Arab World

Opposition to imperialism and Israel have been the two central themes of modern propaganda in the Arab world. The region has seen the birth of Arab nationalism along with the development of the cult of the leader, the manipulation of Islamic principles, and ultimately terrorism. As totalitarian or semitotalitarian regimes, most governmental actions in the Arab world have a propaganda dimension.

Between 1872 and World War I three currents of thought emerged in Egypt in response to the increasing challenges of the West: Pan-Islamism, Egyptian nationalism, and Arab nationalism. The first two were direct responses to the political and military threats of the West, while the last was fostered by Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals residing in Cairo who believed that the only possible defense against the West was a union of all Muslim countries. Prominent theologians like Mohammed Abduh (1848—1905) insisted that “the community of believers was the basic political unit, an indivisible whole whose separation into national or regional units was unnatural” (Lorenz 1990, 4). Although later contested by both Egyptian and Arab nationalists, this view represents the core belief of fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.

When the British invaded Egypt in 1882, a surge of Egyptian nationalism spread throughout the population, aided by Lord Cromer’s (1841—1917) belief that since Britain was contributing heavily to the Egyptian economy, it should be allowed to have a pervasive influence in the running of its government. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 represented a major step toward Egyptian independence. Nevertheless, the treaty was met with fierce opposition by the student body, which insisted upon complete Egyptian self-governance. Among these students was Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918—1970), the future ruler of Egypt.

During World War II Britain invoked Article 8 of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which stated that in case of war Britain could reoc-cupy the country. At the conclusion of the war, Egyptian public opinion held that Britain should leave Egypt and accept its union with Sudan as compensation for Egypt’s help during the conflict. When the British refused to comply, the Free Officers’ Organization seized power, exiled King Farouk (1920—1965), and put General Muhammad Neguib (1901—1984) and, later, Nasser in charge. With Nasser politics shifted from Egyptian nationalism to the creation of Arab nationalism.

Anti-imperialist sentiments were pervasive in other Arab countries. Iraq declared its independence from Britain after the 1920 League of Nations Mandate expired in 1932. During the 1930s Iraqi Pan-Arabism turned increasingly anti-Western, reflecting the people’s desire to be independent and self-governed. Libya did not become independent from Italy until 1951. At the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, Algeria was still under French control. Syria became the strongest advocate of Arab nationalism, with Egypt’s Nasser as the undisputed leader of the movement. Saudi Arabia had been ruled by the Sa’ud family since 1932. Although it was later obliged to show moderation in its media treatment of the West due to its relationship with the United States, the Saudi ruling family always advocated conservative Islamic val-ues—in particular the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703—1791), who had urged his followers to wage holy war against non-Arab Ottoman rule. Wahhabism remains the core of Saudi ideology.

Egypt’s initial involvement with Arab politics was motivated by the need to guarantee support for other Arab states, particularly Syria and Palestine, but by 1937 Egyptian delegates at a Pan-Arab conference in Syria had expressed serious concern over the creation of an Israeli state, affirming that it would have constituted a great threat both to Egypt and its neighboring countries. The next year Egypt’s primary position in the Middle East was confirmed when 2,500 people came to Cairo for the World Inter-Parliamentary Congress of Arab and Muslim Countries for the Defense of Palestine. Additionally, in 1944 Egypt established the League of Sovereign States, which remained in Cairo until the Camp David peace accord with Israel in 1979 and Egypt’s expulsion from the league.

By 1954 Nasser had undisputed control of Egypt and had gained considerable international prestige as the father of Arab nationalism. In his Philosophy of the Revolution Nasser admitted that the notion of a unified Arab consciousness developed as a result of the Palestinian dilemma and imperialism. Opposition to the Baghdad Pact of 1955, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal also motivated the Egyptian leader. Nasser’s inflamed rhetoric on this occasion made him a hero in the minds of the Arab masses. He told them that the Suez Canal was “our canal . . . How could it be otherwise when it was dug at the cost of 120,000 Egyptian lives?”

Nasser consolidated his power as a cult leader through the use of the mass media. He understood that radio was the only medium that could reach people in remote areas. Television was not yet accessible to the masses and rampant illiteracy hindered the effectiveness of the press. Nasser expanded radio diffusion, put Radio Cairo under his direct control, and operated it through a board of seven members and one chairman.

The Voice of the Arabs radio station was introduced on 4 July 1953 to “expound the viewpoints of the Arab nation, reflect the hopes and fears of the Arab countries . . . unite the Arabs and mobilize their forces to achieve Arab unity.” Initially it broadcast for half an hour each day, but by 1962 it had expanded to fifteen hours a day, and by the 1970s it continued almost twenty-four hours a day. Directed at the entire Arab world, the station was significant in creating mass public opinion. During the 1954 Algerian revolt against French colonialism, for example, the station allowed spokesmen for Algerian independence to express their views on the air. Some programs were created especially for certain countries, such as Israel, Iraq, and Sudan. Ahmed Said, a trusted friend of Nasser, headed the radio station. Said was described as a “Goebbels-like figure who refused to allow contradiction, who conceived every single program, even music, in political terms, and censored everything himself” (Hale 1975, 72). Radio was used to instill patriotism, nationalistic feelings of Arab unity, and anti-Israeli sentiments. Between 1 January 1952 and 31 December 1959 such phrases as “the Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arab Gulf,” “Arab Egypt,” “the Arab people of Egypt,” and “Arab solidarity” replaced earlier phrases such as “sons of the Nile Valley,” “the Egyptian people,” and “Egyptian territory.” A program entitled “The Enemies of God” discredited Nasser’s opponents. His personality cult was bolstered by religious elements and was used to discredit imperialist forces supporting Israel.

Part of the anti-Israeli propaganda made use of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nasser often publicly referred to this work and frequently recommended it as a reputable source of information about the Jewish race. In 1968 a special edition was published and translated into Arabic by Nasser’s brother. Innumerable copies were disseminated for propaganda purposes; Arabs who did not read foreign languages remained ignorant of the questionable authenticity of the material.

Nasser aided other friendly Arab countries in developing their own broadcasting potential through professional courses and the establishment of the Institute for Radio Training (1957), which was later done for television. Starting in 1953, the Egyptian Radio Corporation also sent trained technicians to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, and Syria to provide assistance in the setting up of radio and television facilities. The rest of the Arab world could now more easily receive Nasser’s message.

Anti-imperialism was also used by Nasser to divert attention from the failures of the regime. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Nasser repeatedly affirmed that Egypt’s military failures stemmed from Israel’s alliance with the Western world. Nasser also attacked Arab leaders who did not share his views, calling them traitors to the cause. Until his sudden death in 1970, Nasser successfully maintained the image of a United Arab Republic. He established himself as the sole leader of the Arab nationalist movement and irritated the West with Egypt’s steady stream of radio propaganda.

The countries that opposed Nasser tried to counter his propaganda by using strong verbal accusations. Radio Jordan described him as dictatorial, oppressive, and in charge of a police state. In June 1958 Radio Baghdad claimed that “hundreds of good politicians and honest men are in the prisons of Egypt” (Dawisha 1976, 172). Clandestine stations were also broadcasting anti-Nasser messages from various parts of the world. Some of these stations used Egyptian expatriates. Abdul-Fath, the former owner of the Wafdist newspaper Al-Misri, was hired by the French government to broadcast counterpropaganda from a clandestine station called the Voice of Egypt. This counterpropaganda did not succeed, perhaps because Nasser’s status had already reached epic proportions and the power of Egyptian radio far exceeded that of any of its opponents. Moreover, the Egyptian media effectively denounced these stations and alerted the public that imperialist countries sponsored them.

Palestinian refugees had been displaced from their homeland since the creation of Israel in 1948. Although the Arab states responded indignantly, talks of unity did not extend to an offer to absorb the large number of refugees who had been uprooted from their homes. The end result was the creation of 53 refugee camps by the United Nations Relief Works Agency, where 750,000 refugees lived in abysmal conditions. Jordan incorporated about 450,000 refugees after annexing the West Bank, and 160,000 refugees remained in Israel.

Resentment and discontent in the refugee camps led to the creation of the first underground Palestinian liberation groups. Not having access to the mass media, these groups relied on word of mouth, pamphlets, and speeches for their propaganda. Egypt’s repeated military failures against Israel accelerated the creation of the first official Palestinian political group, the Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filasteni, or al-Fatah (Palestinian National Liberation Movement). Al-Fatah propagandized by spreading the notion that the dream of Arab unity had failed and that harsher measures should therefore be taken against Israel and its supporters. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism were introduced as the most effective means to harm Israel. Nasser countered the growing influence of al-Fatah by officially sponsoring the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. Located in Jordan, its army was dispersed among Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.

The PLO proved to be too moderate for the most extreme elements of al-Fatah. Supported by Syria, which wanted to show its independence from Egypt, al-Fatah settled on Syrian and Jordanian grounds, launching guerrilla attacks against Israel and recruiting fighters from the ever-increasing number of refugees living on the West Bank. In 1968 Yassir Arafat (1929— ) emerged as the PLO leader. Thereafter the PLO increased terrorist attacks inside Israel and continued guerrilla warfare, thereby hoping to gain Western attention. Extremist groups within the Palestinian movement concentrated on international terrorism as a form of propaganda that would finally propel the Palestinian cause into the spotlight; these groups included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by George Habash (1925— ) and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by Nayef Hawatmeh (1937— ). Some of the best-known terrorist attacks included the kidnapping and death of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and several plane hijackings of the early 1970s.

Nasser’s sudden death led to Anwar Sadat (1918—1981) being declared Egypt’s new leader at a time when the political situation in the Middle East was extremely tense. Egypt had been the only country to pose a serious military threat to Israel. After the 1973 war, however, Sadat’s postwar policy favored a well-defined peace with Israel. This policy was based on compelling economic reasons: the economic strains of Egypt’s growing population; the cost of maintaining a big army; and the necessity of repaying the armaments mainly provided by Russia. Sadat was forced to use propaganda domestically and abroad to establish closer ties with the West, eventually achieving a peace agreement with Israel. In so doing he alienated his country from the rest of the Arab world, which considered Sadat’s actions an act of betrayal pure and simple.

One of the first political moves in the “de-Nasserization” of Egypt was the liberation of all of Nasser’s political prisoners. This gave Sadat a favorable image both at home and abroad. The mass media was used to achieve the same objectives. President Sadat viewed the media as a tool to shape public opinion in the interest of the government. For instance, editors of the weekly paper Al-Musawwar, which supported the views of many former political prisoners, discredited Nasser’s image: “[T]he fa£ade was magnificent, destroying capitalism, feudalism, and exploitation . . . but the application was a completely different thing … It did not contain any of the qualities of the fa9ade.” During Nasser’s regime, journalists critical of the government were imprisoned; under Sadat they simply lost their jobs. Notable is the case of Muhammad Hassanai Haykal. A close personal friend of Nasser, he had founded the Al-Ahram publishing house. Initially he was allowed to maintain his position, but when he began to openly criticize Sadat’s actions during the 1973 war, the president had him removed from his position. In the end, he could only publish books outside of Egypt. In Sadat’s own words, “If freedom of the press is sacred, Egypt is more sacred and I am not prepared to relinquish any of her rights” (Rugh 1979,48).

The U.S. government saw the Camp David peace accord as an opportunity to reestablish influence in the Middle East. The U.S. role was of paramount importance for Egypt’s and Israel’s propaganda, not only because of its economic and political clout but also because it represented a kind of alibi for Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913—1992), who were both facing strong internal opposition. In other words, the role of the United States as a mediator made both leaders appear unwilling participants in the peace talks, which was essential if they were both to maintain favorable domestic public opinion. Furthermore, a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would have represented an important achievement of the Carter administration and valuable propaganda for President Jimmy Carter’s (1924— ) reelection campaign. After the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, President Hosni Mubarak (1928— ) continued to honor the Camp David peace accord, simultaneously reaching out to the rest of the Arab world.

Section IIIb of the Camp David peace accord called for the creation of a Palestinian homeland in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, rendering these territories inviolable. Palestinian propaganda had focused on this objective since the first terrorist acts of the early 1970s. However, this part of the accord was never implemented. Israel was unwilling to renounce the conquered lands of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The failure to create a Palestinian homeland had far-reaching consequences. Because of its intrinsic weakness based on its history, geographic location, and population demographics, Lebanon became the natural target for the Palestinian settlements and the PLO’s military and terror offensives against Israel. This was countered by Israeli reprisals, culminating in the partial military invasion of southern Lebanon by the Israeli army in 1982. Syria responded by invading the Bekaa Valley to counterbalance the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. The Palestinian National Liberation Front was dispersed among a few friendly countries, such as Yemen, Syria, and Tunisia. The Palestinian people were once again refugees.

King Hussein of Jordan (1935—1999) opposed extreme terrorist attacks like those perpetrated by al-Fatah in the 1970s, but he wanted to recover the lost West Bank territories even if it meant allowing the turbulent Palestinians to settle in his country. Eventually the PLO was recognized by the United Nations as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and an Arab summit meeting in Morocco approved the PLO as the government-in-exile for Palestinians. Before the West Bank was finally handed over to the Palestinians, Israelis believed that the refugees should live in the neighboring Arab states. Israeli propaganda stressed that the Arab countries were responsible for keeping Palestinians in refugee camps, which were used as the main training camps for Palestinian guerrilla fighters. Israel emphasized that the refugee camps were not even supported by the Arab states but rather by the United Nations. More recently some Palestinians have been allowed to return to the West Bank, but most refugees still live in refugee camps.

The Palestinian dilemma has been used by the Arab states to justify their own political agendas. After the death of Nasser and Egypt’s perceived betrayal as a result of the Camp David accord, Libyan leader Muam-mar al-Qaddafi (1942— ) attempted to assume the role of primary crusader for Arab unity, Palestinian freedom, and independence from Western hegemony. Libyan propaganda focused on the cult of the leader. Qaddafi’s Third Way Ideology, published in the Green Book, described Islam as the answer to the world’s problems and identified himself as the new spiritual leader of the revolution. At the same time, Qaddafi sanctioned the creation of terrorist training camps on Libyan soil and produced strong anti-Western messages by means of the mass media. Libyan propaganda was not successful in the West because Qaddafi had seriously discredited himself by supporting terrorist activities against the United States and Israel. Moreover, Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq countered Qaddafi’s propaganda with their own, condemning the Libyan leader’s extreme religious statements as radical and heretical.

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (1937— ) manipulated the West into silently supporting his invasion of Iran by playing on America’s fear of the surge of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900—1989). He also used the mass media in a totalitarian way to foster a personality cult, stressing modernization and deemphasizing religion. Both radio and television stations were subsumed under the Iraqi Broadcasting and Television Establishment, which was directly linked to the Ministry of Culture and Information. Radio programs were broadcast in Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, and Turkoman, as well as English, French, German, Russian, and other languages. Newspapers remain under government control and are subject to censorship. Article 26 of the Iraqi constitution calls for “freedom of publication within the limits of the law.” Therefore, the print press is monitored by the Ministry of Guidance, while the Ministry of Culture and Information retains sole authority to import and distribute news from the foreign press. Despite Hussein’s totalitarian regime, Iraq’s relationship with the United States did not deteriorate until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

In the last decade, peace negotiations in the Middle East have repeatedly failed. The Gulf War reversed Iraq’ s relations with the United States and turned the Arab state into an open supporter of extremist groups. Resentment against the living conditions of Palestinian refugees remains a common source of anger against the West and Israel. While Saudi Arabia and Egypt have maintained closer ties with the United States, countries like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have openly condemned Western foreign policy and continue to support terrorist activity. The attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 demonstrated a new level of terrorist warfare that employed the international media to the fullest extent. Extremist leader Osama bin Laden (1957— ) successfully captured the attention of the Western world. Al Qaeda propaganda focuses on justice for the Palestinian cause, the imposition of distorted Islamic values for all Arab nations, and the removal of American army bases from the Holy Land. While many Middle Eastern countries have condemned the extremist actions of Al Qaeda and have shown support to the United States, bin Laden’s reputation has reached cult status among some Arabs, who see him as the hero of the resistance against Western domination.

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