Images are now playing a central part in processes of political struggle, and as Lina Khatib argues, changing the way politics are being communicated in the Middle East.
We live in the age of the image. Political expression in the Middle East is very much of this visual age. The Arab Spring, in particular, has highlighted the importance of the visual in the politics of this turbulent region. But the place of the image as a political tool, and political product, has its origins in processes that began well before the uprisings of 2011.
The Arab world is mostly known for its oral culture; however, the image has been playing a political role in the region for over half a century. One only needs to think back to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s use of film and posters to see the early, quick embrace of the visual as a political tool.
But the 21st century, with the proliferation of different visual media, from satellite television to mobile phones supporting video to the online media, has seen a sharp hike both in terms of the breadth of the use of images in political processes and in terms of the kinds of images consumed and produced. No longer is the production of the political image mostly confined to the political elites – 21st century technology has enabled citizens across the Middle East to participate in the creation and dissemination of multiple kinds of images.
But this is not just about technology; an interesting development over the past few years has been the circulation of images between the online and offline worlds. The Kifaya movement in Egypt, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and the Green Movement in Iran are all examples of this online/offline interaction of visuals. Particularly, those movements have seen an interaction between the visibility of the citizen in public space, their recorded image, and the images they themselves produce and disseminate, whether on physical placards, through their own bodies, or through electronic and non-electronic means. In other words, those movements, although very different in terms of impact and political context, saw a merger between the mediatization of images and the performance of visibility in the public sphere as a way of communicating citizen power.
This rich infrastructure allowed activists to continue to hone their visual and political skills. While no one predicted the Arab Spring, looking back at the trajectory of political activism in the region in the decade leading up to it, one can see that the Arab Spring is a result of a complex process of trial and error, of evolution of public action, coupled with increasing citizen disillusion with equally increasingly distant states and leaders. The failures of the Cedar Revolution and the Green Movement to result in concrete change in the political systems in Lebanon and Iran and Kifaya’s quiet disappearance provided lessons – direct and indirect – to activists about political mobilization and political visual expression. Some of those – often latent– lessons saw their fruition in the visual rush that was the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile, an interesting parallel has been the rigidity of established political institutions and leaders who, despite different degrees of adaptation to new trends in political communication, remained politically fossilized. Thus, Hosni Mubarak’s ‘new and improved’ image after 2005 and Hizbullah’s shrewd PR campaign following the 2006 Israeli attack were overridden by lack of political adaptation. In this, a new dynamic in the Middle East can be witnessed, where old leaders increasingly adhere to the politics of the familiar while citizens continue to innovate, claiming a new-found sense of agency and empowerment.
This dynamic marks the birth of a new era in the Middle East, the era of the citizen. Despite the challenges currently facing the region, from authoritarian leaders who refuse to cede power to rising security concerns to hurdles to the establishment of civil states, it is undeniable that we are ‘seeing’ – in all senses of the world – a new future for the region in the making. ■
Join Lina Khatib where she will be launching her new book, Image Politics in the Middle East, and discussing political expression in Egypt, Libya, Lebanaon, Syria and Iran at the School of Oriental and African Studies with Professor Charles Tripp.
Lina Khatib is the head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Her new book Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle is out now, and she is the author of Filming the Modern Middle East and Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond.
Top image shows Egyptian Revolution merchandise on sale in Cairo in July 2011. Photo by Kay Dickinson.