The Al Jazeera Revolution

The satellite television station is seizing the message away from the bland propaganda of Arab autocrats.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera's live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera's feed, foiling the Egyptian regime's efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

"We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies," Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. "Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public."

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

"The genius of Arab satellite TV," Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, "is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche."

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

The media is by no means the only force at play in the continuing upheaval in Egypt, the Tunisian revolution, or the copy-cat demonstrations going on elsewhere in the Arab world. At root is a raw anger fed by decades of political, intellectual, and economic stagnation that has led to a powerful convergence of the region's three main political trends -- pan-Arab nationalism, nation-state nationalism, and Islamism.

However, Arab media have been at the vanguard of articulating this new and explosive development. Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera -- and the increasingly aggressive ethos of Arab print journalism exemplified by newspapers like Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm and Tunisia's crusading Kalima Tunisie -- have fueled a sense of common cause among Arabs across the region every bit as real as the "imagined communities" that are at the core of the concept of nation.

As Faisal Kasim, host of Al-Ittijah al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), one of Al Jazeera's most popular and controversial shows, which often features shouting matches between those representing the region's most extreme views, put it: "Our media should be harnessed to liberate the Arab people from their internal gladiators."

Change was Al Jazeera's raison d'être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera ("The Peninsula," named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable -- and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process.

Even though the Egyptian government cut most Internet and cell-phone links, disrupting the ability of political activists to use social media to organize, satellite television (including an array of privately-owned Cairo-based stations) continues to be the great unifying force as Egyptians -- and Arabs across the region -- watch live coverage of the violence in the streets and Mubarak's faltering response.

Journalism purists in the West may object to the idea of news organizations overtly helping to foster revolution. But the history of American journalism is replete with media activists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams, to name a few. The state of politics in the Arab world today has much in common with 18th-century America; the same is true of its journalism.

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

On Jan. 29, when partial cell-phone service was restored in Cairo, my teenage daughter finally managed to reach several friends. One was in tears; gunshots could be heard in the background as roaming bands of thugs broke into neighboring homes. Another friend said her father and other men from the neighborhood were out on the street to drive off armed looters who had just torched a nearby shopping center. I said a quick hello to her mother. "Are you watching the coverage?" she asked. Of course, I told her. "What channel?" I said I was switching between Al Jazeera, CNN, and BBC World.

"Oh, don't watch Jazeera," she exclaimed. "They exaggerate."

Many Arabs would beg to disagree. Not long after, I read this tweet -- "people in #alexandria: #aljazeera is the only honest channel, all #egyptian channels are liars."

Still, no matter what satellite channel they prefer, most Arabs would agree that all are a vast improvement over Egypt's state-controlled television broadcast, which is dutifully serving the regime, broadcasting footage of otherwise elusive pro-Mubarak rallies, punctuated by patriotic videos of stalwart citizens and the Egyptian flag set to the soundtrack of the national anthem.

Note to Mubarak: The era in which government broadcasters can manufacture reality is as dead as the age of the fax. Just look at that big TV screen in Tahrir Square.



With Eyes Red from Rage

While chaos and anger still reign in Egypt's streets, the extent of Mubarak's brutal tactics becomes ever clearer.

As we ran from Cairo's Tahrir Square into the side streets, protesters smashed pavements and threw them at the black-clad security troopers in their ill-fitting helmets. I found myself next to a man in a turban and the long-flowing Egyptian gallabiya popular in the countryside. His eyes were literally red with rage. He had uprooted a metal barrier and was smashing it into the paving slabs. As huge sections of paving came free he picked them up with two hands, lifted them over his head, and hurled them, screaming, in the direction of the police. From among a small group of fellow protesters, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf approached him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Son, we didn't come to harm our own country," she said calmly. The man, sweating and grunting, stared at the woman, then picked up his last slab and lifted it high above his head, ready to smash it down on her. Three other protesters jumped on him. As they held him down his screams and grunts turned into sobs. The protesters gave him water and left him weeping on the curb.

Cairo's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have gathered to call for Hosni Mubarak's ouster, is a place that knows protests. I came across the angry villager in 2000, at one of the first protests I attended as a journalist working in Cairo. Students had organized a rally to decry Israeli treatment of Palestinians during the uprising that started that year. But Mubarak has ruled Egypt by emergency decree for three decades, and demonstrations are technically banned. Before 2000, they were extremely rare. After the Israeli crackdown against the Palestinian uprising inflamed passions in Egypt, the authorities thought tightly controlled demonstrations could be a useful safety valve. Yet even though men like the angry villager turned up to protest against Israel, it wasn't the only source of their anger.

At that point in 2000, Mubarak was the undisputed leader of Egypt. His relationship with the United States cemented Egypt's position as a premier power in the Middle East. His impressive propaganda machine succeeded in making Egyptians feel any criticism of him was to flirt with treason. However, by Feb. 1, 2011, thousands were willing to come out into the street to call for his removal. From 2000 to 2011, Mubarak's callous and brutal rule had generated great anger and frustration in Egypt. But during that time, foreign analysts, journalists, and government officials never thought it was enough to cause an uprising against him. Even many activists doubted they would ever actually succeed.

Despite the resentment, the consensus among observers was that Egyptians lacked the will to resist. Political parties were in disarray, with few members; the Muslim Brotherhood was happy to suffer repeated crackdowns without challenging the regime outright, and demonstrators rarely numbered above a few thousand. The regime's vast police apparatus succeeded in disrupting people's ability to organize and coordinate their actions. But, in reality, it hadn't broken their spirit. As a journalist, I met many people who resisted in any way they could. However, when the consensus among international media and policy circles was that Egyptians would never rise up, then there was little incentive for journalists to dwell on their anger or the reasons behind it.

In all honesty, though I investigated and reported on many of the abuses of Mubarak's regime I also never imagined his own people would rise against him. I believed him, and the elite circle of military and businessmen around him, to be just too powerful. I also believed that the only actor able to pressure Mubarak was the United States, and as long as Washington bought into his "it's us or the extremists" argument, no one inside Egypt would be able to stand against him. However, having seen the despotism of his rule and the desperation of his people, I thought that once Mubarak died, the country would go into meltdown.

For the best part of a decade, I had the opportunity to see how Mubarak misruled and brutalized his people. In the fertile Nile Delta, where plants can grow so green they seem fluorescent, I visited a village where a local wealthy landowner had pushed small farmers off their land with the help of hired thugs. The villagers had appealed to the police, but the local officer had been bought off. The police reacted in the way they had grown accustomed to a system in which there was no accountability for their actions -- they assaulted the most vulnerable. Police troopers raided the village, burned crops, and stole belongings. When they realized that most of the men had fled in fear of mass arrest, they beat the children. The senior officer and the landowner had hoped the villagers would be bullied into submission. When the villagers organized themselves and chose a representative to seek help in Cairo from the judiciary and human rights groups, the troopers returned to the village to track him down. When they failed, they found his wife, ripped off her clothes, and paraded her naked through the village -- a warning to others who defied the powers that be.

The wider world didn't avoid seeing Mubarak's incompetence and brutality simply because the excesses happened out of sight in the countryside. The outrages were ignored when they happened in central Cairo, too. On May 25, 2005, state security decided to escalate its use of hired thugs as a method of crowd control. Hundreds of young, largely secular left-wing activists gathered in central Cairo to protest for democratic reform. State-security forces penned in the protesters and then sent in the hired goons. In the scuffles, one of the thugs was captured by the activists. I heard him tell a group of activists and journalists that he had been in a police cell the night before for pickpocketing, but was released on the condition that he help police "rough up" people they had told him were "traitors." Police officials, he said, promised him and the other prisoners a Coke and a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal deal as a reward.  

The other thugs made straight for the female protesters and ripped off their clothes and sexually assaulted them as uniformed police officers watched from the sidelines. The fact that a U.S. ally was using sexual violence as a political weapon against secular "natural allies" of democracy a couple of days after the U.S. president's wife visited the country and gave a speech on women's rights was little reported abroad. The fact that the regime received little criticism for the tactic, probably convinced Mubarak that employing it was not only cheap but effective -- which explains why his regime has resorted to it time and again.

As more Egyptians voiced their desire to see the end of Mubarak's rule through the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement, the authorities reacted by ramping up the brutality. Activist Mohamad al-Sharqawi was tortured and raped with a broom by security officers in 2006. He was just one of many. But most observers still thought the anger would not radiate beyond a small core of activists. When I was covering the Kifaya! demonstrations, a senior colleague in London, herself an Arab, told me; "Amil, forget about the Egyptians. They have been broken by Mubarak." She had the sound of someone who felt slightly embittered by the disappointment of her own faith in the Egyptian people.

But as shocking as these incidents were, they generated little contemplation about the nature of the Egyptian state. Political discussion points centered more on who would succeed Mubarak -- his son Gamal, or his spy chief Omar Suleiman. Extremism and terrorism were a secondary concern, largely because a militant campaign by violent extremists had been violently but effectively suppressed in the 1990s. If armed extremists couldn't topple Mubarak, the logic held, nobody could.

With no wider reason to care, most Western media outlets were uninterested in the gradual decline of the Egyptian state and the increasing resentment of its people. As a journalist for a wire service, I covered the rigged elections and the angry demonstrations. We made note of the first time protesters personally singled out Mubarak as part of the problem (2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq). But our stories hardly ever made it into major newspapers or onto television stations. When I later worked on documentaries in London, a senior foreign editor told me that Egypt was "one of the biggest non-stories there ever was." The feeling was that Mubarak was pro-Western, which meant that he was a moderate; Egypt was a story about ancient artifacts and beaches, not politics. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to generating coverage was that editors thought the issues afflicting Egypt -- economic stagnation, state brutality, and feelings of lost dignity -- could not easily be conveyed to an audience with little interest in foreign affairs.

In the end, it wasn't about spirit; it was about pride. Mubarak knew his regime had to give Egyptians something to be proud of if it wanted to survive. In 2000, when mobile and Internet technology and satellite television were less widespread, it was much easier for Mubarak's regime to project a make-believe image because Egyptians were willing to believe their country was respected on the world stage. As time went on, it became harder to hide Egypt's social and economic stagnation as well as its decreasing weight on the world stage from its citizens. And the more the regime used force to suppress dissent, the more it alienated itself from its people.

Finally, it was the popular revolt in Tunisia that made Egyptians feel that Mubarak would have to go for their pride to be restored. If little Tunisia could manage to remove a dictator, so could they.