that took to the streets to demand change. Though marginalized and making only a cameo appearance in Western consciousness as the so-called Arab street, Khanfar recognized them as history’s true actors, and addressed them long before they had coalesced into a visible, and very vocal public. I was always impressed with how he spoke about the Al Jazeera audience, as he described them with such intimacy. The Arab Spring was that audience made flesh.
Al Jazeera’s coverage was so compelling because it was the culmination of an extraordinary historical moment it had been documenting for many years. With the cameras left on all night in Tahrir Square, viewers were given unmediated access to that audience turned protagonist.
Equally remarkable was the convergence between the two channels. During my time with the network, it was not unusual for Al Jazeera Arabic correspondents to appear on their sister channel, but few at Al Jazeera English spoke Arabic well enough to return the favor. That changed during the uprising in Egypt. For the first time that I can recall, there was movement in both directions, with Al Jazeera English’s Cairo correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin (now with NBC), appearing on both channels. It was as coherent as Al Jazeera Arabic and English had ever been, and it produced their most successful coverage to date.
Their sudden popularity in the US was helped by the fact that the policy Washington eventually settled on to ease out Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler of three decades, was also in line with the network’s thrust. The praise was a dramatic reversal of fortune for a channel that not too long ago was considered a synonym for terrorism. The alignment of both channels, and the global recognition of the coverage, in both Arabic and English, was a vindication of Khanfar’s entire project.