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.