“Let’s not be so negative about the Arab world!”

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Western news reports about the Arab world are too negative, says former Dutch diplomat Petra Stienen. In her new book, “Other Arab Voices”, she explains that there has been a genuine change in the region since the revolutions.

Stienen served at the Dutch embassies in Syria and Egypt for nearly a decade. In 2008, her book “Dreams of an Arab spring” was met with widespread acclaim in the Netherlands. It turned out to be prophetic two years later when the Arab Spring broke out.
But 18 months later, the revolution has made way for the harsh reality of the present. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is massacring his own people, and in Egypt, Tunesia and Libya, conservative forces have come to the fore which, according to some, threaten the revolution’s ideals. But these developments don’t discourage Stienen. In her new publication, she describes meetings with Egyptian and Syrian activists, artists, businessmen and journalists who she says are trying to bring about change from within.
Q: Why did you write this book?
The Western media have become increasingly negative in their reporting about the Arab revolutions and their fall-out. Of course, some developments are disturbing – the revolutions’ promises have not yet been realised. But I come back from every trip to the region, feeling optimistic.
A new generation has emerged which wants change. It’s prepared to enter into a dialogue with others and look critically at itself. There’s a new awareness throughout the population, and people are determined to hold their politicians to account if they don’t fulfil their promises. I see this new mentality not only among secular liberals, but also among Islamists. I wanted to show that in this book.
Q: And you believe that the Western media aren’t reporting enough about this.
The demonstrations against the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” are a good example. In Egypt and Libya, the protests were relatively small, but they received extensive coverage in the Western media. But there was almost no reporting about the peaceful demonstrations in Egypt and Libya. In Benghazi, 30,000 people staged a protest against the Salifists who were responsible for the murder of the American ambassador. Hardly any footage of that was broadcast on Western TV.
In Syria, reporters are focusing exclusively on the violence. Of course, it is horrible, but there are so many other things which we aren’t hearing about. In my book, I quoted one of my Syrian friends who said, “it’s about time that you show our human side because now it looks like we’re just a bunch of animals slaughtering each other”. My book is an appeal to Western journalists: go and find those other voices.
Q: What do you think of Dutch policy regarding the Arab revolutions?  
I think it’s contradictory. On the one hand, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal organised a conference about internet freedom. He’s also made millions of euros available for bloggers and cyberactivists in Syria. He’s bragging about the “good things” he is doing for people there.
But on the other hand, there’s much less funding and staff to do the real diplomatic work behind the scenes. The Dutch embassy in Syria is closed, and the Dutch institutes in Damascus, Beirut and Amman are going to be shut down. If the Netherlands wants to play a role in the region, it has to make money and people available. It also has to maintain its networks.
Q: In Europe there’s a great deal of concern about the Islamist groups who have begun playing a more prominent role since the outbreak of the revolutions. How do you feel about this development?
Democracy is about people’s right to determine their own future. If Egyptians and Tunisians do that by voting for parties which we disapprove of, then we just have to accept that.
We have to be more flexible when it comes to the Islamists. Europeans only want to discuss the rights of gays and women with the Islamists. Why don’t we lgo beyond the bikinis and booze and ask about their economic agenda, what they expect from us, and how we can work together. Personal civic and political liberties also have to be part of that dialogue. Economic growth is only possible if people are creative and innovative.
Q: Chris Stevens, the US ambassador who was recently murdered in Libya, was a good friend of yours. Did his death affect your optimism about the region?
I was deeply shocked by Chris’s death. But his murder doesn’t make me less optimistic about the region. I found it very comforting how many Libyans posted condolences on his Facebook page. He was as well loved in Libya as in the other Arab countries where he worked. People saw him as someone who was on their side. Chris would have been the first one to say: continue the dialogue with the Arab world. Don’t let such a horrible event scare you off.