“Politics in the Middle East is now seen,” says Lina Khatib. “The image is at the heart of political struggle, which has become an endless process of images battling, reversing, erasing and replacing other images.” Khatib, head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, will speak this coming Thursday at LSE about the evolution of political expression and activism in the Middle East over the past decade. The following text is mostly extracted from her latest book, Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (IB Tauris, 2012).

By Lina Khatib

Politics in the Middle East is now seen. The image has claimed a central place in the processes through which political dynamics are communicated and experienced in the region. States, nonstate actors, opposition groups and ordinary people are engaging in political struggle through the image, and the media, especially the visual media, are not only mediators in this context, they are also political actors, deliberately using images to exert political influence. The image is at the heart of political struggle, which has become an endless process of images battling, reversing, erasing and replacing other images. Political struggle, then, is an inherently visually productive process. It is also itself visual to a large degree: It is a struggle over presence, over visibility. For authoritarian states, political power means having control over visual production and consumption. For political oppositions, democratic representation merges with visual representation. For people, possessing political agency means possessing the ability to be seen, not only heard.

The Middle East has become a site of struggle over the construction of social and political reality through competing images. In this competition, one political actor’s carefully self constructed image can be erased by a new, oppositional image. The lasting image of Osama bin Laden is not the video image of him giving speeches defying the West, but the mental image of him sitting in a house in Pakistan, smoking marijuana and watching pornography. The lasting image of the United States’ war on Iraq is not the televised, staged image of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, but the photographs of tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The lasting image of the Hosni Mubarak era is not that of Barack Obama giving a “historic” speech in Cairo in 2009, but of government thugs attacking peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square on camel and horseback.

Thus, to understand political dynamics in the Middle East, one needs to take into account the role of the image in those dynamics, and to understand image dynamics in the Middle East, one needs to examine different image mediums and practices simultaneously. One should not separate “hard politics” from “soft politics” in understanding the role of the image in politics, for those two spheres are intertwined. Neither should one separate the cultural from the political. Existing scholarship has examined the link between culture – especially popular culture – and politics, arguing for example that sometimes politics takes a popular cultural form (such as in the case of politicians who are regarded as celebrities) and that politics often incorporates elements of popular culture such as image making and performance. In the Middle East (as is elsewhere), often there is no longer a distinction between the cultural and the political spheres; it is not just that popular culture and politics feed off each other – very often, popular culture is politics. The image-making act can itself be a political act.

The domino effect of the Arab uprisings speaks of images as possessing the potential to activate the viewer, not because they impose a uniform meaning – images are always open to interpretation, negotiation and rejection – but because the image can be an empowering agent, enabling citizens to perform a meta-narrative of political agency. The Arab Spring revolutions were people’s revolutions, in which the image of the singular leader was erased, to be replaced with the image of the multitude. It is the people who are now the political agents of the Arab world.

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, have 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.

Lina Khatib is the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, a multidisciplinary policy-oriented research program established in 2010 to study democratic change in the Arab world. She is an expert on Middle East politics and its intersection with social, cultural and media issues. At Stanford, she leads research projects on political and economic reform, as well as on political activism in the Arab world, and the political participation of minorities. She is the author of Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World, (2006), and Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond (2008), and a founding co-editor of the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication.  

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