[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]
Few events in the new millennium have been as captivating as the Arab uprisings, and few aspects burdened with expectations as heavy as the question of the role of media in them. Eight years out from the spectacular occupations of Arab city squares, there is enough published material of quality that a reader new to the field could benefit from a brief overview giving a lay of the land. What follows is not a comprehensive review of the literature on media and the uprisings, or even a list of all of the best work. Rather, our intention is to offer interested readers a sense of the different methodological and theoretical approaches that mark the field to date. We have favored monographs over journal articles or essays, both for the sake of brevity, and for the benefit of the more in-depth treatment. Exceptions to this include a collection of essays that responded to the events quite soon after they began (a special issue of the Middle Eastern Journal of Culture and Communication); an edited volume that collects the voices of artists and activists alongside those of academics (Syria Speaks); and another on the politics of gender and space as they resonated across the region (Freedom without Permission). Taken together, these readings are essential in the sense of a point of entry or a beginning rather than final, definitive, or conclusive. We anticipate that even within a year’s time, there will be new work which will continue to push the frameworks of media study of the Arab Uprisings.
Special Issue on “‘Theorising’ the Arab Revolutions” in Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5, no. 1 (Jan 2012).
The articles gathered in this special issue are quick responses to the events of 2010-11, and one of the first collections published about media during the uprisings. Keenly, the authors identify certain threads that would become enduring conceptual foci, including: (1) the focus on temporality and history and (2) the focus on embodiment and spatiality. Three of the articles explicitly grapple with the question of historicization (Adib-Moghhaddam, Matar, Sabry), two offer regional comparative perspectives (such as probing the limits of the comparison with Iran’s Green Movement protests). Three of the other articles assert the analytical importance of gender, embodiment, space/place.
Cherribi, Sam. Fridays of Rage: Al Jazeera, the Arab Spring, and Political Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
This book’s key contribution is that it connects Al-Jazeera and the Arab uprisings to an understudied movement (political Islam, including shades of the Muslim Brotherhood) and an understudied context (the Maghreb). Cherribi’s study of Al Jazeera’s coverage of protest principally employs quantitative framing and content analysis of more than a decade of programming, across multiple genres of shows and political events, and contexts (Gaza, Tunisia, Egypt). The book also builds from a Bourdieu-inspired understanding of institutions and the journalistic field to situate this coverage within the context of both Qatar’s geopolitical aspirations and the channel’s own institutional dynamics.
Della Ratta, Donatella. Shooting the Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria. London: Pluto Press, 2018.
Della Ratta’s volume is an engaging theorization of visibility and violence in the Syrian civil war that takes as its opening provocation the relation between shooting (film) and being shot at (with a gun). Drawing from both ethnographic work and theoretical readings, Della Ratta offers a compelling rebuttal of the celebratory treatments of the participatory modes and technical infrastructures associated with web 2.0. Della Ratta contextualizes the war’s articulation within the mutation of spectacle specific to network culture. The book uses thick analysis to examine the relationship between elite cultural producers (namely musalsalaat directors, writers) and the Assad regime.
El-Ariss, Tarek. Leaks, Hacks and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Using “the leaking subject” as the central trope, this book considers a variety of activists, whistleblowers, novelists, and other Arab social media denizens, as a vanguard that anticipates transformations in Arab literature and culture. In erudite close readings of leading figures, important events, and major scandals, the book shows Arab culture in the digital age as a melding of bodies, technologies and stories. In doing so, El-Ariss makes a compelling argument that leaking, hacking and scene-making are key communicative practices in the digital age, in which affect and performance are more important than representation and agency. In sum, in El-Ariss’s own words, the book draws “a map of scandalous knowledge,” that is increasingly becoming a dominant, however subversive, type of knowledge. A major contribution of this volume is in its literary close readings of digital texts.
Halasa, Malu and Zaher Omareen. Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. London: Saqi Books, 2014.
This is not an academic volume, but offers a vivid and variegated snapshot of creative expression in the first three years since the onset of the Syrian uprisings. The collection examines how the cultural history of dissent informed contemporary creative repertoires in the first years of the revolution, while tracing the relationship of those who remained in the country and those who were displaced outside of it. The urgency of the aesthetic strategies examined have grown more poignant since the book’s publication, and offers a beginning point for the task of sorting through the cultural output that grapples with the post-2011 context.
Hasso, Frances and Zakia Salime, eds. Freedom without Permission: Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2016.
The essays in this edited volume take up a range of feminist approaches in their analysis of embodied protest, virtual discursivity, and the political messages in viral and semi-viral photographs and performances. The authors do not assume that revolutionary politics can always be understood in terms of official and legal changes, or whether or not the dictator is forced out. Instead, the essays examine the cultural frameworks and media practices that such contestation entails. By including protests in Turkey (Gezi), Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, the editors expand the purview of studies of Arab uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
Herrera, Linda. Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet. New York: Verso, 2014.
Herrera’s study of cyber-activism during the Egyptian revolution reflects the usefulness of single-country studies of media and politics. Particularly useful is Herrera’s vivid account of the now-famous We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page. The chapter on the diplomacy of cyber-dissidence also offers an exploration of the role played by the US in both tarnishing and supporting an emergent political blogosphere in Europe. The book offers a thick reading of the most well-known and celebrated digital players in Egypt’s 2011 revolution, ensuring it will be the go-to text for readers seeking background on these aspects of the #Jan25 uprising.
Khatib, Lina. Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle. London: IB Tauris, 2014.
Though this book is not explicitly about the Arab uprisings, the second half of it focuses on images of contestation during the uprisings. Based on fieldwork in the Arab world and Iran, this is a rich analysis of the growing role of images, both on small (handheld signs, social media) and large (billboards and murals) scales in Middle East politics. Based on extensive fieldwork, it arrives at its insights into the visual by looking across cultural forms that may at first seem disparate, such as television and street art. As a whole, the book widens the scope of analysis, putting the politics of images in the uprisings in a broader context.
Kraidy, Marwan. The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
This book queries the centrality of the body to the uprisings, offering an alternative perspective to predominant foci on social media and media institutional transformation. This clears ground for a less media-centric account of cultural practices in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria that engage the political in registers of both gradual reform and radical change. Producing an original treatment of “embodiment” and the political, The Naked Blogger “taps the human body as an organizing principle to understand creative insurgency.” As such, Kraidy moves between semiotic registers to trace the body as a symbol, metaphor, and tool in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.
Sakr, Naomi. Transformations in Egyptian Journalism. London: IB Tauris, 2013.
Sakr provides a descriptive but comprehensive picture of Egyptian journalism in the unstable period between Mubarak’s fall and Sisi’s rise. Sakr details on the one hand, a “repressive” trend–marked by the assignment of editorial posts to friends of the regime and repression of journalists critiquing the state; and on the other, a “potentially liberatory” trend–marked by the journalistic questioning of officials on television; activist groups countering state narratives vis-à-vis violence and corruption; and a proliferation of independent start-ups and experimental economic models. The book explains how the growth of a diversity of journalistic approaches also led to a flux in norms and news values.
Zayani, Mohamed. Networked Publics and Digital Contention: The Politics of Everyday Life in Tunisia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
The focus on the Tunisian context in this text allows for a sustained, in-depth engagement with the political context and processes related to the Tunisian revolution of 2010-2011. Zayani’s research is rooted in ethnographic fieldwork in Tunisia and online, examining the discussion boards, blogs, and Facebook pages that had become symbiotic with a media landscape that also featured mobile phones, video sharing platforms like YouTube, and satellite news (particularly Al-Jazeera and France 24). Zayani succeeds in narrating digital media in its rich context, therefore managing a fine line between celebration and dismissal of the impact of digital communication.
Considered together, the books we selected constitute a multidisciplinary spectrum of approaches to communication and the Arab uprisings in particular, and to revolutionary mediation and activism more generally. One of our primary criteria was to focus on books that identify the proper role and influence of media technologies. Though we have thankfully left facile discussions of “Twitter revolutions,” technological determinism and analytical presentism are ever present foes. We believe the books above to have successfully navigated this issue by integrating technology in its proper political, economic, social and cultural entanglements. We also believe that most, if not all of these books, speak to communication and political change at large, beyond the context of the Arab world.
While we consider the works above essential readings on the media and the Arab uprisings, our selection is obviously a temporally (and linguistically, since we stuck to English-language sources) limited snapshot of knowledge production. Even as we complete this text, we are aware of several books at various stages of production that promise to be major contributions to the topic. As the geopolitical landscape in the current counter-revolutionary period continues to shift, we anticipate new work that will trouble and deepen our understanding of the momentous revolutionary and counter-revolutionary years of the past decade.
We hope that future research on the uprisings will continue to probe these momentous events, bringing ever crisper analyses and deeper insights. We anticipate and hope that forthcoming books on the topic will be at once more specialized, unearthing genealogies of meaning and power in domains that remain under-researched, and more comprehensive, in that they will hopefully articulate their specific focus to larger historical and geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East and beyond.