Nahlah Ayed, London-based foreign correspondent for CBC Television, says the Arab Spring that erupted in the Middle East beginning in late 2010 was born in euphoria but its legacy is mainly one of dashed hopes. Ayed spoke recently to several hundred people at Carleton University in Ottawa at the invitation of the School of Journalism and Communication. She was a graduate of that program in the 1990s and later worked for five years as a Canadian Press reporter covering politics in Ottawa. Then she took a bold step and left in 2002, determined to cover developments in the Middle East. For the next decade she lived and reported from the region for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She was on the ground when the Arab protests and uprisings spread across northern Africa, notably in Egypt, and eventually into other countries such as Syria.
Ayed described in her talk a region where “fatalistic resignation” has long been the overwhelming sentiment. “There was always something that would ruin hope,” she said. “The Arab Spring provided a glimmer of new hope when young people took to the squares demanding change, but that hope is in great danger of being dashed.”
Ayed then provided a checklist of five things which are standing in the way of change in the region:
Absence of political choices
No matter what upheavals occur, the same old regimes that come back as new ones. For example, when President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in Egypt, the only well-organized political opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had existed for many years but had been suppressed by the regime. The Brotherhood had experience as an opposition but not in governing and things went badly once they were elected. The army then deposed the elected president Mohamed Morsi and is in control once again. Ayed said that in Egypt there “was no third way” that would represent the young people who had been instrumental in the protests that deposed Mubarak.
Outdated and brutal security forces
“Security forces in the Middle East operate outside of the law and they protect the state from its citizens,” Ayed said. Even when there are regime changes, there is not a change in how security forces are deployed.
State control of the media
Governments use intimidation to shape media coverage and this leads to self-censorship. Most states have Information Ministries whose personnel act as minders and regulators for foreign journalists. If those journalists attempt to go beyond or around their minders, they face intimidation or expulsion. Ayed pointed to the problems that the Al Jazeera network is having in Egypt because of its independent coverage.
Continued exclusion of women
Even in Middle Eastern countries where women are well represented in the workforce, Ayed said, they are not allowed to “step up” politically. Women were active in some of the Arab Spring protests, but there appears to be no place for them in the structured political systems of government or opposition.
Life is not improving for young people
There is a “massive youth bulge” in the 18-34 year age group many of whom are unemployed or underemployed. “They thought the Arab spring would bring about positive change but it hasn’t,” Ayed said.
She concluded that the negative signs outweigh the positive but did point to signs of hope as well.
People have found a voice
Millions of people participated in the Arab Spring revolts but often without much political sophistication. But young people are getting involved beyond protests and they are the next generation of activists. “Watch these people,” Ayed said.
There is debate
People are using social media to talk to one another and talk across borders in an unfiltered way. There are also pockets of debate in the traditional media. Lebanon, despite its many problems, has an active press which, among other things, provides an outlet to discuss Syrian issues in a way which is not available in that country.
Growing signs of accountability
The police officers who beat 28-year-old Khaled Said to death in June 2010, precipitating the Arab Spring in Egypt, have been given prison sentences. Ayed said also that she will also be watching to see what happens as a result of the investigation into the assassination in 2005 of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Iran may be a key
Ayed said the possibility of a deal between Iran and the U.S., which has already begun to take form “could change everything in the Middle East.”
Performance of Western countries
Ayed said she will be watching how Western countries respond to Middle Eastern developments and how they involved in the region during this post Iraq, post Afghanistan period.
Ayed polite and gracious
Aye’s presentation was lucid but low key. She was unfailingly polite and gracious, singling out Carleton journalism professors and former Canadian Press colleagues in the audience by name, and thanking all of them for teaching her the art of reporting.
A Thousand Farewells
Having read her book, A Thousand Farewells, I could not help but conclude that Ayed’s demeanour has much to do with the values inculcated from her immigrant parents. Hers is a keenly interesting story.
Ayed’s parents are Palestinian and their families were forced to flee from Palestine to refugee camps in Jordan during the turbulence and fighting that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948. Her father – the only member of his family to do so – completed high school and found his way to Germany where he got work. Later he returned to Jordan to be married and he and his wife eventually immigrated to Canada and settled in Winnipeg.
It was there that Nahlah and her siblings spent the early years of their childhood but their parents, believing that they must be closer to extended family and Arab traditions, made the dramatic decision to move back to a refugee camp in Jordan. It was a jolting change for both children and parents and eventually it did not work out. After several years the family returned to Winnipeg, but not before Nahlah had been immersed in her extended family (not always a happy experience) and in Arabic language and culture.
The language and those experiences later served her well as a journalist covering the Middle East. But the politeness and grace on display during her Ottawa appearance obviously coexist with an accompanying mental toughness and physical courage. She would not have sought out Middle East reporting or survived in zones of war and conflict without it.