Hisham Milhem, the acerbic host of one of the best al Arabiya talk shows, made a point on PBS which I've been making in a number of different ways and contexts:
The whole Arab world, by the way, Gwen, is watching on Arab satellite stations, which are covering live the events unfolding in Beirut; and it's having tremendous effect on the Arab people, the Lebanese developments coming after the Palestinian elections and the Iraqi elections.
Arab satellite television has had an extraordinarily important role in the recent seeming "cascade" of events from Baghdad to Ramallah to Cairo to Beirut. I would argue that Arab satellite television - including most especially al Jazeera - might be more important than the American invasion of Iraq in these events.
Part of it is a long term process: al Jazeera, and to a lesser extent to the other satellite stations, have been eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo for years. The al Jazeera talk shows are full to overflowing with critics of almost every Arab regime and of the entire Arab system more generally. Hardly a week has gone by in the last five years without a guest on some popular al Jazeera program denouncing some Arab leader as an authoritarian despot, or demanding greater democracy, or complaining about Arab backwardness. While the immediate effect of any individual program might only be to provoke a diplomatic crisis (Jordan getting pissy with Qatar when Asa'ad AbuKhalil criticizes King Hussein, for example) or to get people riled up - the sensationalism factor - the cumulative impact has been to create a vast public sense of frustration with the politically stagnant status quo and the expectation of something more.
There's also the cumulative effect of the way issues have been framed. One of the key things that al Jazeera (and, again, to some extent its competitors) did was to explicitly and implicitly link together everything that happens anywhere in the Arab world into a single, coherent narrative: Egyptian protests, Bahraini arrests of bloggers, Tunisian sham elections - they are all part of the same story, not isolated events.
Finally, there's a more immediate and direct effect, driven by the fact that the protests in each individual country are being broadcast live to a vast Arab audience. While those who want to claim the current protests as a vindication of the Bush Doctrine might not like the analogy, the closest comparison to the current situation is the spring of 2002, when al Jazeera drove and energized Arab protests against the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank not just by showing gory pictures but by showing Arabs that other Arabs were marching and protesting. I know from interviewing lots of people involved in those protests that the Arab media were really important in shaping their ideas of what was possible, inspiring them to march and to protest - and, in a very real way, making them feel that they were part of that same, common story that I mentioned above. When Jordanians marched in Amman, they weren't only "talking" to King Abdullah, they knew that they were being seen by Egyptians, by Moroccans, by Palestinians.
But it goes even deeper than that. Perhaps the most important implication of all this for current purposes is that I am absolutely convinced that the Arab satellite television coverage of the Beirut demonstrations is the single most important reason why Arab public opinion largely turned against Syria. In the absence of these televised protests, I suspect that the natural inclination of most of the Arab public would have been to identify with Syria and to defend it against Israeli-American machinations. But the televised images of the Lebanese people, seemingly unified against Syria, tapped in to the core narrative of this new Arab identity: a unified, mobilized Arab public protesting against oppression and an intolerable status quo. They identified with this public more than they identified with a "targeted" Arab state.
And that, I believe, is the most fundamental impact of the new Arab media. It's been developing for a number of years now. It has largely been in opposition to American foreign policy. But it has laid the groundwork for the kinds of democratic changes that we can now begin to envision. Wherever you come down on Bush and the value of the Iraq war, you should also appreciate the essential role played by the oft-demonized Arab media. Maybe you needed Bush to get what you're seeing today - I remain skeptical - but you definitely needed al Jazeera.
UPDATE: support for my thesis from an unexpected source: Iyad Allawi.
But the pan-Arab media has a big role to play as well--something it already appeared to relish during the election campaign. Arabic satellite TV stations such as Al Arabiya were obviously excited and inspired by the sight of real democracy in the heart of the Arab world. By reporting fairly on the elections, they in turn inspired their Arab audience across the Middle East and beyond. Iraqis were proud to see their country dominating the region's airwaves, and indeed the media of the world, for reasons not of war or conflict, but for the fascinating sight of real democracy at work.