The Books Interview: Marwan Bishara

The Arab world is still in turmoil. Why write about the Arab spring so soon?
That was a difficult decision but I realised that there aren't many people who have the same access that I do, being with Al Jazeera. Also, the first third of the book is about what went wrong in the decades before - that is indispensable history. I thought that was important for people to understand: the Arab spring did not come from nowhere.

Do you think many in the west are guilty of misreading the Arab uprising?
Yes. We have an inheritance of decades of the western media and, to a certain extent, western academics approaching the Arab world in terms of geopolitical cold-war calculations, oil and energy, Israel and its security, terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism, which is also misunderstood. The evolution of Arab society, the contribution of Arab intellectuals, the resistance to oppression and the human story at the centre of the Arab revolution were missing for a long time.

Was it strange that the Arab spring took the west by surprise?
The Arabs also shocked themselves. All revolutions tend to be shocking and there is no point in trying to figure out retrospectively how this all added up. But shocking as it was, it wasn't exactly surprising, considering the accumulation
of activism and the opening up of the Arab world to the rest of the world.

People called it a "Twitter revolution". Was social media's role overstated?
Those who advanced the argument of a techno-revolution did so because they were ignorant of all other facets of the revolution - but that does not negate the idea that technology had an important contribution to make, not only in the empowerment of the revolutionaries but also in the make-up of the Arab youth. New media allowed the youth to open up to the rest of the world.

How did WikiLeaks contribute?
It confirmed what people knew, except this time it was documented by US ambassadors in Tunisia, Egypt, and so on. But it was satellite television that made it powerful.

For the past 15 years, satellite media, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and NBC, have been able to connect the Arab world for the first time. I mean really connect them: to discuss, to analyse, to criticise. As they say in Arabic, it was the hair that broke the camel's back.

What is Al Jazeera's significance?
It was a catalyst. Arab citizens were subject to state-controlled media for decades. In the mid-1990s, Al Jazeera broke that barrier. It was not only [its coverage of] internal Arab affairs but also the way it covered the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine in 2000 that gave Arabs a voice beyond the political into the geopolitical.

You seem optimistic about the future of the Arab region. Why?
I try to offer the ingredients for a successful evolution in the aftermath of a revolution, such as intellectual freedom, reconciliation of Islam, nationalism and democracy, and so on. But I do have a number of warnings. While there is a break with the past, while it is very hard for me to imagine Arabs returning to the old days of repressive, totalitarian regimes, I can imagine a scenario in which this could turn into various kinds of chaos - civil wars, with new counter-revolutionary forces that could derail things. I have no doubt in my mind that there has been a break with the past but, for that break to bring in a new era of democracy and freedom, it would require more than just protest movements and taking down dictators.

Do you hope that Libya was the last example of western intervention?
When the west intervened in Libya, there were about 1,500 dead. By the time it finished, there were estimates of anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 dead. So, it's not as if the western intervention was free of the cost of human lives. Just as importantly, the spillover to the rest of the region was that of arming the revolutions. The contribution of the revolutions in Tunisia, in Egypt, to a large degree in Bahrain and to an even greater degree in Yemen, in terms of the revolutionaries, was to show that non-violent action can be effective and empowering and can bring down dictators. No foreign armed intervention is certainly a much better way to proceed.

Marwan Bishara's "The Invisible Arab" is published by Nation Books (£17.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt