Voice

Good News

How the revolution transformed Egypt's media.

And now for something almost completely positive: Every day I receive a digest of news articles from the Middle East, almost all of them translated from Arabic. Reading these pieces is often like trying to pierce a veil woven of metaphor and coy allusion. Here, for example, is a recent article from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar on efforts to foster reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas: "The problem is that the initiatives are not serious, especially since they are accompanied by conditions and counterconditions and they all serve the game of political cards between this or that side. … This game of cards and passing balls does not have any implementation signs, at least for the time being, on the grounds of reality." This is how you write when you have internalized the idea that you can't say what you think.

Now, increasingly, you can say what you think -- at least in Egypt, Tunisia, and a few other countries in the region. Here's a piece from the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt's bestselling newspaper, ridiculing the pap extruded by the country's state media since the Six-Day War with Israel, which was trumpeted as a great victory until the truth dawned [a few days later] that it was an utter fiasco: "Since then, and for the last 45 years, Egyptian television has been stunted. Bland, dull, unimaginative, and chronically incapable of delivering accurate and relevant news in an appealing fashion, state television has been on autopilot and content with simply existing."

Al-Masry is Egypt's boldest daily, and English editions are granted more latitude than Arabic ones. But I have been increasingly struck by new tones of voice glimmering through the fog of polemic and circumlocution in the wider Arab media. We tend to think about political change as a matter of elections and laws and new institutions, but such transformations take hold in people's minds by offering new ways of thinking, speaking, and writing. Saying what you think is habit-forming. "It is irreversible," says Hani Shukrallah, who used to edit the weekly magazine of Al-Ahram, Egypt's state-owned media monolith, until he was fired in 2005 for expressing heterodox opinions. Shukrallah is now the editor of Al-Ahram's English daily, which began publication a day before the transparently rigged parliamentary elections last November that helped precipitate the Egyptian revolution. This time, Shukrallah was able to describe exactly what happened.

There are still a few red lines in the Egyptian media, though they are enforced more by self-censorship than by direct intervention by the dreaded Ministry of Information, which has been demobilized, though not yet dismantled. (The old minister was fired, and no one was hired in his stead.) Very little has been written or broadcast, for example, about widespread allegations that the military tortured protesters during this winter's uprising. But the change has been stupefying. Shukrallah said to me, "I was just watching television when you called. I'm watching Channel 1, the state-owned channel. There are several hundred-thousand people in Tahrir Square, and they're out there showing the crowds. During the revolution they used to show an empty stretch of road near Tahrir Square when there were a million people in the square."

The transformation of Al-Ahram has been almost comically drastic. Every day for years, the newspaper's chairman, Abdel Moneim Said, and its editor in chief, Osama Saraya, wrote editorials that began on the front page of the paper and continued onto Page 3. Saraya was a devout Mubarak loyalist, and Said a "reformer" associated with Hosni Mubarak's Western-oriented son, Gamal. As soon as Mubarak fell from power on Feb. 11, both men became ardent enthusiasts of the revolution. "The people ousted the regime," that day's headline blared. The shamelessness of the switch became a standing joke. Younger journalists at Al-Ahram had shoved Saraya aside long before he was forced out, and this formerly powerful figure is now regarded with ridicule. Even so, says Shukrallah, "they continued to play the game: [They would write,] 'The youth of the street is so wonderful, but now it's time for everyone to go home.'"

Then, on March 30, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf fired Saraya, Said, and the leaders of the other state-run papers and the news agency. On March 31, Al-Ahram appeared with no editorials at all on the front page. This was quite a delicious shock to readers. Hala Mustafa, a longtime democracy advocate who had been banned from the state-run media after quitting a dubious reform body organized by Gamal's supporters, told me, "Now it's just the news -- according to the importance of the news." The front-page news the day I called her consisted of a picture of Mubarak and an article about the effort to put him on trial. The same thing had happened at Rose al-Youssef, another state-run mouthpiece of the ruling party. No more front-page editorials -- just the news, according, more or less, to its importance. Mustafa is writing once again in Al-Ahram.

The change in the broadcast media has been less decisive, and murkier. Several senior figures were fired, and then rehired as consultants. Other prominent Mubarak loyalists remain in place. But some of the most egregious news shows are gone. The show most notorious for pandering to the Mubarak regime, The Heart of Egypt, has been canceled, while on another, Egypt Today, new hosts have replaced the old Gamal booster. More importantly, new late-night talk shows on Egypt's private channels have carried interviews with all the leading figures of Egypt's protest movement; the appearance on one such program of Wael Ghonim, a Google employee who played a key role in organizing the protests and whose arrest in February attracted international attention, was an iconic moment of the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood is launching its own TV channel on May 1, and the Wafd Party, an element of the traditional -- and traditionally tame -- opposition, plans to follow suit.

There is no denying that much of the news about Egypt in recent weeks has been discouraging. As I write, a huge crowd is gathering in Tahrir Square to demand that the interim military government, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), dissolve Mubarak's National Democratic Party, release political prisoners, and put allegedly corrupt former officials on trial (or so I learn from Al-Masry's excellent English-language website). The military seems equally reluctant to wield power and entrust it to those who fought the regime, instead issuing edicts in the name of the nation without consulting senior (much less junior) civilian figures. The Muslim Brotherhood has been cozying up to the SCAF, provoking fears that military leaders will deliver power to the Islamists. Worried Egyptians are now regularly quoted saying that the revolution has been betrayed.

It still could be, of course. Mass movements elsewhere -- in Ukraine, for example -- have routed dictators only to see new autocrats climb into power. And cheeky newspapers and talk shows may prove to be no match for a deeply entrenched military that has had a taste of political power. But these new tones of voice matter -- or rather, they matter when they become normal public discourse, when people have become accustomed to saying out loud what they have always said in private.

It is very unlikely that the Egyptian people will agree to live again with the lies to which they had become wearily accustomed before, the ludicrous front-page editorials praising elections everyone knew to be bogus. That day is over. Al-Ahram's former chief is memorialized today on the Facebook page "Boycott Al-Ahram till Osama Saraya steps down." The new world of Egyptian media is one of the great proofs that what has happened across the Middle East over the last four months constitutes a transcendent change in world affairs.

John Moore/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

A Moral Adventure

Is Barack Obama as much of a foreign-policy realist as he thinks he is?

Late in the summer of 2007, I watched Barack Obama speak to a small crowd gathered in the backyard of a supporter in Salem, New Hampshire. He had a lot to say about foreign affairs. Abroad as at home, he said, we need "a new ethic of mutual responsibility" based on the recognition that "we have a stake in each other." Thus the need to reinvigorate the United Nations, increase foreign aid, and end torture. Afterward I asked him whether that ethic really arose from pragmatic calculation, as opposed to moral duty. "You don't want to oversimplify it," he told me. But it was true, he went on, that U.S. national security was tied to human security across the globe. Failing states produced transnational problems, including massive refugee flows and epidemic disease. And because how people in poor or abused countries felt about their own lives would shape their attitudes toward the West, it behooved the United States to address their suffering. "The hard case," he added, "may be convincing people that we can do anything about it."

I thought back to that conversation when I listened to Obama's March 28 Libya speech. At its core was the president's assertion that "it was not in our national interest" to permit Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops to carry out a massacre in Benghazi. But what was that interest? After all, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said only the day before that the United States did not have a "vital" interest in Libya, while critics of the mission have ridiculed the notion that Americans should be pouring scarce resources into a civil war in one of the least strategically significant countries in the region. A lot of things, after all, are in America's national interest; why act here?

Obama labored to explain how failing to act in Libya could compromise U.S. interests: A massacre in Benghazi would have "driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders," endangering democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia; emboldened regional autocrats to resist calls for reform; and undermined the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, which had called for action. Those are hardly trivial concerns; but -- as arch-realist Ted Koppel pointed out on Meet the Press on March 27 -- 700,000 people had already fled the violence in Ivory Coast, where the United States had no thoughts of intervening; and inaction in Libya could add only a mite of damage to a Security Council that had watched while Darfur burned.

In short, Obama's application of conventional definitions of national interest wasn't much more convincing than it had been in my conversation with him four years ago. Perhaps, then, the realist critics are right: Obama has embarked on a moral adventure, and quite possibly an ill-fated one, under the flimsy cover of national interest. And it's certainly true that Obama has the "liberal" view -- now shared by neoconservatives -- that American power must at times be used for moral purposes, which is to say for the benefit of others rather than to advance American interests. That is why, right after the assertion about national interest, he added, with uncharacteristic passion, "I refused to let that happen." Obama believes -- like virtually all presidents, to be sure -- that the United States has a singular moral status that carries with it singular obligations. "Some nations" might ignore atrocities abroad, he declared. (Obama is addicted to this particular straw-man device.) "The United States of America is different." Realists cringed.

Of course it's in the interests of any state to act in conformity with its own expressed principles -- even George Kennan would concede that. But Kennan, who was no fan of democracy, practiced diplomacy, and wrote about it, in an era when statecraft took place behind closed doors; the American public knew virtually nothing, for example, about the vast world of intelligence activities and shadowy diplomacy during the Cold War. Today's advocates of realpolitik often write as if this continues to be true -- as if the United States incurs no real costs for publicly supporting friendly autocrats. The deep anti-Americanism in Latin America and the Middle East, where the U.S. government supported hated rulers for decades, proves the contrary. In fact, as Obama said in that backyard in Salem, the way the United States is seen to behave in the world enormously affects its capacity to shape events. That's a national interest, whether or not you call it "vital."

Indeed, no president has ever been as acutely sensitive to this species of "soft power" as Obama, whose early speeches were full of the imagery of outsiders looking at the United States -- of the "desperate faces" of people in remote countries gazing up at an American helicopter, feeling hope or perhaps hate. One of Obama's mistakes early on was to put too much stock in the idea that the world was looking at him -- his face, his voice, his biography -- as evidence of American renewal. That was why his June 2009 Cairo speech was long on autobiography and noble sentiment, and short on new proposals. And the speech, so giddily received at home and, initially, abroad, did very little to change the way the United States was seen in the Middle East.

Obama has learned that only deeds will change America's standing in the world. The Libyan intervention was such a deed, and was certainly intended to be seen as such. The politics of the decision were at least as compelling as the morals; in a setting where Western military power really could prevent mass killings and where -- unlike Iraq -- Arab neighbors were imploring the United States to intervene, the failure to act would have been understood across the Middle East as a decisive statement of American indifference. Is the calculus of national interest there really so complicated?

A lot of the talk-show chatter beats up on Obama for moral inconsistency: Why Libya and not Ivory Coast, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Some of those critics would like to see more intervention, but most would like to see less, or none. I'm pretty sure, for example, that Koppel wasn't advocating bombing Abidjan. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael Doyle recently asserted that the "slaughter of civilians" does not "automatically qualify" as a threat to international peace and security, and so should not trigger Security Council action. Would the United States protect its vital interests better by adopting such a view, keeping its powder dry until some hypothetical Rwanda-level genocide came along? The answer is obvious -- and Obama gave it by observing that the fact that the United States can't always act to stop mass violence "cannot be an argument for never acting." Rather, he said, the United States will "measure our interests against the need for action."

It's not a simple calculus. Obama might have saved more Libyan lives by acting earlier, before the Arab League and the Security Council had authorized an intervention. But by reminding the world of the Iraq invasion, carried out without U.N. support, he would have generated enmity that might have doomed the mission over time. The same is true with making regime change the explicit goal of the bombing campaign; doing so would rupture the coalition and lose Arab support. But at the same time, agreeing to limit the mission to humanitarian protection has trapped Obama in a contradiction, because he has openly called for Qaddafi to leave. And if the bombing succeeds in protecting civilians but Qaddafi stays in power, the mission will inevitably be seen as a failure -- thus damaging American prestige. The skeptics who have predicted that the battle will end in a stalemate have a point -- but not a good enough point to justify inaction.

We need to examine the premise that realism is realistic. Realists like to think that they look out for America's interests while progressives, or whatever you call the other side -- and it badly needs a presentable name -- have a moralistic preoccupation with America's values. Maybe Eugene McCarthy, the Vietnam-era dove who ran for president in 1968, was such a progressive; Obama certainly isn't, which is why, even as the United States attacks Libya, the White House has preserved a careful neutrality toward Bahrain and Yemen, key allies that have brutally repressed mass protest. But there's a price to be paid for that, too. Arab citizens are no longer passive or resigned. And they will increasingly judge the United States not on remote but emotionally charged issues like Palestine or counterterrorism policy, but on the way American policy affects their own lives and prospects. A ruthlessly realist calculator would say that the United States would be well advised to put itself on the right side of history.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images