Egypt's Foreigner Blame Game

Hosni Mubarak tries xenophobia to stay at the helm.

A week into the demonstrations in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's once unshakeable power structure was in full panic mode. What was once unimaginable had become reality: Egyptians seemed on the verge of overthrowing their government. Last week, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities, shouting again and again their Tunisia-inspired mantra: "The people demand the downfall of the regime!"

As one protester told me and my colleague after viewing some of the dead at one of Alexandria's morgues, "We want to uproot this tree all the way down to its roots, and then plant a new tree" -- terrifying words for the entrenched Egyptian autocracy.

Now, however, on day 16 of the protests, Mubarak and his cronies seemed to have turned a corner. Instead of running scared, the regime is fighting back with both words and violence to quash its opponents, portraying the opposition as a foreign-backed, un-Egyptian group of conspirators. Sadly, its propaganda campaign appears to be as crude as its actual physical crackdown has been.

After Mubarak's defiant last-night speech on Feb. 1, rejecting outright the protesters' demand that he step down, authorities unleashed a stunning wave of violence and intimidation. Gangs armed with sticks and knives attacked protesters. Thugs rode in on horseback and ran demonstrators down. State-run hospitals were under pressure to conceal the toll, so my colleagues and I tried to tally as best we could, visiting wards and morgues across the capital. We've counted more than 300 deaths so far, much higher than the officially acknowledged death toll of 77.

But another target of Mubarak's wrath was, simply, the rest of the world. Thugs hunted down foreigners, including journalists and tourists. Reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times were harassed and detained; al Jazeera's headquarters were stormed, its equipment confiscated, and at least eight of its journalists detained at various times. Attackers told their victims they were looking for an alliance of Israeli Mossad spies, American agents, Iranian and Afghan intelligence, Hamas provocateurs, and other sinister elements that were conspiring to "destroy Egypt."

Why this intense anti-foreigner violence? In short, because the regime was trying just about everything to preserve the privileges of its corrupt rule. There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, his Information Ministry, and elements of his security services sponsored a coordinated campaign to discredit and break up the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests that began on Jan. 25 and to intimidate and silence the journalists, foreign and Egyptian, who were reporting on it.

Senior officials, including Mubarak himself, have darkly hinted of supposed foreign involvement in the protests. On Feb. 1, Mubarak said that honest protesters had been "exploited" by spoilers with political interests. In a nationwide address two days later, his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, more explicitly accused "foreign influences" of spawning chaos.

The innuendo didn't stop there. From the beginning of the protests, "reports" of foreign conspiracies have dominated state television news. Egyptian channels such as Al Oula TV, Nile TV, and Al Masriya TV, all controlled by the Information Ministry, began playing virulent propaganda about the alleged plots and conspiracies hatched abroad. Similar rhetoric also ran on the pro-regime Mehwar TV owned by a close associate of Mubarak's party and in the pages of state-controlled newspapers such as Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar.

Many of the claims of foreign intervention came on so-called call-in shows. On Feb. 1, for example, Mehwar TV broadcast a phone interview with a young woman who claimed she had been at the protests since the first day and had seen a group of "foreign-looking men" -- Turks working for Iranian intelligence, she said -- with lots of cash and satellite phones, distributing expensive gifts and food to protesters. She said they were also distributing political fliers, which is illegal in Egypt. But such calls may well have been staged. The call-in numbers displayed were not even functional, as democracy protesters found out when they tried to dial them.

The next day, Mehwar TV broadcast a breathless interview with a woman whose face they pixelated and who claimed that she had been recruited by Mossad as a spy, had been trained by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House on how to topple the Egyptian government, and had been working closely with Qatar, home of Al Jazeera TV. She said that each of the protest leaders had received $50,000 in cash to round up protesters and instigate the burning of the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. The station offered no independent corroboration of this fanciful story, which among other oddities, implausibly links the Mossad with Al Jazeera -- when the TV network is in fact highly critical of Israel. (It's also quite unclear why the Mossad would want to unseat Mubarak, given that his regime is one of only two Arab governments to have a peace treaty with Israel.)

The absurdities continued. Someone who claimed he was a protester called into state-controlled Al Oula (Channel One) TV on the night of Feb. 2, saying he had just returned from Tahrir Square. He reported that 75 percent of the people there were foreigners, including a group of "Iranians or Afghans" who yelled at him in a language he didn't understand. On Feb. 5, the Mehwar TV show 48 Hours interviewed a young man who claimed he was one of the main protest organizers. He alleged that "Islamists with long beards" had taken over control of Tahrir Square and had smuggled in 23,000 guns into the area, many stolen from police stations. The presenter then took a call from Abd al-Azim Darwish, an editor at Al-Ahram, the main state-owned newspaper, saying he could confirm that the weapons had been taken into Tahrir Square and that he had "top secret security information" that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for smuggling them in.

The Information Ministry even took its propaganda war to the phone networks, forcing mobile-phone carriers including Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat to send out text messages to all subscribers urging them to attend pro-Mubarak rallies. One Vodafone message on Feb. 1 read: "The Armed Forces urge Egypt's loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt." Some messages even mentioned locations for the rallies.

In a country where so many -- particularly the poor who don't have access to satellite television -- rely on the ubiquitous state-controlled media for their information and cell phones for communication, the approach was comprehensive and effective. Rather than being depicted as an expression of popular disgust with the government, the protests were portrayed as a complex international conspiracy. And indeed, such distorted coverage whipped up enough anti-foreigner hysteria that a number of expatriates, including journalists, have been viciously attacked on the streets.

Many in the police and Army were apparently convinced by the propaganda. One activist who was brutally beaten while being detained by the military from Friday until Sunday last week told me how an Army interrogator, who tortured him with electric shocks, was absolutely obsessed with saving the country from the foreign spies trying to ruin it. In an ironic twist, it was another detainee, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- another central part of the "conspiracy" -- who finally convinced the interrogator that his paranoia was unsustainable. "He told the interrogator that we weren't a foreign-inspired movement, explaining it was ridiculous to believe that the Pakistanis, Iran, and the United States were doing this, as they don't work together in any way," the released detainee told me. The Brotherhood member, he said, told the interrogator that "we were all Egyptians in the movement."

Many other state employees, including several prominent members of the media, however, were unconvinced by the propaganda. On Jan. 26, popular TV host Mahmoud Saad resigned from his nightly talk show, Masr ElNahrda, after state television refused to broadcast his candid look at the protests. On Feb. 3, a leading presenter and deputy head of the state-controlled English-language Nile TV, Shahira Amin, also resigned, saying she refused to continue being part of the lies and propaganda. Indeed, many of those who attended pro-Mubarak rallies appeared to be state-company employees. From our hotel balcony, we watched government-run buses go back and forth from Tahrir Square, bringing in the thousands of government supporters.

But the xenophobic, state-sponsored attacks collapsed just as quickly as they begun. By last Friday, Feb. 4, the pro-democracy demonstrators had taken back the momentum of the street, overcoming the fear and staging one of their biggest rallies yet. Foreign journalists once again walked the streets of Cairo without fear. If anything, the government's attempts to crush the protests -- with violence and propaganda -- had the opposite effect, hardening the opposition's resolve.

In the last few days, state-controlled television has even begun broadcasting more objective coverage of the protests. And on Tuesday, Feb. 8, large numbers of state-media employees joined the protesters, demanding the resignation of the bosses who had been responsible for the vicious state propaganda.

And yet the fight for a new, more democratic Egypt, free from state propaganda and intimidation, is far from over. America's new Man in Cairo, Suleiman, carries too much of the baggage of the past. When Christiane Amanpour asked him last Thursday whether the aspirations of the youth for a more democratic society might not represent a real yearning, he responded, "I don't think that's only from the young people; others are pushing them to do that." He warned darkly of "the Islamic current" that was inspiring the youthful protesters. Perhaps he's been watching too much state television.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images


The Al Jazeera Effect

The inside story of Egypt's TV wars and how Saudi Arabia could be next.

"Long live Al Jazeera!" chanted Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 6. Many Arabs -- not least the staff at Al Jazeera -- have said for years that the Arab satellite network would help bring about a popular revolution in the Middle East. Now, after 15 years of broadcasting, it appears the prediction has come true. There is little question that the network played a key role in the revolution that began as a ripple in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and ended up a wave that threatens to wash away Egypt's long-standing regime.

"We knew something was coming," Mustafa Souag, head of news at Al Jazeera's Arabic-language station, told me Monday. "Our main objective was to provide the most accurate and comprehensive coverage that we could by sending cameras and reporters to any place there is an event. And if you don't have a reporter, then you try to find alternative people who are willing to cooperate because they believe in what we are doing."

The Tunisian uprising revealed that the dogma perpetuated by the country's regime -- that it was impregnable and its security services invincible -- was merely propaganda aimed at keeping Tunisia's people subdued. Al Jazeera shared this revelation around the region live and in real time, breaking the spell that had stopped millions of ordinary people from rising up and claiming their legitimate rights. Suddenly change seemed possible everywhere across the Middle East.

"We did not foresee the drama of events, but we saw how events in Tunisia rippled out and we were mindful of the fact [that] things were changing, and so we prepared very carefully," said Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English. "We sent teams to join our Cairo bureau and made sure that we were covered on the ground in other countries in the region so when the story unfolded we were ready to cover all angles."

Al Jazeera's powerful images of angry crowds and bloody morgues undercut the Egyptian regime's self-serving arguments and stood in sharp contrast to the state-run TV channels, which promoted such a dishonest version of events that some of their journalists resigned in disgust. At least one popular TV talk-show presenter, Mahmoud Saad, was later seen being carried on the shoulders of triumphant demonstrators in Tahrir Square. While Al Jazeera was showing hundreds of thousands of people calling for the end of the regime, Egyptian TV showed humdrum scenes of traffic quietly passing by; when Al Jazeera reported hundreds of people queuing for bread and petrol, Egyptian TV showed happy shoppers with full fridges using footage filmed at an unknown time in the past.

During the uprising in Cairo, the Egyptian government systematically targeted Al Jazeera in an attempt to impede the network's gathering and broadcasting of news. On Jan. 27 Al Jazeera Mubasher, the network's live channel, was dropped by the government-run satellite transmission company, Nilesat. On Jan. 30, outgoing Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi ordered the offices of all Al Jazeera bureaus in Egypt to be shut down and the accreditation of all network journalists to be revoked. At the height of the protests, Nilesat broke its contractual agreement with the network and stopped transmitting the signal of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel -- which meant viewers outside Egypt could only follow the channel on satellites not controlled by the Egyptian authorities. To the rescue came at least 10 other Arabic-language TV stations, which stepped in and offered to carry Al Jazeera's content. "They just volunteered," said Souag. "They were not paid, and we thanked them for that."

The next day, six Al Jazeera English journalists were briefly detained and then released, their camera equipment confiscated by the Egyptian military. On Feb. 3, two unnamed Al Jazeera English journalists were attacked by Mubarak supporters; three more were detained. On Feb. 4, Al Jazeera's Cairo office was stormed and vandalized by pro-Mubarak supporters. Equipment was set on fire and the Cairo bureau chief and an Al Jazeera correspondent were arrested. Two days later, the Egyptian military detained another correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin; he was released after nine hours in custody. The Al Jazeera website has also been under relentless cyberattack since the onset of the uprising.

"The regime did everything they could to make things difficult for us, but they did not succeed," said Souag. "We still had the most comprehensive reporting of the events in Egypt."

After the first few days of the uprising, the Egyptian state media began running an insidious propaganda campaign in an apparent effort to terrorize ordinary Egyptians into staying at home and off the streets. Channel 1 on Egypt state TV issued vague yet alarming warnings about armed thugs trying to infiltrate the protests and later broadcast live phone-ins in which members of the public complained about looting and disorder. It's hard to think of a better way to incite panic in a jittery population, especially because there have been no emergency services in Egypt for days. By the time these garbled and unsubstantiated stories passed through the Egyptian rumor mill, ordinary people would be forgiven for thinking World War III had broken out. Egyptian state media have also issued warnings of international journalists with a "hidden agenda" and accused Al Jazeera of "inciting the people." One supposed "foreign agent" was shown on Egyptian state TV with face obscured, claiming that she had been trained by "Americans and Israelis" in Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based.

But the lid on Pandora's box has been prized open, and undemocratic regimes across the region are now looking over their shoulder at Al Jazeera -- for history shows that where Egypt goes, other Arab countries soon follow. Given Al Jazeera's enormous influence on the Arab street and its electrifying message that Arab dictatorships are, in fact, mortal, it is no wonder dictators and despots across the region have been left feeling rather rattled. There have already been hints of insurrection's ripples in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain. But could Al Jazeera threaten Saudi Arabia?

Oil- and gas-rich Arab states can use their wealth to address some of the grievances that brought Tunisians and Egyptians onto the streets, but not all. Al Jazeera's home country, however, would appear to be somewhat safe from the wave of unrest. Power in Qatar is traditionally transferred by coup d'état, as in 1995 when the current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, seized power from his father Sheikh Khalifa -- but as the world's richest country with a GDP per capita in excess of $145,000, it is highly unlikely to experience revolutionary convulsions about anything besides shopping. The most pressing socioeconomic problem the leadership currently faces is how to motivate a population of soon-to-be millionaires to keep showing up for work in the morning.

Helping to bring revolution to Egypt and Tunisia is one thing; fomenting uprisings in the Persian Gulf is quite another. But the situation is delicate in Saudi Arabia, where the regime is wobbling on the cusp of change. The kingdom either directly or indirectly controls most of the Arab media, including Al Jazeera's principal rival Al Arabiya, but it remains highly vulnerable to the kind of palpitations Al Jazeera could easily provoke.

Bilateral relations between tiny Qatar and its overbearing neighbor Saudi Arabia have always been sensitive. Since 1996, when Al Jazeera first challenged Saudi hegemony in the region, the channel has been a constant point of tension between the two. For years, the Saudis dominated the Arabian Peninsula and often meddled in Qatari politics. On several occasions in the 1990s, the Saudis simply invaded Qatar to remind it who was boss and, following Sheikh Khalifa's deposal, Riyadh tried to manipulate his return by organizing a countercoup.

But despite all the problems the Qataris have had with the Saudis, they are fully aware that if they upset the kingdom it is at their peril. As a result, coverage of Saudi affairs on Al Jazeera has not been as bold as coverage of Egypt and Tunisia. Issues of extreme sensitivity to the Saudi regime, such as royal family corruption and the succession question, are passed over lightly. Leading Saudi dissidents have rarely appeared on the network in recent years; there was, for example, next to no coverage on the Arabic channel of the 2010 murder in London committed by Saudi Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud.

"Al Jazeera was absent from Saudi Arabia for a long time, so we don't have pictures or information from within the country," explained Souag. "Finally the Saudis allowed us to open an office about two weeks ago, and so we have a correspondent there now, and if there is something that needs to be covered we will report it in the same way as events anywhere else."

It's an issue of proximity and power. Despite the channel's exceptional job in covering the turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt, the complex relationship with Saudi Arabia is a reminder that even for Al Jazeera, in the Persian Gulf free press has its limits. History will record the channel's crucial galvanizing role in the extraordinary events that are now unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia. But whether the Al Jazeera effect will continue to ripple across the Middle East or the heavy hand of state pressure will attempt to shut Pandora's box again -- however temporarily -- is yet too close to call.