A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Palestinian Authority's Al-Jazeera Blunder Deepens

Talleyrand is usually credited (though others also claim the phrase) with having remarked of Napoleon's execution of the Duc d'Enghien that it "was worse than a crime, it was a blunder." The same might be said of the Palestinian Authority's closing of the West Bank Al-Jazeera offices in retaliation for Al-Jazeera reporting the Farouq Qaddoumi charge that Mahmud ‘Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan had conspired with Ariel Sharon and unnamed Americans to murder Yasir ‘Arafat. I first posted on the Qaddoumi affair on Wednesday, when it was still gathering steam. I didn't write anything about it yesterday, but Marc Lynch had a good summary of events up to that point, including the remarks that:

That's a major mistake, and all too typical of the way the Palestinian Authority and most other Arab governments have approached critical media over the years. Shutting down critical media outlets represents the bad habit of the official Arab order, which has never adjusted to the contentious new media (whether al-Jazeera or political blogs).

The PA decision is more troubling than the run of the mill story of Arab regimes hating free media, though, because it comes at a time when the contours of an emerging Palestinian state are being shaped. Salam al-Fayyad's role in the crackdown is particularly disturbing, given the great hopes which the U.S. has placed on him personally. The reflexive hostility to a free media shows yet again why the Palestinian Authority in its current configuration is a poor foundation for building a viable Palestinian state and the need for major political and institutional reforms. What does it say for the hope of building a political system on the basis of the rule of law and political freedoms when its U.S.-backed leadership cavalierly closes down media outlets it doesn't like?

He also noted that in defending itself, Al-Jazeera was running more on the story than would have been the case if the story had just been ignored. That is still the case today on Al-Jazeera's front page (though I've linked to the main page so it will change hourly or daily).

I certainly agree that the closing of the Al-Jazeera offices represents the traditonal Arab regime's view of media reportage as something that can be contained and controlled, and a failure to understand that new media — even if satellite television was the new media a decade ago more than today — is not as easily controlled as in the old days of only state-run channels. The fact that Al-Jazeera's closing is not only being reported by Al-Jazeera, but by all the internatonal Arab media and online as well, makes it virtually impossible to contain the story. And it shows that the old guards still don't understand.

Of course, there are plenty of regimes who don't like Al-Jazeera. The Saudis see it as an enemy of their Kingdom; the Egyptians aren't much more favorable, and there are many Americans (mostly those who've never seen it) who think it is anti-American. But closing the bureau because it reported on a public statement to the press made by a longtime public figure (and as Al-Jazeera was quick to note, also quoted all the denials) is indeed more than a crime, it is a blunder. In the first place, it is clearly shooting the messenger, since Qaddoumi's statement was public and was going to be reported in Jordanian and pan-Arab media. In the second place it was not Al-Jazeera's story, merely a public story they reported.

But in the third place, an accusation that might have been dismissed like any other conspiracy theory in the Middle East (and there are plenty of those) is now in its third or fourth day of high visibility publicity. If it had simply been dismissed as nonsense without any other action being taken, it might have gone away by now.

Instead, the sheer overreaction of the Palestinian Authority is going to make many people wonder if there could be something to the story after all. I personally think it's nonsense, the silly kind of conspiracy theory the coffeehouse domino players and shisha-smokers delight in trading. But Qaddoumi is sticking by his story and says he has documents, transcripts of a meeting, and he challenges Abu Mazen and Dahlan to disprove the documents.

The funny thing is, first, that the closing of the Al-Jazeera offices just gave Qaddoumi more credibility, though I still think it's nonsense. It will make a lot of people wonder why the PA overreacted, though really they reacted the same way Arab autocracies have traditionally done.

As Lynch and others have already noted before me, this also sullies the escutcheon of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is the Great Moderate Hope of many in the US Administration: it was his office that ordered the closure.

Although I have Asad AbuKhalil's "Angry Arab News Service" in my blogroll, I don't think I've actually linked to any of his posts; he's usually a little too Angry for my own tastes, but this whole affair is right up his alley. He had a right-on-target post yesterday, though, including this:

As you all know, the Abu Mazen collaborationist regime shut down AlJazeera offices (and I am glad that the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the closure). But you need to read the Orwellian official statement that was issued by Salam Fayyad (the same guy who was dubbed "reformer" because he strictly follows orders from the World Bank and from Elliott Abrams). The statement justified the closure in the name of "the Supreme Palestinian interest". The language used was the same as that used by Saddam Husayn's regime or the regime of Enver Hoxa. It was classic terminology of tyranny.

After that he gets angrier, but that doesn't make him wrong.

I just looked at my page of RSS feeds of Middle Eastern bloggers and just noted — pretty much randomly — two posts by Zenobia at Egyptian Chronicles: "The Poll of the Month No. 1: Who Killed Arafat?" and "Arabic X-File: Who Killed Yasser Arafat?" These may not be typical; I'll try to track various blogs on this, but if I find more as the day goes on I'll update. Watch the comments too. (And that blog is in English, usually more restrained than some of the Arabic ones.)

This may still blow over sooner rather than later, since eventually Qaddoumi needs to either produce evidence or fold his hand, but he is a respected senior figure in Fatah, and one uncompromised by participation in the Palestinian Authority's sometimes dubious dealings. He's not a fringe figure, though Israelis would like to think he is, and so would many Americans. But I think it's already clear that this thing has lasted longer (in the regional media, not in the West) than would have been the case if the PA had attacked Qaddoumi but left Al-Jazeera alone.

Of course, the fact that the conspiracy theories have shifted from blaming Israel for ‘Arafat's death to blaming Israel, Abu Mazen and Dahlan, means the Palestinians are once again in circular firing squad mode, attacking each other. And that's probably not good for anybody, including Israelis.

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