Inside the mind of Wadah Khanfar

Al Jazeera’s former director general lifts the lid on his shock resignation, the rise of social media and why America needs to do more, not less, for the Middle East
"I think I do love Al Jazeera more than ever."
By Ed Attwood
Tue 13 Mar 2012 10:19 AM

For the first time in the interview, Wadah Khanfar laughs.

“Do I miss it? Actually I think I do love Al Jazeera more than ever — because I never really had a chance to watch the programmes. I used to watch it sometimes, but when I watched it I saw it as a business that I needed to correct and get involved in. Now I am much more relaxed — I focus more on the content, I enjoy myself, and I appreciate what Al Jazeera is doing more than ever.”

If anyone can be said to have earned a well-deserved rest, it must be Khanfar. After eight years turning Al Jazeera from a military target into the network that shaped the coverage of the Arab Spring, he resigned his position in mid-2011 amid a fanfare of speculation.

This week, Khanfar will address an audience at the World Public Relations Congress — being held in Dubai — where he will discuss the rise of new forms of media, a subject both close to his heart and one that has helped drive the success of Al Jazeera.

“The most important issue I’m going to concentrate on is the concept of integrated media,” he says. “That’s a concept I use to describe the third generation of interactivity between social networking, mainstream media and businesses. It’s a new concept and is the solution for the future of media, and for the question as to how mainstream media can co-exist with social networks in an environment that could be multimedia, dynamic, interactive, and people-centric.”

This sounds complex. But Al Jazeera owes its continued success to its ability to meld traditional forms of media — the roving reporter, the newsdesk and the 24-hour rolling news — with a willing audience who want to participate and provide their own content. On 29 January last year — the day after the first ‘Day of Rage’ in Tahrir Square, the then-Egyptian government shut down Al Jazeera’s signal via the Nilesat satellite. In an instant, viewers all over North Africa lost coverage — an until-then unprecedented step.

“Our relationship with the Egyptian government was never very warm,” Khanfar says, with a degree of understatement. “That move was a major challenge to our coverage and to our existence. So we resolved it through a thing that was born at that moment.”

Within hours, fourteen small television networks got in touch with the Doha-based network, offering to drop their own programming and carry Al Jazeera’s signal instead.

“Our next test was — how could we tell our audience that they could follow us on these channels?” Khanfar adds. “We used social media — Twitter, Facebook and we used our network of communication with internet activists to spread the word.”

But Al Jazeera’s somewhat unique relationship with the Arab world’s online community was not a sudden development. The former director general recalls that the network’s first new media desk was actually set up in 2005 in what he terms as “the first phase of co-existence between classical media and new media”. However, it took the Arab Spring for the true results of that move to become apparent.

Like most other networks, Al Jazeera had a minimal on-the-ground presence in Tunisia. As Khanfar admits, most news organisations were taken by surprise at the speed and depth of the popular protests that quickly put paid to the 23-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The first few days of activities and protests which started in Sidi Bouzeid did bring to our attention that there was a movement, but no-one expected that this movement would go beyond protests, which usually happen in the Arab world,” he says. “We did not have a sufficient existence in Tunisia, but we did have a wide network of relations with internet activists and journalists that corresponded with us on a non-official basis.”

So when the revolution started in Tunisia, Al Jazeera adopted a strategy that soon became the norm for its reporting in Egypt, Libya and Syria. The network took footage posted on social networking sites, and ran these through a desk entrusted with confirming the material and double-checking the sources. That policy ensured that Al Jazeera soon became the network of choice for viewers around the world seeking the very latest news. Now nearly fifteen months old, the Arab Spring has resulted in the removal of four long-term autocrats, while Syria has been plunged into a horrific civil war. But Khanfar remains optimistic about those countries — specifically Egypt and Tunisia — that are going through a period of transition.

“I feel there is unjustified pessimism within media circles and within political circles — especially within the West — regarding the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution,” he argues. “Let me be frank with you; transition is not going to be easy, simply or swift. Moving from an authoritarian closed environment into a much more democratic one needs more than wishful thinking.

“It needs a lot of dialogue and it needs people to learn the rules of the new game. What we see in front of us is the birth of a new order, and this will take some time. And therefore, we’ll go through some agony, but definitely the end of it is going to be positive.”

He is also dismissive of Western concerns about the recent success of Islamist parties in elections. In Tunisia, Ennahda took the largest number of votes in polls four months ago, and governs the country jointly with two secularist parties. Over in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is also riding high, while talks are under way to set up a similar wing of the party in Libya.

However, Khanfar believes that much of the Islamist success has been due to its maturity as “maybe the longest-surviving political trend in the Arab world.” Local organisations that help fund healthcare and education have also provided extensive grassroots support, an issue which newly-created political entities find hard to combat.

“I do not believe we should be scared of political Islam — this is a natural phenomenon,” he says. “The West is scared because the West is not used to dealing with them. It is too centric in its dealing with the world, especially the Arab world. They prefer those who have been adopting certain kinds of hopes and ideals, especially if they are secular liberals.”

“But we need to be patient and engage with them,” he adds. “I don’t see a major risk in engaging with them, and I think it is the only way of creating some ecosystem within the region that would be balanced and, at the same time, operational.”

One area where Khanfar does see a major risk is the rising rhetoric emanating from the US and Israel over a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Last week, US president Barack Obama attempted to play down the intense speculation that any unilateral attack on the Islamic Republic would be backed by America. The former director general bluntly states that any such move would be “disastrous,” particularly in an environment in the region where the priority is to work towards stabilization.

“It’s going to be complicated,” he says. “It’s not going to have any result. I’m not sure that the result will even prevent Iran from their nuclear efforts. I think, definitely, that a war like this is not something that that the region can tolerate. And I think that there are a lot of variables that no-one can control, and the result could be scary.”

At the same time, however, Khanfar does believe that the US does have a far more positive role to play in the future. In Arab eyes, the superpower has hardly covered itself in glory over the past decade. From George Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the continued intractability over settlements in Palestine and the failure of the two-state solution, to America’s initial support of Hosni Mubarak during last year’s revolution, the feeling has been that the US was behind the popular curve instead of ahead of it.

“That being said, I think the Americans have a chance of enhancing their image in the region if they actually support these new [post-Arab-Spring] economies,” Khanfar says. “This is why I believe that a partnership between America, Europe and the Gulf states in rebuilding Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen would be most welcome, and very much appreciated by the public as a contribution towards stabilising the region.”

Warming to his theme, Khanfar outlines the benefits of his ‘Marshall Plan’ for the region. For Europe, a settled North Africa would minimise the inflow of immigrants, while at the same time providing excellent trading prospects during a time of acute economic misery.

For the Gulf — for which Khanfar argues Egypt and Yemen provide “strategic depth” — stability in the Arab Spring countries means, again, enhanced trade ties, and access to the wider region’s considerable human resources.

But what’s in it for the US?

“America can see, at this point in time, the rise of the eastern bloc — China and Russia — which are defining new rules for the international game,” he says. “The issue of Syria is a great example of how Russia and China perceive either Western or pro-Western democracy invading the Arab world.

“Now, in my opinion, the democracy we are seeing is neither Western no Eastern — it’s actually organic and natural. However, this is how they are thinking. So the Americans are also interested in the region because stabilising it is necessary to balance international politics.”

Khanfar does not, however, subscribe to the notion that a second term for Obama would lead to a renewed focus on the Middle East as influence from conservative pressure groups wanes. Instead, he thinks that Obama will instead face pressure from those within his own party seeking re-election. One issue is clearly paramount.

“I think the American factor in the peace process should be very clear of the end target,” he says. “Because the peace process itself is just a process — there is no target for peace. I don’t think the two-state solution is convincing anyone; they have reached a dead-end and more rhetoric isn’t going to convince anyone.”

These days, Khanfar is still fending off questions about his decision to leave Al Jazeera in September last year. The network was riding on the crest of a wave; viewer numbers were up all over the world, and even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was holding forth on her belief that Al Jazeera provided more independent and insightful commentary than most US channels. When Khanfar made the announcement — via Twitter, typically — he himself alluded to the swirl of speculation that greeted the news. Did he quit, or was he pushed?

“I have deep conviction that eight years in leading Al Jazeera was enough to fulfil whatever values and ideas that I had,” he says, carefully. “And I think it’s not fair on the organisation, or on yourself, to continue once you start waking up in the morning, you feel you have done your best, and you feel that there is a pattern of repeating yourself. That is the moment you should quit.

“People have created a lot of discussions about this issue, but I really feel that eight years is enough for any business leader to accomplish his mission. After that, it is going to be difficult to continue. This was the right time for me to move on and start thinking about new issues to get involved in.”

Over the last few months or so, the former director general has instead been investing his time and energy into a new project — the Al Sharq Forum — which he thinks could well turn out to be the Davos of the Middle East. Based in Doha, the forum aims to bring together political groups, businesspeople, social networks and youth groups to discuss the future.

But Khanfar has no plans to enter the political arena himself.

“You know, I’m actually not at this moment in time excited about the issue of political involvement, although through Al Sharq Forum and elsewhere, I’m now promoting it,” he says. “That political element will help people to develop, especially youth. I feel that hope in the youth is much more than anything else, because they are the people who carry the spirit of the new age and can really have much more clear thinking about how they can run their future.”

He may have left Al Jazeera, but don’t expect Wadah Khanfar to be disappearing from your television screen any time soon.

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