Daniel W. Drezner

Why are Middle East dictators so bad at media?

Why are Middle East dictators so bad at media?

In Sayf-Al-Islam’s rambling speech last night on Libyan State television, he blamed the current unpleasantness in his country on, as near as I can determine, crazed African LSD addicts. 

This isn’t going down as well as Sayf had intended, and Libya seems less stable than 24 hours earlier.  Indeed, Sayf’s off-the-cuff remarks managed to make Hosni Mubarak’s three speeches seem like a model of professionalism, which I would not have thought was possible a week ago.  

Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message.  Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S.  It’s like political leaders in the region have discovered blogs just as the young people has moved on to Twitter or something.  [Er, no, that’s the United States–ed.]  Oh, right. 

Having just finished a week of intense media whoring, methinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent.  I’ve been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere.  Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another.  That’s a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces. 

Indeed, as I argued in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, bureaucratic first responses to novel situations are almost uniformly bad.  Sayf pretty much admitted this last night, as he acknowledged that the Libyan armed forces were not trained to deal with street protestors.  I suspect the same is true with the state media outlets — they excel at producing tame, regime-friendly pablum during quiescent periods, but now they’re operating in unknown territory. 

I also argued that bureaucracies should be able to adapt their organizational routines over time, if a regime’s domestic support does not evaporate.  Readers are encouraged to predict which regimes under threat in the Middle East are the most likely to be able to adapt.  My money is on Iran — not because that regime is more popular, but simply because Iran’s leaders have had eighteen months to adapt and they are therefore further down the learning curve.