A satellite-dish revolution in Middle East

TV, once under tight control in Syria, elsewhere, airs everything from politics to 'Baywatch'

In the "old" days not too long ago, the average Syrian would sit in front of the television and see the world - exactly as it was according to the Syrian authorities.

There was no need for a remote control then, because the choices were so few.

But today the average Syrian TV set is an altogether different instrument.

Connected to satellite dishes, Syrian remote controls surf across scores of channels, revealing things live that local politicians dare not even mention: There is the programming of archenemy Israel; the gluttony and glitter of the West in the form of programs such as "Baywatch"; the disintegration of the once-powerful Eastern bloc, Syria's long-time allies; even pornography.

"Nobody watches official Syria TV anymore," says one Syrian matter-of-factly. "Why should they?"

Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Syria, where one of the most insular one-party, one-leader regimes of the Mideast has held power for decades.

But a glance at the Damascus skyline shows that this rule is not only ignored, it is positively abused. Satellite dishes clog the rooftops of every building in the capital, Damascus, be they big or small, rich or poor. The ocean of concave channel-catchers stretches from President Hafez al-Assad's hilltop palace to the grimiest makeshift hovel in the impoverished southern suburbs.

Syria's internal security police, the Mukhabarat, estimates that there are half a million satellite dishes in Damascus alone. Every day those dishes pipe into Syria - as they do into homes across the Arab world - an uncontrollable mishmash of increasingly irreverent Arab politics, fashion, and values East and West.

In a region where public opinion has been largely marginalized for generations by dictators and monarchs alike, the satellite dishes reveal another reality. It is where people from Indonesia to Quebec, Canada, are fighting for national and democratic rights, sometimes violently, and where leaders from Yugoslavia to Chile are held accountable for human rights abuses.

Throw in a mix of what traditionalists call a "dangerous" freewheeling moral attitude, and the result may be nothing less than the seeds of a spreading revolution, germinating across the Middle East at the end of millions of satellite cables.

"Satellite dishes are doing wonders to people, and linking them to the outside world willy-nilly," says a Syrian academic. "They have created an aggressive, thirsty younger generation that is less tolerant of authority, political or social. In the end, this creates some trouble for the regimes, which are used to controlling everything."

Only Iraq, locked into its own isolated timelessness by the tough grip of Saddam Hussein, so far seems impervious to this trend. But elsewhere, the image of outside freedoms and efficiency is colliding, Arab commentators say, with a daily fare of local, long-term stagnation.

Collision of values

"There is a complete lack of fit with modernity," says Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Lately society tries to be hip and modern, and feels the need for change. But the political systems are ossified, and there is a kind of Arab bewilderment as to why they can't reinvent their political container," Mr. Ajami says. "Hapless people are caught in the middle, caught between the regimes they disdain and the opposition they fear."

That view is widely echoed across the region, where once-endless evenings of communal chatting are giving way to TV time. Strict regimes once feared the Internet, but its use is limited: You must have a computer, speak English, and be able to afford a server subscription and phone line costs.

Cheap satellite dishes and smuggled reception devices, however, are inherently more democratic and can be understood even by those who are otherwise functionally illiterate. The state monopoly on broadcasting has eroded, and along with it the ability to serve as the sole, measured guide to the masses.

New world awareness

"This has been the main change that has affected the Arab world: the rise of this education," says Khaled al-Maeena, the editor of Saudi Arabia's English-language Arab News in Jeddah. "People are aware of what the outside world is, and if they are not demanding more, they are expecting more."

For tyrants and even benevolent one-man shows, the result of undemocratic rule up to now has been political apathy. "There has been a marked decline of political activity," says Gerald Butt, author of "The Arabs: Myth and Reality." "The regimes do not allow any display of public emotion on the street which could get out of hand. There is extreme corruption in Egypt. And in Syria, people now accept the recent 99.9 percent vote for Assad without complaint."

The satellite TV factor may be changing that. At the forefront of the media phalanx has been Al-Jazirah television, based in the tiny, upstart Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which is widely popular with its combative, Western-style news reporting. Banned at various times even from Western-leaning countries such as Kuwait and Jordan, it is a big change from the Saudi-owned, regime-respecting satellite stations that were once the only source of regionwide Arab coverage.

"Al-Jazirah is so popular because it touches on issues that people want to hear about," says Dr. Hassan al-Ansari, with the Qatar Center for Futuristic Studies, an independent think-tank in Doha. Once-taboo subjects such as human rights and democracy, and traditional social issues like female circumcision (also known as female genital cutting) and "honor killings" now are debated on the airwaves.

Also under the spotlight with a startling immediacy, Arab analysts say, are the American policies in the Mideast that are considered to show a US "double standard." Revealed anew have been the large American troop presence in the Gulf, tough sanctions and regular strikes against Iraq, and support for Israel against the Palestinians on hot-button issues like Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, resulting in what one Syrian calls an "amazing" degree of anti-US feeling.

Al-Jazirah broadcast live images of the American bombing of Iraq last December, which spilled into the first days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The results were electrifying. In Syria, where spontaneous street demonstrations are unheard of, an officially sanctioned anti-US march spun out of control as protesters breached the US Embassy walls, tore down and burned the American flag, and ransacked the ambassador's residence.

"People who were ignorant before, now have information and news," says one Syrian witness. "One reason people were so irate in the streets was because they had just watched live bombing of Iraq during Ramadan."

Another reason, it is widely believed, was that the burst of freedom also turned into an anti-regime message sent to the authorities.

So why does Syria permit so many "illegal" satellite dishes? "Most Arab regimes allowed dishes because they believed it was really for entertainment, not politics," says one Syrian professional. "Then Al-Jazirah came, and now they regret it."

Ironically, smugglers of satellite reception components to Syria "pretend that they are bringing them in for the security services, to protect the regime against enemies and spies," he adds.

Still, "satellite television has brought Arabs together," says Nabil Sukkar, another Syrian and an American-educated economist. "It's amazing, you turn on the TV, and always there are political programs, with the stations competing to be more open, to have a hotter debate," Mr. Sukkar says. "People say, 'Let's have more accountability, more participation,' and these have come into dialogue in the Arab world.

"Civil society and democracy are words, but now they are part of the debate."

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