Libya and the Arab Street

What do ordinary Arabs think? Let’s ask them

On Wednesday, I went to hear Ayman Mohyeldin, the Cairo correspondent for Al Jazeera English, speak at the office of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His subject was the risks and realities of covering the Mideast, and at one point he was asked to reflect on the current situation in Libya. In his answer, he said something that stunned me: The vast majority of Arabs support the no-fly zone.

Despite all their suspicions about Western intervention in the region and all their doubts about U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, “nobody in the Mideast would denounce the U.S. military intervention in Libya,” Mohyeldin said. Muammar Qaddafi had baldly stated his intentions of carrying out a bloodbath, he explained, and most Arabs were delighted to see the West act to prevent it.

In the vast outpouring of coverage of Libya and the no-fly zone, I’ve seen little discussion of what ordinary Arabs think about the situation. As much reporting as there’s been on the position of the Arab League, there’s been next to nothing about opinion on the Arab street.

Mohyeldin is just one journalist, of course, and no doubt there are many shades of opinion in the Arab world. But the fact that he works for Al Jazeera and has received much acclaim for his recent reporting lends his views weight. And one way or another, it’s striking how little coverage there’s been of this key issue in the American press.

How to explain it? The gap no doubt reflects the relatively thin presence of U.S. news organizations in the region. As Mohyeldin noted, Al Jazeera has bureaus and correspondents throughout the Mideast, from Morocco to Somalia to Yemen. During the demonstrations in Egypt, it had several teams in Cairo plus units in both Alexandria and Suez. What’s more, all members of those teams speak Arabic. “If we just spoke to English speakers in Egypt, we would have narrowed our pool to an elite,” he said. (That prompted a person in the audience to crack that, from watching CNN, one would think that everyone in Egypt speaks English.) U.S. news organizations have far fewer people in the region and many fewer who are fluent in Arabic, so it’s harder for them to get a fix on popular opinion.

But something more seems at work here. As the hair-raising seizure and detention of the four New York Times journalists in Libya shows, American reporters have worked valiantly to get as close as possible to the front lines, and the eyewitness accounts they’ve filed have been very valuable. American reporters in print and on air have been less adept, however, at getting the backstory—at describing the historical and political context of these upheavals and the broad social backdrop against which they’re occurring. We would greatly benefit from more in-depth explanation of the events taking place in the Arab world and a greater ability and willingness to seek out and listen to a wider range of voices in it.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq. Tags: , , ,