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Watching Egypt (but not on Al Jazeera)

I don't have a lot of time this morning before the panel discussion I'm hosting at GW on Tunisia -- webcast here, if you can't make it to the Elliott School! But I do want to make a few quick comments on Egypt. The images and stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world. Their efforts are not new, despite the intense Western desire to put them into a narrative driven by Twitter, WikiLeaks, or demonstration effects. Egyptians have been protesting and demonstrating for the last decade: massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and against the Iraq war from 2000 to 2003; Kefaya's creative protests for political reform and against succession which peaked in 2004 to 2006; lawyers and judges and professional associations; the Facebook protests and April 6 movements; the plethora of wildcat labor strikes across the country.

One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned.

It is too soon to know how much impact these protests will have in the short term, given that protests are not novel in Egypt and there has long been a much freer and more contentious media than in Tunisia. Like many people, I have been skeptical about the ability of the Egyptian opposition to overcome their internal divisions or a well-prepared regime focused intensely on not becoming the next Ben Ali. We've watched wave after wave of protest be crushed by the Egyptian regime. But I'm certainly hoping that this time they can capture momentum and change the game in Egypt. There seems to be a renewed energy and sense of possibility, one which is clearly being understood by Egyptians as part of a broader Arab narrative of a collective popular uprising against economic conditions, political repression, and corruption.

More broadly, it's astonishing how much is now in motion in Arab politics after such a long period of seeming stagnation. There's a vivid sense of an era coming to a close and an uncertain new vista opening. Even if Al Jazeera's release of the so-called "Palestine Papers" doesn't bring down Abu Mazen's negotiating team or the PA it feels like the autopsy of a long-dead peace process. Hezbollah's Parliamentary maneuver to bring down the Hariri government and replace him with veteran politician and businessman Najib Miqati, a response to the Special Tribunal's reported indictments which has sparked violent protests by Hariri backers, may mean an end to the era of U.S. alliance with a March 14-led Lebanon. It's hard to know where to focus --- but in fact I continue to see these seemingly unrelated events as part of a broader story of the crumbling of an Arab status quo which has long seemed unsustainable.

More later.

 UPDATE, 3pm:  Al-Jazeera's lack of coverage of the protests has become a major story.   It doesn't seem to have gotten any better since this morning --- since getting back on line I've seen an episode of a talk show, more Palestine Papers, and only short snippets of breaking news on Egypt.  Al-Arabiya apparently hasn't done any better.  My Twitter feed and email are full of comments like "AJ Arabic is covering childrens gymnastics programs in Indonesia right now. Good call." (@mwhanna1) and "Exposed. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya's failure in covering #Jan25" (@SultanAlQassemi).   Egyptian activists are complaining bitterly, and most seem to think that Mubarak cut a deal with the Qatari and Saudi governments.    Al-Jazeera Arabic has just cut in with some coverage of the protests, but the damage may have been done --- more later. 

Flickr January 25, 2010

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