Rumors in the Middle East are something of an informal news agency—and with formal news agencies being so often state-owned and state-fed, rumors are often taken to be more credible than printed or televised news. Last Thursday, for example, everyone believed Mubarak would announce that he was stepping down later that night because the rumor mill had been unequivocal about that fact. As the Guardian’s blog put it: “It now seems clear that Mubarak is about to go (especially since the information minister is denying it).” But, for once, evidence in support of the rumors was actually coming from Egyptian State TV. Thursday evening, Nile TV was showing a clip of Tahrir Square thundering with the single word “Irhal,” or “leave.” There was an interview with a protester accusing both houses of parliament of being fraudulently elected; another proclaimed that calls for patience were ridiculous given that the regime should have changed a long time ago. President Barack Obama’s comments in support of a transition to democracy were broadcast live with translation. This was revolution. On State television.
Several hours later, Mubarak came on television and shocked the anticipant crowds with the announcement that he planned to stay as president until September. As if to punctuate his declaration of power, Nile TV’s cameras on Tahrir Square were shut down. The quiet studio discussions taking place about the merits of Mubarak’s speech were chilling given the eruption of fury all over Egypt, and nowhere more powerfully than just outside the doors of the state television’s building, which is located on Tahrir Square. Egyptian state television had again become the eye of a storm, an island of calm amidst swirling winds of anger.
The government-controlled channels and newspapers have always been creative when it comes to reporting facts—made world famous last year with the “expressive” picture published in Al Ahram of President Hosni Mubarak leading Obama, Netanyahu, Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan walking in the White House where in reality he was trailing behind the group. Its reports about the protests, however, crossed the line from plain false to incendiary. In the beginning of the mobilization, the pro-democracy movement was portrayed as malcontent youth illegally and violently demonstrating for economic and social improvements. The chaos on Cairo streets wasn’t shown on official channels; pictures of a quiet bridge on the Nile were aired around the clock while commentators and officials explained that the situation was under control by a government sensitive to its people’s needs. There was never any mention of the rallying cry of the tens of thousands of protesters: “The People Demand the Fall of the Regime.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that on the first Friday of the uprising, when the crowd size swelled and the police were overcome, protesters went directly from burning the headquarters of the ruling party to the state television building. But whereas state security had abandoned the National Democratic Party’s headquarters, dozens of anti-riot police were positioned in front of the state television’s building, defending it with rubber bullets and teargas grenades against angry youth throwing Molotov cocktails, pieces of pavement or any other object at hand. After half hour of fighting, a police vehicle enters the street at full speed, nearly running over the demonstrators. The regime fought fiercely for the ability to portray events as it wished them to be perceived by the Egyptian public—and it won.
With the government securing its direct line of communication to the Egyptian public, they lashed back. No longer able to completely ignore or diminish what had become a popular revolt, their tactics changed. On the following Sunday, the government shut down Al Jazeera’s offices, banned their transmission, and revoked their reporter’s press cards and accreditations. Using the emergency law, they also forced Egyptian mobile companies to send various messages calling on the Egyptian people to defend the homeland against “traitors and criminals.” With Internet being cut for more than five days, Egypt’s government wanted to control as much as they could the flow of information reaching the public.
State channels began to describe protestors as foreigners or Egyptian traitors acting as foreign agents and sought to delegitimize competing media coverage, principally Al Jazeera, by arguing that foreign reporters were conspirators in a dangerous plot to bring chaos to Egypt. Exploiting the easiest target, accusations were soon made in Egyptian state media that Israeli spies have infiltrated the city, disguised as Western journalists. Testimonies of Egyptians having been pressured and trained by Jewish groups in the U.S. to foment a Facebook revolution were aired over and over. The faces of those “witnesses” were blurred and their names withheld but the message was clear: Israel and the West are behind the chaos, which is the word repeatedly used to describe the uprising. Given that Israel’s government and the US administration are the closest allies of Mubarak’s Egypt, the accusation might sound absurd. But it worked.
What followed was a campaign of extraordinary violence against protesters and journalists perpetrated by plain-clothed secret police, paid thugs and vigilantes inspired to action by these reports. It must have come as quite a surprise, particularly given Israel’s support of Mubarak in blatant defiance of the international community and the lip service heads of state are expected to pay to democratic ideals, when American, European, and Arab journalists were attacked by gangs shouting “Yehudi!” (“Jew”).
In the days that followed, Egyptian television broadened the circle of conspirators working to bring down the Egyptian government to include Iran, Hamas, Qatar, and all of the West. Attacks against reporters and foreigners became increasingly xenophobic instead of anti-Semitic, perhaps even a revenge ploy against the West’s abandonment of their longtime ally. As a French journalist of Arab origin and with an Israeli first name, the sudden unity of my various identities would have been funny had it not been incredibly scary.
But even in Egypt it’s the twenty-first century, and the government’s effort to monopolize the flow of information couldn’t last. Mobile phones and Internet connection were restored, Al Jazeera found a way to continue broadcasting, and state-owned media started to crack under the weight of its lies.
The deputy head of state-controlled Nile TV, Shahira Amin, quit her job, and publicly announced on Al Jazeera: “I resigned because it (Nile TV) is being used as a propaganda machine.” A few days later the channel’s presenter, Soha al-Naqqash, followed suit. Even Al Ahram, the state-controlled newspaper with the highest circulation, challenged the party line when, on February 7, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Osama Saraya hailed the “nobility” of what he described as a “revolution” and demanded that the government embark of irreversible constitutional and legislative changes.
Still, there were no close-up images of Tahrir Square broadcast, and no mention of the demand roaring all across Egypt: Irhal! Leave! Rather, there were people calling in weeping and begging for the “youth” to stop the chaos, so the economy could get back to normal. To get news of the protests, Egyptians had to watch foreign media, playing into the government’s claims that it was a foreign conspiracy.
Omar Suleiman, the newly appointed vice president, made a speech after Mubarak announced his ambiguous intentions to stay on until September. He told the protesters, the “youth” as he insists on calling them: “Go home. Stop watching satellite television.” It was a pathetic attempt to return the flock to the shepherd of state media. Like Mubarak’s patronizing speech opening that he is “speaking as a father to his children,” Suleiman’s constant reference to the “youth,” despite the fact that the people camped out on Tahrir Square for the past three weeks are of all ages, reflects the government perception that the Egyptian people are children not mature enough to be privy to “adult conversation.” The confusion regarding what Mubarak and Suleiman meant by their speeches on Thursday night, I believe, is attributable to the force of habit. They are not in the habit of discussing the details of government affairs with their people; in fact, the need to even address the situation altogether seemed to be an intrusive task. For years, the media’s task was to document National Democratic Party achievements—a new road, a new hospital, the 93% victory in November’s parliamentary election. It was a stage where the government performed and the Egyptian people were spectators. The idea that the media could be used as a window for Egyptians into the lives of other Egyptians or the outside world; that the government should be spectators to the actions of the people; or that the people deserved a credible window into the affairs of the government, was as foreign as the so-called “traitors and criminals” the state run media claimed were a threat to the nation. The alternative media—satellite news, blogs, Facebook, twitter—that allows people to contribute to and comment on available information, circumventing the government, or even demanding explanations from the government, did in fact force an element foreign to the ruling regime onto the playing field: the Egyptian people. Even if the staunchly undemocratic Mubarak and Suleiman were suddenly convinced to hold transparent elections, the opacity of their speeches made it clear they did not believe in transparent government.
As of this writing—actually, during this writing—Mubarak formerly relinquished his position as president. The cameras of state-controlled television were again showing images of Tahrir Square and the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians celebrating this moment. The same presenters who called the protesters foreign spies happily showed clips of these same people singing the national anthem and screaming their joy into the channel’s microphones. After Mubarak’s speech on Thursday, thousands of protesters surrounded the state television building demanding that it be turned over to them, the voice of the people. Until Mubarak’s resignation was announced the following day, no one was able to enter or leave the building; the people working for state media were literally trapped in their own lies. Yet, throughout, their pro-Mubarak broadcasting continued uninterrupted. At about 6:00 PM, however, after Suleiman’s pithy announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, patriotism suddenly meant holding the protesting youth on the nation’s shoulders and declaring them heroes. Presenters are hailing the “New Egypt.” Callers are praising God and expressing their great relief at the end of the dictatorship. Yes, it’s a revolution: the Egyptian people are watching genuine images of the Egyptian people on Egyptian television. But there’s a warning here, too. The seamless about-face of the coverage speaks to the profoundly corrupt position of state-controlled media.
Over the past eighteen days, the internet-savvy youth and foreign news channels managed to defeat the lies of the state-controlled television. But where it took a million people to overthrow the regime, it will take many more of Egypt’s 80 million citizens to build a genuine democracy. With Mubarak gone and the army in power, the question is: who is directing the puppet theater of state media?