Middle East

Qatar, Saudi Arabia in screen war over Arab Spring

File - Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani stands next to his son Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim before the Emir Cup final match between Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan at Khalifa stadium in Doha in this May 18, 2013.( REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad)

BEIRUT: As the revolt against President Mohammad Mursi’s rule got underway in Egypt this week, hundreds of thousands thronged to the streets, but one key player was missing. One image circulated widely on social media as the protests got started showed a screen grab of Al-Jazeera reporting on a football training session instead of Tahrir Square. It was a far cry from when the channel fought to keep the iconic scene of the Egyptian Revolution on the air.

Gone was the freewheeling, enthusiastic coverage of the protests that was a hallmark of the channel’s golden age in early 2011.

Then, protesters celebrated on the Qatari-owned satellite channel championing their cause. Now, it is often referred to in a derogatory manner on social media as “Al-Jazeera Ikhwan,” the Arabic word for Brotherhood.

“Al-Jazeera Arabic in 2011 was squarely on the side of the anti-government protesters, today the channel is notorious for being the mouthpiece of the Brotherhood party,” said Sultan al-Qassemi, a UAE-based writer and commentator who closely follows media coverage of the uprisings in the Arab world.

Gulf leaders have publicly voiced long-held suspicious of the Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates this week convicted dozens of detainees accused of conspiring against the government, with some accused of belonging to a local branch of the Brotherhood, and the party has had several diplomatic spats with the UAE.

Saudi Arabia’s former Crown Prince Nayef was quoted in 2002 as saying that “all the troubles of the kingdom come from the Brotherhood.”

But Qatar has maintained deep ties to the organization, providing a $3 billion lifeline to the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt in May – the latest in $8 billion of assistance over the last two years as Qatar sought greater influence and clout in the aftermath of regional upheaval.

The coverage of the protests in Egypt came to be seen as a sign of the foreign policy preferences of Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera, as well as those of the backers of its rival Al-Arabiya, which is owned by members of the Saudi royal family, the two traditional titans of the Arab media landscape.

“Since 2011, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have become mirror images of their respective governments’ policies,” said Adel Iskandar, professor of media studies at Georgetown who conducted extensive research on Al-Jazeera.

The “most startling development,” argued Iskandar, is Al-Jazeera’s transformation into what he called a “platform for advocacy on behalf of specific political agendas.”

“On Egypt, Al-Jazeera Arabic went from being a pro-revolution voice under Mubarak to a pro-government voice under the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “This is especially the case with the network Mubasher Misr that is geared specifically to the Egyptian market.”

Raphael Lefèvre, a researcher on the Muslim Brotherhood at Cambridge University and author of “Ashes of Hama,” a book on the Syrian branch of the movement, said that Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Brotherhood has given the group unprecedented exposure.

“The Qatari channel put a strong emphasis on interviews with the leaders and members of the opposition and in this respect clearly gave Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region a public visibility they previously lacked,” he said.

Al-Jazeera itself has a history of “broadcasting shows and reports that appeal to conservative Sunni constituencies in the region,” said Lefèvre, such as Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi’s “Shariah and Life” program.

“On Egypt, the two networks don’t see eye to eye as Al-Jazeera have overtly become an unabashed advocate on behalf of the Ikhwan [brothers] and have come down heavy on the opposition,” Iskandar said.

“Alternatively, Al-Arabiya, given Saudi Arabia’s adversarial relationship to the Ikhwan, has been extremely attentive to this new wave of protests against the Brotherhood.”

Qassemi pointed out that Al-Arabiya, during the 2011 protests, was able to gain access to senior Mubarak government officials – a sign perhaps of the regime’s closer relationship with the leadership in Saudi Arabia.

“These biases reflect the relationships between the channel’s owners and funders with the ruling class in Egypt at both eras,” Qassemi said. “For Qatar, Egypt’s Brotherhood is a strategic ally, for Saudi Arabia the Brotherhood is a potential threat.”

The former regime of President Hosni Mubarak maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which saw Egypt as an ally against the encroachment of its regional rival, Iran.

“Discontent about Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood movements does not only stem from secular opposition groups in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt but also, significantly, from Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf,” Lefèvre said.

This apparent influence of foreign policy over the coverage of the two channels has cost them dearly.

“Neither channel is as relevant today as it was in 2011,” Qassemi said.

“Neither has become the go-to source of information for Egyptians,” Iskandar said.

But a recent leadership transition in Qatar has fueled speculation that Al-Jazeera’s editorial line might change, with Al-Jazeera’s director-general stepping down to take up a post in the new Cabinet.

Qatar’s Emir abdicated the throne last month to his son, the now Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Lefèvre said the recent change in leadership in Qatar is unlikely to produce much of a change in its Brotherhood-friendly foreign policy, noting that the new foreign minister was himself a senior diplomat and “Qatar’s point man” to Syrian opposition groups.

“From initial observations Al-Jazeera Arabic coverage of Egypt has survived the leadership transition in Qatar which indicates that their Brotherhood bias is institutionalized,” Qassemi said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 04, 2013, on page 9.




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