Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Beacon No. 4: Habits of Democracy


Decades after Nasser's death, the only thing that's truly pan-Arab is Super Star, a Middle Eastern celebrity-search show sponsored by Lebanon's al-Mustaqbal ("the future") satellite channel. Super Star bears a strong resemblance to the hit American show American Idol.

Super Star 2 began in February and took six months to narrow 83 competitors down to just two: In the August finale, singers Ammar Hassan of the West Bank and Atmar al-Atar of Libya jousted to be named the Middle East's best male singer. Passions ran high among both Palestinians, who could use a non-violent hero, and Libyans, recently in from the cold following Col. Qaddafi's settlements of the Lockerbie bombing and WMD issues.

Votes were cast entirely by cell phone but, even though Yasir Arafat made the contest a point of national pride and at least one Palestinian cell-phone company offered cut-rate calls for voting purposes, Libya's al-Atmar pulled out a convincing victory, 54 to 46 percent.

Reality-TV singing contests are shallow and probably don't represent the hopes and aspirations of all but a relatively small, wired minority in the Middle East; but for all the complaints about reality TV, Super Star is one of the only examples—if not the example—of Arab participatory democracy in the region. So if Middle Eastern democracy starts growing with a remote in one hand and a Nokia in the other, so be it.

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