In the "old" days not too long ago, the average Syrian would sit
in front of the television and see the world - exactly as it was
according to the Syrian authorities.
There was no need for a remote control then, because the choices
were so few.
But today the average Syrian TV set is an altogether different
Connected to satellite dishes, Syrian remote controls surf across
scores of channels, revealing things live that local politicians
not even mention: There is the programming of archenemy Israel; the
gluttony and glitter of the West in the form of programs such as
"Baywatch"; the disintegration of the once-powerful Eastern bloc,
Syria's long-time allies; even pornography.
"Nobody watches official Syria TV anymore," says one Syrian
matter-of-factly. "Why should they?"
Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Syria, where one of
the most insular one-party, one-leader regimes of the Mideast has
held power for decades.
But a glance at the Damascus skyline shows that this rule is not
only ignored, it is positively abused. Satellite dishes clog the
rooftops of every building in the capital, Damascus, be they big or
small, rich or poor. The ocean of concave channel-catchers
stretches from President Hafez al-Assad's hilltop palace to the
grimiest makeshift hovel in the impoverished southern suburbs.
Syria's internal security police, the Mukhabarat, estimates that
there are half a million satellite dishes in Damascus alone. Every
day those dishes pipe into Syria - as they do into homes across the
Arab world - an uncontrollable mishmash of increasingly irreverent
Arab politics, fashion, and values East and West.
In a region where public opinion has been largely marginalized for
generations by dictators and monarchs alike, the satellite dishes
reveal another reality. It is where people from Indonesia to Quebec,
Canada, are fighting for national and democratic rights, sometimes
violently, and where leaders from Yugoslavia to Chile are held
accountable for human rights abuses.
Throw in a mix of what traditionalists call a "dangerous"
freewheeling moral attitude, and the result may be nothing less than
the seeds of a spreading revolution, germinating across the Middle
East at the end of millions of satellite cables.
"Satellite dishes are doing wonders to people, and linking them to
the outside world willy-nilly," says a Syrian academic. "They have
created an aggressive, thirsty younger generation that is less
tolerant of authority, political or social. In the end, this creates
some trouble for the regimes, which are used to controlling
Only Iraq, locked into its own isolated timelessness by the tough
grip of Saddam Hussein, so far seems impervious to this trend. But
elsewhere, the image of outside freedoms and efficiency is
Arab commentators say, with a daily fare of local, long-term
Collision of values
"There is a complete lack of fit with modernity," says Fouad
Ajami, director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School
Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Lately society tries
to be hip and modern, and feels the need for change. But the
political systems are ossified, and there is a kind of Arab
bewilderment as to why they can't reinvent their political
container," Mr. Ajami says. "Hapless people are caught in the
middle, caught between the regimes they disdain and the opposition
That view is widely echoed across the region, where once-endless
evenings of communal chatting are giving way to TV time. Strict
regimes once feared the Internet, but its use is limited: You must
have a computer, speak English, and be able to afford a server
subscription and phone line costs.
Cheap satellite dishes and smuggled reception devices, however,
are inherently more democratic and can be understood even by those
who are otherwise functionally illiterate. The state monopoly on
broadcasting has eroded, and along with it the ability to serve as
the sole, measured guide to the masses. …