Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Egyptian Media

by Ursula Lindsey | published February 15, 2011

It took 18 days of mass mobilization, the deaths of hundreds and the wounding of thousands, the crippling of Egypt’s tourism industry and the crash of its stock market, to bring an end to the 30-year presidency of Husni Mubarak. And almost every minute of the revolution was televised.

Although protesters faced violence from police and -- infamously -- regime-enlisted thugs, for the most part the revolution was peaceful. After tens of thousands occupied central Cairo on January 28, and millions more came out in their support across the country, what the cameras captured was mostly a prolonged standoff between demonstrators and Mubarak’s regime, including his newly appointed military leadership, former intelligence chief ‘Umar Sulayman and former air force head Ahmad Shafiq.

In the tense and unpredictable days between January 28 and February 11, when Mubarak stepped down, the mood of the TV-watching Egyptian public veered from support of the protesters’ demands to a desire to return to normalcy to sympathy with the beleaguered president and back again. To a large extent, the contest of wills between a spontaneous, grassroots movement and an entrenched authoritarian regime became a battle of words and images, in which issues of national authenticity were paramount and modes of communication vital. Who could legitimately claim to speak for Egypt? Who could not? The protesters and the government debated these questions through very different means -- the former using free-wheeling, peer-to-peer, mostly digital networks, the latter with top-down announcements through channels over which they retain exclusive control.

Access to and use of communication and information networks -- cellular phone services; the Internet and new social media; TV and newspapers -- was pivotal as events unfolded. While the regime used the state information apparatus to unleash propaganda against the protesters and the journalists covering them, the protesters disseminated their message in ways that were at once disciplined, creative and subversive. The triumph of the revolution -- at least in its primary demand, Mubarak’s resignation -- was accompanied by a discrediting of government-controlled news, a flourishing of “homemade” media of all sorts and a validation of outlets such as Al Jazeera and other pugnacious satellite channels, some privately owned.

As the post-Mubarak era dawns, and the country seems to be moving toward historic legal and political change, the question is whether the transformation will include a new media landscape that is more diversified, uncensored and truly representative of the Egyptian people’s concerns and views.

The “Facebook Kids”

Social media, while they did not cause the Egyptian uprising, played a huge role in connecting many of the people who would eventually join the protests. Facebook groups like We Are All Khalid Sa‘id, created in late 2010 to honor a young Alexandrian man beaten to death by police and boasting a half-million members on January 25, 2011, were instrumental, so much so that a new expression has entered the Egyptian lexicon. The politicized, Internet-savvy generation that organized the initial events is known as the “Facebook kids.”

Over 80,000 people pledged on the Internet to attend the “day of rage” scheduled for January 25. Yet previous attempts to mobilize the masses online had fallen flat, including the April 6, 2009 “general strike” for which one of the key organizer movements is named. Both the protesters and the riot police sent to contain them therefore seemed caught off guard when the day ended with joyful crowds milling freely through Tahrir Square and adjacent parts of the city center.

The regime’s decision to interfere with telecommunications seems to have been made almost immediately. Already on January 25, cell phone coverage was unavailable to the protesters who had streamed into Tahrir Square. The next day, telecom operators received instructions from the authorities to lower data rate limits -- a way to reduce the speed of the Internet. By the night of January 27, the Internet was down. Text messaging was disabled. The following morning, all cell phone coverage in Egypt was gone. Officials of Vodafone, one of the major telecom operators in the country, have said they were obligated to obey government shutdown orders by Egyptian law, which gives the authorities broad emergency powers.

The protesters knew to expect the outage. They had already been organizing themselves through face-to-face meetings and, as the January 28 “day of rage” neared, they started exchanging land line numbers and identifying safe houses where they could meet early that morning.

Organizers were concerned, in any case, by the prospect that security and intelligence agents would infiltrate social media networks. A set of instructions for the January 28 protests was introduced with the following warning: “Please distribute by e-mail or by hand (printouts and photocopies). Facebook and Twitter are under surveillance. Please make sure this information does not fall into the hands of police or state security personnel.” The document gives detailed guidance about what to wear and bring to the protests; how best to gather and converge on a location; what slogans to shout; and how to mount effective self-defense in case of clashes with the riot police. It also designates the state-owned radio and TV building, known as Maspero, as the highest-value target in downtown Cairo. “The building should be surrounded from all sides,” the document reads, “and then entered so as to take control of the live broadcast facilities and announce the people’s takeover of state TV and radio and its liberation from the tyrannical dictator.” (The protesters tried several times, but never made it all the way to Maspero, which was heavily guarded.)

While phone service returned on January 29, SMS and the Internet remained disabled for a full five days, plunging the country into an unprecedented telecommunications black hole. It is unclear what the Internet shutdown achieved, besides contributing to a general sense of predicament. The absence of connectivity did not knock out the broadcasts of the foreign media nor did it significantly impede the protests’ momentum. One group of young protesters said they had originally read about the demonstrations online, but once the protests began, they continued, “We just headed to Tahrir every day.”

And while social media and online communities did much of the spadework for the success of the protests -- fashioning a new political consensus among hundreds of thousands of middle-class Egyptians and functioning as organizing tools -- the revolution included many, many people, maybe a majority, who do not have Internet access at home, let alone Facebook accounts.

The Twilight Zone

Even as satellite and private TV channels have begun to penetrate the Egyptian market in the last decade, the government has kept tight control over terrestrial broadcasting, which depends directly upon the Ministry of Information for its content. State TV has been compelled to update its programming to be more relevant and engaging, by focusing on local news and playing to viewers’ feelings of patriotism. As the regime knows very well, the eight state TV channels are the only source of visual information for the many poor Egyptians who do not have satellite channels or Internet connections in their houses. Meanwhile, private Egyptian channels, which must be licensed by the government, have repeatedly encountered pressure from state security agents to cancel the appearances of certain guests or entire shows.

At first, state TV barely acknowledged the protests that were to bloom into popular revolt. The official al-Ahram newspaper did not deign to mention them, either. Then, after January 28, when demonstrators seized control of Tahrir Square for good, state-sponsored broadcasts not surprisingly began to mirror the government’s rhetoric, presenting the peaceful rallies across the country as a national security emergency. Under the tagline “Protect Egypt,” the government channels’ focus turned to the chaos and looting that was supposedly sweeping the country and the heroic efforts of Egyptian citizens to defend their homes and property. Of course, no suggestion was made that this security vacuum might be orchestrated by the state itself. The coverage seemed designed to scare Egyptians into staying at home.

State TV also focused on the government’s promises of reform, repeating that President Mubarak had in fact granted all the protesters’ demands by promising to resign upon the expiration of his term in September. It highlighted the economic hardships that many Egyptians were enduring due, it was argued, to the protesters’ intransigence.

Mubarak’s speech on February 1, in which he emphasized his years of service to the country in the air force and political office and spoke of his desire to end his life in Egypt, genuinely moved many Egyptians. After the speech, the state channels ran footage from Mubarak’s years as president with a soundtrack of patriotic music. They also devoted extensive coverage to the “pro-Mubarak demonstrations” staged by the regime. Crowds of middle-aged men kissed the president’s portrait, danced and pantomimed their general enthusiasm for state cameras that filmed them in tight close-ups. Meanwhile, the throngs in Tahrir Square were filmed only from a distance. None of the many people who called in to talk shows to chat about Egypt’s crisis were from the ranks of the revolutionaries.

The next day’s violent attacks on the protesters were also entirely elided. State TV spoke only of “clashes” and showed none of the widely circulating pictures of young men charging the crowds on horses and camels or throwing chunks of masonry from rooftops.

The coverage was so disingenuous and disconnected from reality that it prompted defections. Shahira Amin, the deputy head of Nile TV, resigned on February 3, saying that she had been given instructions to air only footage of the pro-Mubarak gatherings. Significantly, she announced her resignation to Al Jazeera, from Tahrir Square. Another well-known anchor, Suha al-Naqqash, followed suit.

As the protests continued throughout the week, government media began a campaign of xenophobic incitement and disinformation. It broadcast interviews with “demonstrators” who had their faces and voices disguised and claimed they had been trained in Israel. At least one of these impersonators has since been identified as a female journalist working for the 24 Hours newspaper run by Samir Ragab. Hints at foreign infiltration multiplied. The presenters on state TV took calls from people who reported, again and again, that they had seen people in the protesters’ ranks who looked foreign, spoke foreign languages or spoke Arabic in non-Egyptian dialects. References were made to Iran and Hamas; to the Muslim Brothers and al-Qaeda; to international NGOs like the International Crisis Group and Freedom House; and to Israel and the United States.

In an interview on February 4, the al-Ahram journalist Yahya al-Ghani remonstrated with a Nile TV presenter who had zeroed in on the alleged foreign elements in the demonstrations. “Your questions imply a lack of trust. There are many political and popular groups [in the protests]. We shouldn’t demonize anyone in Egypt. Why are you acting in a way that destroys the trust between the government media and the public?” But the presenter went on immediately to take a call from someone who claimed that Arabs with non-Egyptian accents were preventing Egyptians from leaving the protests. There was so much food in Tahrir Square, the caller continued, that protesters were throwing it away. One of the wilder rumors spread on state TV was that the US-backed demonstrators’ meals were catered by the fried-chicken chain KFC. The light-hearted, quick-witted crowds in Tahrir Square began referring to all food as “Kentucky.”

The protesters were, of course, completely ready for the incitement against them. An Egyptian blogger called Nasry wrote a long note entitled: “How to Betray Your People in Four Steps: A Guide for a Clever Government to Deceive the Media.” The steps include: “Call Them Traitors,” “Keep Them Worried Day and Night,” “Denial and Postponement Are Always Useful” and “Repeat Your Lies.”

Foreign Reporters, Foreign Agents

As the government attacked the protesters, and tried to bamboozle Egyptians sitting at home, it carried out a simultaneous and concerted campaign of intimidation against the press.

Dozens of local and foreign journalists were physically assaulted, threatened and detained, in some cases at secret state security facilities, where they could hear the sounds of Egyptians being beaten nearby. Reporters’ accounts suggest that police or intelligence officers were often close at hand during attacks by government supporters, directing the mob and then stepping in to detain journalists “for their protection.” Journalists at hotels overlooking Tahrir Square had their cameras confiscated by hotel management. The manager at one such establishment said they did so on orders from the army, which said that otherwise it would be obligated to “storm the hotel.”

The local opposition press was also singled out for rough treatment. The offices of the independent daily al-Shurouq were attacked, and writers with the privately owned al-Misri al-Yawm newspaper reported threats.

But the most heavily targeted media outlet has been Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based satellite channel had been the bête noire of the Mubarak regime for some time. Mubarak was the Arab leader who, upon visiting the channel’s Doha offices, exclaimed, “All that noise from this little matchbox?” His regime, like others in the Arab world, reacted to the channel’s critical coverage by accusing it time and again of plotting against Egypt. For its part, Al Jazeera made no secret of its sympathy with the protesters and its skepticism toward the statements of government officials. It featured the most extensive coverage of any TV channel, reporting not only from Cairo but also from Alexandria and Suez.

The government removed Al Jazeera’s feed from the state-owned NileSat satellite and ordered the channel to close its offices, which were subsequently torched and looted. Nine of the station’s reporters have been arrested. The regime-backed thugs that attacked demonstrators in downtown Cairo were reportedly on the lookout for the satellite channel’s personnel, aggressively asking all journalists: “Are you Al Jazeera?” Al Jazeera reporters removed the well-known circular golden logo from their microphones; several correspondents of Egyptian (as opposed to dual or non-Egyptian Arab) nationality were forced into hiding for a week, only to emerge on the night of the president’s resignation.

Getting the Message Out

Egypt came back online on February 2. Almost immediately, protesters and their sympathizers began uploading a stream of visual and aural material -- YouTube clips showing unarmed citizens being shot; updated lists of what supplies the protesters might need; music videos and online slide shows celebrating the scope of the demonstrations and popular solidarity with them; and cartoons mocking the president’s speeches. Huge banners were hung around Tahrir Square outlining the protesters’ shared demands: the removal of Mubarak; the dissolution of Parliament, elected fraudulently in December 2010; the trial of former Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and other government officials; the lifting of emergency law; the writing of a new constitution; and the holding of free and fair elections.

The protesters -- almost all of whom were eager to be interviewed by journalists -- had a shared and articulate vision of their movement. They emphasized their peaceful intentions and their commitment to a broad set of democratic demands, rather than any single ideology. Persistently if not always patiently, they told reporters: “We are Egyptians. We aren’t criminals. We aren’t thieves. We aren’t foreigners.” Waving Egyptian flags and eschewing any divisive religious or political symbolism, the protesters stuck to simple and positive slogans: “Non-violence!” “Long live Egypt!” “Down with Mubarak!” And then there was the ubiquitous, rhythmic chant, “The People…Want…the Fall...of the Regime!” Their posters, meanwhile, ranged from the witty (“Control + Alt + Delete Mubarak”) to the straightforward (“Take a Hike,” “Get Out,” “Leave and Let Live”) to the poignant (“I’m Sorry I Was Silent.”) The humor, the use of English phrases and technological jargon (one poster was a clever flow chart) were all ways to send other messages: We are educated, non-threatening, part of the world community, these posters said. We deserve democracy.

One of the more interesting developments in the media wars that have surrounded the protests has been the changing role of local private TV channels such as Dream TV (owned by industrialist Ahmad Bahgat) and O TV (owned by businessman Naguib Sawiris). Less open to charges of foreign manipulation, both of these channels seem to have been pushed into open sympathy with the protest movement by the propaganda on state TV and the pressure from the security services to tone down their own coverage. Muna al-Shazli, the charismatic host of a popular evening talk show, has revealed on the air that she was instructed how to cover the demonstrations. “They told us to say ‘dozens’ of demonstrators,” she said. She has also aggressively questioned government officials and was the first to interview activist Wael Ghoneim, the administrator of the We Are All Khalid Sa‘id Facebook group, who was kidnapped and detained for 12 days. The station had campaigned for Ghoneim’s release. His emotional response -- he broke down crying when shown photographs of people killed during the protests -- was a galvanizing moment that contributed to a huge turnout in the square the following day.

But the demonstrators’ best way of getting their message out was arguably their very perseverance. As days went by, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians visited Tahrir Square or participated in protests across the country, it became increasingly difficult to portray the gatherings as marginal or alien. More and more Egyptians had direct experience to the contrary, and the protest organizers made a point of asking visitors to spread the word about what they had seen.

As the protests not only continued but also increased in size, the state-run channels found it impossible to sustain the crude tenor of their propaganda. They began adjusting the official line, abandoning some of their more outrageous claims, showing footage of Tahrir Square and even suggesting that the early protests had been genuinely nationalistic and legitimate. It was only later, the state’s anchors now said, that Islamists and foreign interlopers hijacked the demonstrations.

Finally, on the afternoon of February 11 -- mere hours before Mubarak’s resignation was announced -- pro-democracy crowds gathered outside government buildings across Cairo, including Maspero. A presenter from the official al-Akhbar news channel stepped outside the building and began interviewing protesters. Acknowledging that state media had made “mistakes,” he asked them how they would like to see it change. “I don’t want to have to rely on foreign media to get the truth,” a protester told him. “I want the Egyptian media to be free and neutral. I want it to be the voice of the people, not of the regime.” Another protester was less polite: “How can you ask us to forgive you?” he asked the presenter. “How can we forgive you for spreading lies and bad news? You should be judged by the people!” The next day, the state-owned al-Ahram ran the headline, “The People Brought Down the Mubarak Regime,” echoing the chant that had reverberated in Tahrir Square for the last two weeks.

The Army’s Media Strategy

When Mubarak stepped down, he handed over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which says it wants to install a new civilian government as soon as possible and is committed to safeguarding the “gains of the revolution.” During the revolution, the army did not take action against the protesters, but it did not side with them, either. Its position has been one of cultivated, convenient ambiguity.

During the first five days of the protests, even as it was impossible to send text messages, all Egyptians received several from the army. Telecom operators, again, say they were obliged to relay these brief missives under the country’s emergency law. The first, sent on February 1, reads: “The armed forces implore the loyal men of Egypt to confront traitors and criminals and to protect our people, our land and our precious Egypt.” Another, dated February 4, says: “To every father, mother, sister and brother, to every honorable citizen, watch over this country, for the nation is forever.” On the same day, another message informed Egyptians that “the armed forces are guarding your safety and will not resort to using force against this great people.” Yet another warned: “Young people of Egypt, beware of rumors and be reasonable. Egypt is above all else, so watch over her.”

Since it convened on February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has addressed the public only through a series of terse communiqués. Even as it abruptly notified the public of momentous changes -- the dissolution of the Parliament and the suspension of the constitution -- the army has provided little information about how it intends to midwife a transition to democracy. Plainly, it is an institution that is not accustomed to explaining itself in public. In a February 14 meeting between young protest leaders and army representatives, the “Facebook kids” gently suggested that the army should “change its media discourse and explain its points of view in a clearer manner.” Indeed.

The young protest leaders did commend the army, however, for speaking with them “without paternalism.” In many ways, the uprising in Egypt is the product of a yawning generation gap -- a gap in expectations, attitudes toward authority and ways of communicating. One of the reasons the uprising succeeded in its immediate goal may be the regime’s inability to hear, understand and respond to a new discourse. And one thing the revolution has made clear is Egyptians’ determination to speak to their government, and be spoken to, very differently than in the past. While Mubarak’s second speech was greeted with some sympathy, his third TV appearance, in which he pointedly did not resign, infuriated protesters with its utter tone-deafness. In Tahrir Square that night, the thousands who were crouched over portable TVs erupted in sarcastic disgust when the president said that he had once been young himself and would never be above listening to the youth of the country. Young Egyptians will no longer stand for such condescension, for father figures who presume to tell them what to do simply on the strength of their age and power. The great daily gatherings in central Cairo have changed many Egyptians’ sense of who can speak, who can answer and who can decide.

Wanted: An Accounting

The mastermind of the state media’s incitement and disinformation efforts during the 2011 revolution is said to be former Minister of Information Anas al-Fiqqi. As of February 15, four days into the post-Mubarak era, al-Fiqqi is reportedly under house arrest. But neither the exemplary punishment of a few high-ranking officials (if it indeed happens as promised) nor the state media’s collective mea culpa and late adoption of the revolution are guarantees that the state information apparatus will not again be used against the interests of the Egyptian people.

Only time will tell how serious the army’s commitment is to a democratic transition. The pace and extent of reform will also depend on the skills and determination of the protest movement, and its ability to form a coherent political front.

Whatever additional concessions the protesters and their leadership are able to extract, somewhere near the top of the list should be a full accounting for the disinformation campaign and the coordinated attacks on journalists. They should also demand the appointment of a trustworthy reformist to head the Ministry of Information or the gradual dismantling of that ministry altogether, the curtailment of the government’s arbitrary power to shut down Egyptians’ means of communication and an end to state control over all terrestrial TV transmissions. Egypt cannot move toward democracy without guarantees that its citizens will have access to free, accurate information.

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