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Facile reporting on Arab dictators can do more harm than good

A Western media often misleads and serves to empower despots

October 2019 was quite a busy month for me. I was covering Syria and Lebanon from Beirut and, just after Turkey launched a military incursion into northeastern Syria against U.S. allies, popular protests against the so-called political class in Lebanon were starting to gain an unprecedented following.

We worked every day that month, including all weekends, and would wake up several times from sleep in order to check whether there had been any important updates in either country.

So when Kais Saied’s presidential campaign in Tunisia culminated in success and he assumed office on Oct. 23, I was unable to dedicate much time to finding out more information about him or about what that meant for the country and its young democracy.

Virtually every story I saw at the time was celebrating the victory of the once-obscure 61-year-old professor of constitutional law of a modest background against the political establishment that had dominated post-revolution Tunisia.

“The man is just not interested in power,” I read in one story about the election. “Tunisia cements its place as the only democracy to come out of the Arab Spring.”

Yet some were trying to remind us that Kais Saied was not entirely unknown to Tunisians, especially denizens of the internet, as he was trending online as early as 2013. This article from the Economist’s 1843 magazine called him, even then, a “charmless populist.”

I do not know if there were signs at the time that Kais Saied would proceed to dismantle Tunisia’s democratic institutions one by one — as he has been doing since July 2021 — but what seems to be clear is that international media gave more space to his election as a victory for democracy than it is doing now for his shift toward one-man rule.

For those who have lived in the region or hail from it, whether the leader is pro-Western or anti-Western hardly changes anything.

But international media could sometimes do with a reminder to steer away from certain harmful and simplistic dichotomies. We all have been eager to see real change in the Middle East for a while, but we cannot keep placing the same expectations on certain countries or individuals whenever there is the slightest possibility that they could be different. The cycle is perpetuated not only by these expectations, whether sanguine or gloomy, however, but also by the superficial approach to the region that often fails to break out of the concentration on Western countries’ interests in the region, the regional dynamics including the security of Israel and the fear of a turn from despotism toward Islamism with little room for examining the nuances of everything in between. This simplistic approach has done much harm to the region and its people over the decades because it often leads to flawed Middle East policies by powerful nations.

In a previous issue, I referred to a New York Times article that described Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as a “Western-style leader” for showing up on time to appointments and carrying hand sanitizer around (forgive me, but this one is bound to keep coming up in the newsletter).

The Times was called out for it on Twitter by dozens of users. The journalist who wrote it did not apologize and tried to defend herself without actually explaining what she could have otherwise meant by it.

“I actually cited the disinfectant gel to distinguish the Iraqi prime minister from other world leaders who are less vigilant about hygiene,” she wrote on Twitter. On the description of Kadhimi as a Western-style leader, she merely said, “I did not mean to imply that Arab leaders don’t have these traits.”

This defensive answer did not make things better. It further solidified the offense that many had rightly felt upon reading this journalist’s description of Kadhimi. I do not believe that she started the paragraph with the statement “Mr. Kadhimi is in many ways a Western-style leader,” then moved on to a completely different subject so as to leave her readers to assume what she meant by that. The punctuality and the disinfectant gel were clearly examples supporting her perception of a Western-style leader, which, of course, is again the same dangerous simplistic approach to the region and its politics.

The Middle East editor at the paper seemed to endorse the correspondent’s defense by retweeting what she had to say about it. The article was later amended to replace “Mr. Kadhimi is in many ways a Western-style leader” with “Mr. al-Kadhimi comes across as smooth.” I wish I could say the same of this remark.

This was not new to me. For more than a decade, I’ve been hearing from people how shocked they were to see that Bashar al-Assad is capable of committing such horrors, often partly because he wears a suit and tie, studied in London and has a Harley Street cardiologist father-in-law.

“A Rose in the Desert,” one of the most regrettable articles of the 21st century, was a puff piece about Asma and Bashar al-Assad that Vogue ran in March 2011, just before the revolution in Syria began. It quoted the Syrian leader as saying that he chose to study eye surgery because “there is very little blood.”

Many of us will remember reading about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his attempt early in his party’s rule to lead Turkey and its economy to a prosperous modernity and as a bridge between civilizations, or the reformer Mohammed bin Salman, who was beginning to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia and concerts to take place within the kingdom. This is not to say, of course, that there was not a lot of solid and sober reporting that covered those leaders with caution from the beginning. But that was not enough to spare the world some of the horrors of which these men are capable. No matter how brief the period of media enchantment with such leaders is, and no matter how quickly journalists turn against them when they finally commit something far too scandalous to overlook, this early favorable push for the reputation of someone like Erdoğan or bin Salman empowers them to do more harm in the future.

I remember when, in 2018, CNN proclaimed that “Fresh faces offer hope in Lebanon’s first election in a decade,” while using a photo of Saad Hariri, the former prime minister whose family had politically represented the Sunni community in the country for two decades. The choice of photo, of course, was presumably not made by the reporters on ground, and there was no issue with the reporting. We always have to put up with backlash over a headline or a photo that we almost never choose.

But frustrated Lebanese citizens seeing those CNN posts do not know that, and the way they reacted showed how fed up those in the region, who rely heavily on international media to follow news and analysis of what is going on in their countries, could view certain events or figures sometimes.

Since the aforementioned 2019 protests, independent media outlets and activists have had to go the extra mile in order to remind the world that political parties such as the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb are not as progressive and innocent as they have rebranded themselves to seem.

Tunisia knows that story. Many there have been tired of constantly hearing that their country is the “Arab Spring’s only success story,” an assumption based on simplistic dualities. I can’t stress this point enough: Those dualities are oftentimes what men like Saied, Erdoğan and bin Salman will surely find very useful to keep pushing their limits, at least until the media and the international community finally decide that they have gone too far.

Tunisia’s problem is not that its leader is particularly pro- or anti-Western but that Kais Saied’s power grab is not a top priority for the international community (or the Western press). One can see this from the lack of scrutiny of his actions compared with the coverage he received when he was elected.

If decision-makers around the world want to prioritize business deals and expanding spheres of influence at the expense of human rights and freedom, which they will continue to do, the media should at least strive to make that path harder for them to pursue.

First published at Newlines Magazine

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