The Arab Spring and the U.S. Response:
American and Middle Eastern Students Speak Out
William R. Davie1, Ph.D., Steven J. Dick1, Ph.D., Maha Bashri2, Ph.D., Mohammed Galander3, Ph.D., Naila Hamdy4, Ph.D. and James St. Pierre5, Ph.D.
1University of Louisiana ,Lafayette
4American University in Cairo
5Notre Dame University in Lebanon
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The “Arab Spring” galvanized global media attention on political upheaval in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Observers around the world felt the rising tension and tumult of change, especially among the young people of the region, and yet the gulf between cultures continues to threaten understanding and peace. In an era when social networking rivals TV news coverage and when mobile text messages substitute for interpersonal channels of communication, the views held by U.S. and Middle Eastern college students can either unite or divide the cultures. In order to understand how young people view media and current events that frame the conflict, this study uses survey data as a comparative indicator of the level of conflict between students of MENA and the United States. This study examines communication activities and political views on college campuses in Doha, Qatar, Dubai, and Cairo, Egypt, and in Peoria, Illinois and Lafayette, Louisiana. The results show a higher level of engagement in news and public affairs among Middle Eastern students and a contrast in opinion regarding political issues and events.
Arab Spring, American Students, Middle Eastern Students,
Social Media, Political Opinion
This study is based on the observation that ongoing unrest in the Middle
East and North Africa (MENA) region involving threats of terrorism raise
important communication issues worthy of continuing investigation.
Understanding issues concerning media uses, political views, and cross-cultural
attitudes among American and Middle Eastern young people are part of the
solution. This comparative study examines key issues from the special vantage
point of college students of both regions informed by their online participation on
college campuses. Viewpoints expressed by these undergraduate students in
Louisiana and Illinois are compared with students in Dubai, UAE, Cairo, Egypt,
and Doha, Qatar during the recent season of Arab uprisings. Support for this
research came in part from a grant through the Middle Eastern Partnership
Initiative (MEPI) first articulated by the U.S. State Department in the aftermath of
the 9/11 attacks, and this paper was researched and written with support from
this government sponsored program.
New Generation, New Media
College students, whether living in the Middle East or United States
typically have a high need for orientation or NFO. This NFO is provoked when
young people confront issues and ideas of personal relevance and uncertainty to
their understanding of the political world around them, including regional news
coverage that involves acts of terrorism. Perhaps what is leading contemporary
college students to diverge in their multitasking use of traditional and new media
and the manner in which their channels shape personal views of important
events? New media traits of convergence, ubiquity, interactivity, and
transferability are considered important in intercultural communication habits in the
context of young people’s lives, especially in terms of global news events.
In gauging political news awareness, Weinstock and Boudreau (2006)
interviewed 429 American college students and discovered only 19% actually went
online to search for news about the War in Iraq despite the fact that an
overwhelming majority considered such news to be of high interest. Compare that
level of student activity to the response received by Hussein and Hassanien (2006) at the American University in Cairo, where two-thirds of the students polled
were searching online to find news about the War in Iraq. The AUC students
preferred the Internet not only to find news of the war, but also to discuss it with
others, sign petitions, and offer prayers for its resolution (Hussein & Hassanien, p.
The reliance of a young person’s particular media choices and personal
orientation suggests other cultural differences between Middle Eastern and
Western students. Valenzuela (2009) measured personal values to determine
what issues young people find to be personally relevant and in keeping with their
social identity. One’s personal values derived from membership in a particular
group leads to an alignment with that group’s core beliefs and values (Gilmore &
Meeks, 2010; Hutcheson et al., 2004; Jones & Sheets, 2009; Rivenburgh, 2000).
The key premise is that one’s values will become evident through the personal
response depending on social identity and the context of the news discovery. For
example, material values are more in keeping with the news media’s fixation on
the coverage of crime and economy than post materialist values covering
environment and political reform issues. Would the differences between
American and Middle Eastern students show a contrast in their views of the
political world around them?
Before the 2008 presidential election, an initial comparison was made
between college students in the United States and those in the Middle East to
discern their agenda issues of the election. It appeared that the economy, the war
in Iraq, national security (including terrorism) and healthcare were driving the
global news agenda. Those issues were followed in importance by the war in
Afghanistan, energy policy/gas prices, and U.S. foreign policies, the rights of
women and minorities, and immigration. After students judged presidential
qualifications based on issue competency, we found candidate preference was
positively correlated (Agnihotri, Davie, Dinu & Auter, 2010).
American and Middle Eastern college students responded to the U.S.
presidential candidates at a personal level expressing feelings of homophily --
identification with a candidate’s thoughts, words and actions that tended to generate support for then Sen. Obama. Social identity theory would suggest that
Sen. Obama’s Kenyan heritage with Muslim family ties created homophily for
students at Qatar University and the American University in Dubai, who favored
Sen. Obama’s candidacy.
In 2011, the Egyptian revolution presented a new opportunity for drawing a
direct comparison between students from the United States and the Middle East.
The story’s continuing coverage by American and Arab news media influenced
views and this study was undertaken to compare the diverse views held among
undergraduate students in both regions.
Reactions to President Obama
Past midway into his presidency, Obama’s image varied considerably from
campus to campus. When students were asked about President Obama’s
policies in terms of terrorism, protecting energy resources, and Israel, the level of
agreement tended to shift according to location. The widest disagreement
regarding President Obama’s policies came in response to the issue of Israel’s
role in the region. Less than a fifth of the American students (18.1%) felt that
issue was important compared to two-thirds of the Middle Eastern students
(67%) viewed protecting Israel as one of the president’s chief priorities. The
value of protecting energy resources in the region figured higher in the minds of
Middle Eastern students (Middle East: 86.4%, USA: 59.1%), although the issue
of dealing with terrorists showed closer agreement among student opinions
(Middle East: 53.4%, USA: 42.6%).
When asked if Mr. Obama has done a good job as U.S. president, 72.5%
of the Middle Eastern students were in agreement compared to only about 52%
of the Americans. There was a clear divide between the so-called “Blue State”
(Democratic) students in Illinois who appeared to like the president’s handling of
his office (70.3%) and “Red State” students in Louisiana, who viewed the Obama
administration more critically, and only about a third (34.3%) thought he had
done a good job as president. In fact, a majority of Middle Eastern students
(69.7%) in 2011 felt that President Obama deserved another term in office while
only 41.6% of the U.S. students were so inclined. Again, the regional partisanship was apparent among students favorably responding from the
president’s home state of Illinois (57.8%) and those students of the Deep South
Survey research tends to be more descriptive and anecdotal unless
carefully constructed. The case study method (Thomas, 2011) allows scholars to
conduct a comparative analysis of events, policies and people without
necessarily applying the same statistical techniques of a laboratory experiment or
survey design. While classic case studies concentrate on a single organization
or person, the logical comparative analysis technique can be effectively applied
to attitudes surrounding an event such as the Arab Spring. It affords
comparisons of distant views, including viewing habits and views of the events.
Survey data were collected by means of an online questionnaire
administered at widely separated campuses in 2011 in Louisiana, Illinois,
Lebanon, Qatar, and Egypt. By contrasting results from MENA and United
States, researchers are able to understand different perspectives on the events
in the events in the MENA. The quoted comments were taken from student
comment boxes provided by the SurveyMonkey format design. The particular
quotes used were selected as those most articulate ones from the participants
commenting. The sampling frame was coincidental in nature relying solely on
the convenience of the classes and professors participating on the various
campuses. Guiding this investigation were the following research questions.
RQ1: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their use of
traditional and new media?
RQ2: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their
reactions to the United States after the 9/11 attacks?
RQ3: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their
reaction to uprising events in MENA?
The survey instrument was designed to allow participants to express their
feelings about recent events in both MENA and the United States. In addition,
importance of the key issues, media use, and perceived media effects were
measured. The combination allowed researchers to consider the relationship of
events and locations. Presented below are the most important results.
American and Middle Eastern Participants
For the American sample, data from undergraduate communication
students were drawn at a private university in Peoria, Illinois, Bradley University,
and a conservative, state university campus – the University of Louisiana at
Lafayette. For the Middle Eastern sample, students from the American University
in Dubai, American University in Cairo and Qatar University (Doha) expressed
their opinions on current events and reported communication activities. Gender
participation in communication classes participating in both regions of the world
skewed toward female majority by about two-to-one.
RQ1: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their use of
traditional and new media?
Cross-cultural contrasts were noted by the present study in the time spent
with entertainment and information media. Table 1 indicates that Middle Eastern
and American students spent about the same time viewing TV news coverage
(4.1 hrs), but Middle Eastern students reported viewing news online an average
of about 4.3 hours per week compared to only 3.9 hours for American students
(See Table 2). The reverse ratio reflected the time spent with entertainment
media. U.S. students preferred to watch on average an hour and a half more
entertainment programming (USA: 6.7 hours, Middle East: 6.1 hours). American
students also spent far more time listening to music than their counter parts in
the Middle East. University students in the United States reported 10.2 hours per
week of music listening compared to 8.7 hours for the Middle Eastern campuses.
Table 1: Student Estimate of Media Use (Hours per week)
Table 2: Student Estimate of Online Media Use (Hours per week)
An even more stark contrast was noted in the average time spent
discussing news items. Middle Eastern students estimated they spent about 4.5
hours per week in such conversations as compared to only 2.7 hours per week
for American students. This finding echoed a similar percentage reported by
Agnihotri et al. (2010) that showed a comparative reticence on the part of U.S.
college students to make political news a subject of conversation with family and
Interpersonal communication habits converge; however, when students are
asked how much time they spend texting messages. Students in the Middle East
said they text messages about 12.1 hours per week while in the United States, the
average time thumbing messages was around 11.5 hours per week (See Table 2).
American students spend about two hours more time per week viewing and
posting on Facebook (8.5 hrs. v. 6.4 hrs.), while Middle Eastern students spent
about an hour more interacting with their Twitter accounts (3.8 hrs. v. 2.7 hrs.).
These data measuring communication habits and political opinions among
American and Middle Eastern college students show remarkable similarities and
striking contrasts. To a certain extent social media engaged student responses to
political upheaval and global events. There were noticeably similar in their use of
social media and hence a similar impact for Facebook and Twitter use emerged in the study. A student at American University in Cairo was animated about it: “I
believe in Egypt, and now we somehow (have) freedom! Such as having access
to the Internet and having international TV channels.”
RQ2: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their
reactions to the United States after the 9/11 attacks?
Five opinion questions were used to gauge political views from students
groups in both regions regarding political controversies following the attacks of
9/11, including the issue of U.S. troops killing Osama bin Laden, the division
between Israel and Palestinians, and the impact on stability and understanding of
the American military intervention in the region (See Table 3). These data show
that students in both regions felt that there had been unnecessary warfare in the
Middle East (Middle East: 3.8, USA: 3.5) since the terrorist acts of 2001. There
was a slight tendency to agree with the U.S. justification for the slaying of Osama
bin Laden for both groups (Middle East: 3.2, USA: 3.4). However, when asked if
students felt the United States was a safer nation for people of all beliefs (Middle
East: 2.6, USA: 2.8), they generally disagreed with that statement. Likewise they
did not feel there was greater understanding of the Muslim faith (Middle East:
2.8, USA: 2.7). A score lower than 3.0 indicated a level of disagreement, and the
highest level of disagreement in both regions registered in response to the
statement, “Israel and the Palestinians are closer to agreement” (Middle East:
2.6, USA: 2.8).
Table 3: Student Opinion of Post-9/11 Results
We next compared our student samples on ten political issues to
determine which ones were most important to them (See Table 4). The scores
indicate a semantic differential scale of importance with seven registering the
highest level. Economic conditions (Middle East: 5.7, USA: 5.9) and security and
terrorism (Middle East: 5.7, USA: 5.8) ranked highest for both regions, but
religious tolerance was also viewed as one of the most important (Middle East:
5.7, USA: 5.6). Next in rank would be Freedom of Information (Middle East: 5.5,
USA: 5.7), followed by political leadership (Middle East: 5.5, USA: 5.5) and
democratic government (Middle East: 5.4, USA: 5.8), which showed a slightly
higher ranking among American students. The rights of women and minorities
are next (Middle East: 5.3, USA: 5.5) with the tilt toward American students,
followed by oil and energy resources that is slightly more important to the Middle
Eastern students (5.3) than Americans (5.1).
Table 4: Student Opinion of Issue Importance
Again, the widest gap in terms of what is considered to be an important
issue was the response to “Israel & The Middle East,” which saw more than a
point difference between the significance that issue held to Middle Eastern
students (5.2) versus (4.1) for American students, which was the lowest score
registered. On the other hand, both groups of students were in agreement
regarding the importance of American and Western leadership in the world,
which measured 4.4 on a scale of seven. An interesting difference was noted
when students groups were divided by the age demographic. Older Middle Eastern students, 22 years and up, considered “religious tolerance” to be most
important at a level of 6.1 compared to 5.5 for younger students.
Table 5: Student Opinion of Arab Spring Causes
RQ3: How did United States and Middle East students differ in their
reaction to uprising events in MENA?
The premise that young people draw similar causes for specific problems
based on consonant news coverage was accepted as a function of the news
framing process. In citing factors leading to the unrest particularly in Egypt,
student responses showed similar views. Between 98% and 99% of the college
students on U.S. and Middle East campuses cited government oppression as a
principal cause. Similarly, the students recognized political corruption as a
factor, but Egyptian students also drew attention to the economic situation. “I
believe the revolution was due to general unrest …being unsatisfied with their
personal way of life, rather than the political state of the country … a large number of protesters in Tahrir Square were asking for jobs or increased pay,
rather than democracy,” said an American University in Cairo student.
We asked students to indicate in online questionnaire what they
considered to be the causes and disseminating factors for the Arab uprisings in
the Middle East. The list of prominent causes given for students was gauged by
a five-point Likert scale from strong disagreement to strong agreement. We
discovered relative agreement in both regions of the world. The agreement cells
were collapsed and the score indicated greater agreement based on higher
scores. Consequently, corrupt leaders received the highest level of agreement
among students in the USA and in the Middle East as a cause for the popular
revolutions. The highest level of disagreement was seen in the response to the
desire for democracy as a cause, which more Middle Eastern students cited than
Americans. There was also a distinction in the low level of agreement regarding
American intervention as a cause for the Arab Spring (Middle East: 3.4, USA:
3.2). Higher levels of agreement were noted for both regions in citing the causes
of economic hardship (3.9) and corruption (4.1).
Because the sample invited responses from both typical college age
groups of 21 and under in addition to students 22 and older, we decided to
compare opinion by the age demographic and noticed the older students in the
Middle East exhibited a higher level of certainty citing the causes of the Arab
awakening than younger students (See Table 6). Yet the trend in the United States was more of a mixed bag. The highest level of agreement was displayed
among older Middle Eastern students where government oppression and
corruption were viewed as the two principal causes (4.3), while economic
hardship (4.2), desire for democracy (4.0), and American intervention (3.3) fell
behind as cited factors. This degree of certainty among older Middle Eastern
students was higher than the conviction displayed by younger or older
Table 6: Student Opinion of Arab Spring Causes by Age
What role would students find for new media in the Egyptian revolution?
The influence of social networks was felt among students in Cairo where 99%
agreed that Facebook and Twitter helped spread the revolt, but the dynamics of
the situation also played a part. “The social networks in Egypt's case were only a
medium of communication and they helped groups to gather at first but when
they cut off the Internet, people found other ways to communicate and most of
them did not have Internet access to begin with so the role of social networks to
me is unclear,” wrote one AUC student. When it came to predicting the viral
impact of the Arab Spring, an overwhelming majority (98%) of the Middle Eastern
students predicted that it would spread to other Arab countries. A majority of the
American students felt that way, but some harbored doubts about its viral
There was a noticeable divide (See Table 7) between Middle Eastern and
American students with a score of 3.8 from Middle Eastern students in
agreement that Facebook and Twitter helped contribute to the unrest, where
students in the United States were virtually undecided with a score indicating the
middle point between agreement and disagreement. The lowest level of
agreement was in response to the question about its benefit for political stability,
where Middle Eastern students were at a midpoint (3.0) and American students
even lower (2.8) in their belief that social media could be a steadying factor in
politics rather than an inflammatory channel.
Table 7: Student Opinion of Social Media Effects
Social media responses also indicated a level of skepticism with regard to
its quality and accuracy of information as conveyed by its ability to “keep all
governments open and transparent,” with Middle Eastern students slightly
leaning toward agreement on that item and U.S. students leaning slightly toward
disagreement (Middle East: 3.3, USA: 2.8). Almost neutral scores were
registered in response to social media’s capacity for letting citizens know “what’s
going on in the government” with Middle Eastern and American students (Middle
East: 3.3, USA: 3.1) again leaning slightly toward agreement. Those two
questions combined suggest that student participants were not at all convinced
that social media were going to help them act as informed citizens. The college
students were in agreement (3.7) concerning the statement that social media is
an “easy way to get involved in politics,” and to a lesser extent saw social media
channels facilitating democracy (Middle East: 3.6, USA: 3.4). There was a
general belief overall that social media will be important in the future with a score
of 4.3 for Middle Eastern students and 4.4 for American students, which was the
highest level of agreement on the social media scale.
Delineating groups by an age demographic that divided younger and older
students (Table 8) revealed a contrast in responses between the two regions:
older Middle Eastern students displaying a higher level of certainty regarding the
role of social media than those 21 years old or younger with only one exception
on our social media scale (“Will be used more in the future”). The younger
students in the USA demonstrated higher levels of agreement regarding social
media’s influence than older ones.
Table 8: Student Opinion of Social Media Effects by Age
Impact of Social Media
Research on media effects repeatedly has reported channel differences in
term of cognitive and affective responses. In their study contrasting TV and
newspaper coverage of the terror acts on Sept. 11th, Cho et al. (2003) measured
the effect of television news in terms of eliciting emotional responses as
compared to newspaper coverage. The visual elements of TV news create
stronger negative and positive emotions than print coverage with even the
networks’ TV news transcripts containing “stronger emotional cues than
newspaper stories” (Cho et al., p. 323). Internet news consumption, in contrast,
was not significantly related to positive or negative emotions in response to the
9/11 attacks, leading to some speculation that online news produces primarily
cognitive effects (2003, p. 326).
As we determined in recent contexts, the role of new media in assessing
positive or negative feelings toward political leaders and U.S. policies in the
Middle East during the Arab uprisings, we found some remarkable similarities. In
drawing comparisons of news sources, we asked students if they had a favorite
channel for radio or television news, a select newspaper or radio station, a special news website, and how they used social networks for news. Social
media figured prominently as a source of news for both Western and Middle
Eastern students, where the vast majority of the students gathered news from
their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
An earlier survey of Middle Eastern students reported a favorite channel
for television news (Middle East: 90% USA: 77%). And also cited a favorite news
website almost -- 76% of the students in the Middle East and 72% in the United
States. More than 80% of the students at Bradley University in Peoria identified
a favorite news website, and so did 71% at AUD. Smaller percentages identified
a favorite news website at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette (61%) and
Qatar University (60%). Legacy news sources of print and broadcast were
diminishing among students in the Middle East but not as fast as in the United
States. About 43% of the American college students identified newspapers as a
source of news compared to 52% in the Middle East. Radio news outlets were
least frequently mentioned (USA: 38%, Middle Eastern: 42%).
This study discovered that the key difference between American and
Middle Eastern students was the time spent gathering news and discussing
political issues. American students appeared far less likely to engage in
controversial conversations in contrast to Arab students who seem to be energized
by political discussions. The time spent with news media of all sorts – digital and
traditional – indicates Middle Eastern students are politically engaged perhaps
more so than American students, who seemed to prefer entertainment media.
Even though the Arab Spring is a rebellion directed at indigenous political
oppression, corruption, and economic hardship the role of the United States in the
region also provoked feelings of resentment. One student at AUD said, “The
people have the right to start a revolution in their own country, but it doesn’t give
the Americans any right to say or do anything in a country that is not their own…
problems start when the Americans show up.”
Another notable finding was student responses to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians – judged to be substantially more important to Middle Eastern
students. These case study opinions indicated a shift in feelings toward President
Obama from 2008 when students were largely enthusiastic about his candidacy to
2011-12 when after his years in office attitudes toward him have cooled
We also saw that the participation of women in political affairs tends to
dispel gender stereotypes. Both male and female students in the Middle East
were equally engaged in news viewing and discussions with their friends and
family, while Arab women in particular showed a special interest in the news;
listened and watched and reported events, and gathered information to form
personal convictions. Lingering stereotypes of complacent Arab women
occupying a subservient role saw little support in the data.
One point should be made about the range of participants and the balance
between public and private institutions represented by this case study in the
United States and the Middle East. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is a
state-supported school whereas Bradley is a private institution, and although
student media habits appear to be similar their political views diverge in ways
that reflect those differences. Similarly, Qatar University students participated in
a public institution catering to a cross-section of native Qataris whereas the
American Universities of Dubai and Cairo are private schools and their
enrollments also reflect those differences. Nonetheless, student media habits
were comparable in some respects and so were some political opinions, but the
contrast in terms of entertainment media consumption and news conversations
bears furthers study, as do misapprehensions students harbor toward political
events. The fact that Arab students largely felt that U.S. foreign policies had little
to do with their revolt, while students at Bradley University were unanimous in
thinking just the opposite is intriguing.
Finally, in the context of the uprisings of September 11, 2012 it was noted
that a strategic implementation plan (SIP) designed to counter violent extremism
(CVE) in 2011 and impede the radicalizing process of young Muslims was underway. The president defined his priorities countering terrorism in terms of
stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, guarding Israel’s security, and pursuing
an Arab-Israeli peace (Bjelopera, 2012). His administration’s strategy drew upon
reports from a number of agencies including the Dept. of Homeland Security
(DHS), the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and the National Counterterrorism
Center (NCTC). In order to proactively remedy Islamic radicalization, Muslim
disaffection in communities where seeds of radicalization are sewn must be
countered, and his administration’s goal was to navigate the linguistic and
cultural complexities of Islam and maintain channels of conversation in those key
communities. The SIP was designed to counter violent extremist propaganda,
which is “the most challenging area of work, requiring careful consideration of a
number of legal issues, especially those related to the First Amendment” (Bartlett
& Miller, 2010).
U.S. diplomacy to defeat radicalization in Arab countries has shaped
messages opposing extremist propaganda well focused on American unity, but it
cannot counter freedom of expression on the home front. Muslims living in the
United States naturally are disinclined to embrace viewpoints unsympathetic to
the role of their culture and religion; hence the National Counterterrorism Center
(NCTC) seeks to forge trust through community activists and create a dialogue
with Muslims through American and foreign CVE experts. The administration’s
watchwords are “community engagement” and “law enforcement expertise” (SIP,
2011, p. 19). Threatening this success is inherent contradictions due to
counterterrorism crime fighting objectives and the fragile formation of alliances
with Muslim groups.
Future research should consider more closely how controversial issues
that divide peoples of the two regions based on accepted levels of freedom of
expression and religion. Recent protests and acts of violence in response to an
anti-Islamic video posted online underscores a key issue dividing MENA and
Western ideology regarding tolerance and freedom of expression even when it
represents a desecration and insult to particular faiths. American jurisprudence
has long permitted direct and implicit insults to the images and iconography of Christianity since the early 1950s, while people of Islamic faith are willing to put
to death perpetrators of such offenses. How this seemingly irreconcilable
difference can be resolved is a question of supreme importance in the Internet
age when volatile messages easily ignore boundaries of governance and law
along with sacred traditions of religious faith.
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