Abu Roman: Hamas losing the media war

Mohamed Abu Roman, a very sharp and independent-minded Jordanian political analyst with good insights into Islamist politics, writes today that Hamas has for the first time in its existence lost the Arab media war.  The images from Gaza, he writes, have cost it the reputation with the mainstream Arab public cultivated over decades.  Images broadcast over satellite TV stations of Hamas fighters ransacking Fatah offices, and of the dead bodies of Fatah men killed by Hamas, shocked Arab viewers.  Abu Roman suggests that the images link up in Arab minds with the images of death and destruction from Iraq, forging the impression that such horrors are the future which Islamists have to offer.  Islamists, such as the Jordanian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, continue to strongly support Hamas, but Hamas has been badly hurt with the average, mainstream Arab – religious but not Islamist, identifies strongly with Palestinians, feels terrible about Iraq, resents American foreign policy.  That “median Arab voter”, as I’ve put it, has generally strongly supported Hamas over the years, but now seems to be turning against it.  He quotes two respected and independent Jordanian columnists – Hilmi al-Asmar (who used to be the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper) and Fahd al-Khitan – making similar arguments about Hamas losing the war of images and the media battle. This dissatisfaction with Hamas extends to other Islamist movements, argues Abu Roman, and he expects it to hurt the Muslim Brotherhood in upcoming Jordanian elections.

I’m not at all sure that I agree with Abu Roman. I remember a similar argument being made in the early days of the Israel-Lebanon war, and I suspect that the same dynamics are in play.   It really depends on which Arab media you mean –  watching al-Jazeera and the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya is like watching two different sets of events unfolding.  The official media of America’s allies (especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia) have been heavily pushing the narrative blaming Hamas, to be sure, in line with their current foreign policy interests.  Those Arab governments have been as hostile to Hamas as they were to Hezbollah in the early days of the Lebanon-Israel war.  But elsewhere I’ve seen an awful lot of Arab op-eds and pundits pushing a narrative blaming the United States, linking together Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into a single storyline driven by American actions (today’s article by the influential Fahmy Howeydi, for instance).  Contrary to Abu Roman’s reading, within this narrative the cumulative horror of those images of death and destruction are more likely attributed to the United States than to the Islamists, and would strengthen rather than weaken their appeal. That analysis dwells far more on the American-led boycott of the Hamas government, and Israel’s various campaigns against it such as the arrest of Hamas Parliamentarians, when telling the story of recent events.  When Mahmoud Abbas is put in the company of Siniora and Maliki, this does not help him in this political milieu.   

Which narrative takes root remains very much to be seen.   Perhaps Abu Roman is right about Hamas losing the support of the Arab center.  But my gut tells me that the pro-Hamas line is far more likely to capture Arab discourse than is the US and Saudi-backed anti-Hamas line, particularly as public American and Israeli support for Abbas increases.  I expect ever sharper polarization between the official line and the wider mass public, as we saw in the Lebanon crisis, rather than the center clearly breaking in a pro-Fatah direction.  But we’ll see.