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Longread Arab Spring: How Much Do We Really Know?

As students of political science, we spend our time talking about pressing issues occurring all over the world. Ask us about Trump’s impeachment or Brexit and we will tell you everything you need to know. Look into our phones and you will most certainly find one or two newspaper apps sending us notifications every five minutes. Subscribe to our Instagram and you will see pictures, stories or comments showing how active and engaged most of us are. So yes, for the most part, we are well aware of what is happening in the world. But, while we rely on the media to give us information, can we really trust that they cover every issue in the same way ? That they provide us with all the information that we need ? That they are reliable sources ? If we look at basic newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times, how many articles did they published last month regarding Trump’s impeachment ? More than 130, which means that on average, around 4 articles were written every day. What about the media coverage of the Lebanese revolution?

For the last month, only 9 articles mentioned the revolution currently taking place there. Yet, stakes are high in both cases. The impacts on the population and the political system of both countries are beyond imaginable, and still, 9 articles against more than 130… If the media don’t talk about it, how can we be aware of it ? It’s when I realized that I didn’t know anything and that I couldn’t find a lot of information about what was happening in Lebanon, that I decided to write this article. Not only to raise an issue: why do media here, don’t talk about what is happening in the middle east ? But also to show the impacts and the significance of this revolution. I asked a friend, Zeina, a few questions to try to know more about this.

Can you explain what is going on in Lebanon ? And what triggered it ?

Zeina: 'Lebanon has been living in a corrupt system for the past 30 years, the government has been economically exploiting its people and stealing all our money. Throughout the years there were many attempted protests for the lack of democracy and the violation of our rights. We don’t have electricity 24/7 and we lack clean water. Taxes are high for no reason. There is garbage everywhere in the streets. Bust most of all, our politicians steal all our public funds and use them for their own advantage and personal use. Our political life has been doomed since our decolonization: sectarianism and divisions by religion and political opinions have always been present and never gave a chance for the Lebanese to unite as one. The anger of the Lebanese people goes way back, but it’s some recent factors that triggered the protests:

Towards the end of October, a wildfire erupted in the mountains. The emergency helicopters couldn’t fly because the government had stolen the public funds that we paid for their maintenance. As a result, a big percentage of our forest burnt. Secondly, some citizens were shot in the street by one of the bodyguards of the minister of education because they were shouting at him. A couple of days later, the government decided to place a high tax on WhatsApp, on top of all the taxes that we already have to pay for data, internet and electricity. Those 3 elements were the triggers of the protests, thousands went down to the streets and the revolution officially started on the 17th of October 2019. 

What are the consequences, impacts on Lebanon ? What has changed because of the protests ?

First, it’s important to say that we are talking about peaceful protests and that it has been this way since the beginning. The revolution has changed a lot of things, both within the Lebanese society and the political system. Our Prime minister (Saad Hariri) and some member of the parliament resigned. The people are taking back control, wiping out fake news and using the media to communicate freely between each other. The divide between religions no longer exist. In less than a month, people have united like never before and no politician, no leader, no party has been able to break this. Together the people have cleaned the streets and more garbage has been collected in two weeks than in the history of the government. Most of all, the youth and women have never been more engaged. They are playing a significant part in leading this revolution. Schools and universities are closing, students don’t want to go there anymore and claim that they are “studying for a future that they don’t have”.

I saw that you were very active both on social media and in reality So this must be something huge for you, can you explain why ? What are the impacts on you ?

I’ve always dreamt of a better Lebanon, for me, for my brother, for the older generations that never got the chance to see a better Lebanon and for my generation and the one following it. The government has exhausted its people in every aspect possible, and we’ve had enough of it. I never got the chance to live in my home, never got the chance to be close to my family and grow up with my people. It’s important to me because we, the youth, the people, have the chance, the power, the knowledge and the will to finally change this country for the better.

How do you feel, being here and not in Lebanon to experience all of this ? How does that make you feel to see that here, in Europe, the media are not talking about it when it is so important for you and your country ?

It’s really difficult. We are currently sitting at university or at work with our hearts being torn apart because we are not with family and friends while so much is going on in Lebanon. It’s hard to focus as we are living two realities, one that we are forced to be in and one that we are longing to be a part of. We are doing our best to play our part from afar. Organizing protests, working to promote on social media and with international news, and trying to do everything we can to stand with our people. 

Why do you think that the media don’t talk about It ? Do you feel that people living in “western countries” see the Middle East as a violent, undemocratic and dangerous part of the world ? Do you think that because of this view some people tend to believe that whatever is happening is “normal” and thus there is no need to talk about it ?

Definitely. The stereotypes that the West has created are strongly effective. I believe that the problem is partly the misconceptions that the West has of the East, but also the lack of knowledge. People in Western countries are mostly unaware of the events occurring in the Middle East, of its history, and of its current situation. Often, when they are taught about it, through the media, the worst image of us is shown and fear appears. To take the example of Lebanon, the revolution has been going on for the past month, and the protests are peaceful protests. But, Western media only talked about the events a week after the protests started. In addition, they portrayed us in the most negative way possible, by posting pictures of us burning tires or breaking buildings and cars. Although those events did happen, they were only done by a very small minority of Lebanese who were sent by the government. Those people don’t represent us, they don’t represent all the Lebanese people who were united peacefully and the fact that this positive side of our revolution wasn’t shown was very disappointing. The media also claim that the protests were just about the WhatsApp tax. I felt like it was just a way to discredit our movement and give the image that we created an entire revolution solely for the sake of a WhatsApp tax.

So, according to you, people in Europe don’t know a lot about issues happening in the middle East ?

No, I think that the only people in Europe who know about issues in the middle east are those who want to know more about it. But I assume that the average person who just hears about Trump or Brexit on a daily basis wouldn’t care much or bring itself to hear about it, or simply, wouldn’t be aware that some events are happening in the Middle East in the first place.

 

Now, I am asking you this question again: Do we know everything about what is currently happening in other countries ? I’ve seen how important this revolution was for Zeina, how significant it was for her country. She even took a flight home only to spend the weekend in Lebanon and take part in the protests alongside her family and friends. If this revolution is changing so many things In Lebanon, shouldn’t we, students of political science, be aware of it ? It seems clear to me that the media don’t cover issues occurring in the Middle East as they should. But why ? Surely our vision is flawed, tainted by hundreds of years of history. As students of political science, we must open our eyes, break down the barriers that constrain us and find the real information. We should know. But most importantly, we should care. Being open-minded and relying on the media isn’t enough. Having access to this much information nearly instantly is a chance, but is also tricky. To find real information, we need to look for it and check what we read. We need to look beyond what we can see. And when we do so, then maybe, we will be able to say that we know what is really going on in the world.


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