The Clinton Institute held an intensive two-day international conference on the 14th and 15th of April on the timely topic of “Media and the Arab Spring.” The conference included a range of academics, journalists, media analysts, and filmmakers who came from the United States, the UK, France, Belgium, Egypt, Tunisia, and of course Ireland.
Saturday started with a plenary that brought together literature, political critique, and social media activism. In conversation with Rita Sakr, the Tunisian writer Kamel al-Riahi, who satirized the former Tunisian president on Facebook, presented a fascinating deconstruction of Taher Ben Jelloun’s novel “Par le feu” that presumably recounted the story of Mohammed Bouazizi. The following panel engaged with the legacies of anti-colonial struggle and neo-colonial American soft power in the images and digital culture of the Arab uprisings. After lunch in the beautiful sunshine outside Belfield house, photojournalist Michael Graae and Professor Liam Kennedy reflected on the challenges and impact of photojournalism on framing and recording the revolutions, through a series of moving, iconic photographs from 2011. The three speakers in the following panel offered insightful analyses of the networks created by social and new media (including Twitter and “Storyful”). The day ended perfectly with a refreshing splash of journalism, blogging, and political analysis brilliantly combined in Professor Scott Lucas’s plenary that preceded the evening reception.
Sunday morning kicked off with an extremely engaging talk by Mary Fitzgerald, the foreign correspondent of the Irish Times, who discussed her experiences covering the different uprisings and the various obstacles that have faced journalists in this context. Remaining within the framework of journalism, the following panel included one of the editors of the Egyptian AlMasry AlYoum newspaper and a media presenter on Nile TV. The first afternoon plenary extended the topic of the Egyptian revolution with two complementary presentations by Professor Caroline Rooney (University of Kent) and Dr Ayman el-Desouky (SOAS, London) on aura, rhythm, and the sacred in the visual and verbal media of Egypt’s political transformations. Text and image were also the focus of the stimulating last plenary on “filming the revolution” with papers that covered amateur videos, YouTube filmography, the Cinema of Tahrir, and online reporting of Gaddafi’s capture and death. Finally, the last plenary was both thought-provoking and provocative as Professor Joseph Massad (Columbia University) used Macchiavelli’s theory of the love and fear of the ruler to interpret Arab autocrats’ changing relationship to their people and the place of US foreign policy in this context.
The uprisings in the Arab world have revealed the increasingly forceful and transnational impact of the media in the Middle East and North Africa, but they have also served to warn us that the media, both traditional and new, is one element in a complex web of political, social, economic, and intellectual factors that only if brought successfully together, can really and positively bring about a true Spring in the Arab world. Through this conference we both looked back at these dynamics as they unfolded in 2011 and forward to the prospects of reform, democracy, peace, and conflict in the revolutionary Arab world.