The wide-angle aerial view from television cameras trained down on Tahrir Square in central Cairo is unprecedented in the history of world revolutions. We all have a ring-side seat. The satellite feed has become part of the story; the video frame is itself a site of contestation. We have seen moving pictures of Germans mounting the Berlin Wall, shots of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled, cell-phone images of upheaval in Iran in 2009, glimpses of recent events in Tunisia, and the occasional view of simultaneous street protests in Yemen’s Tahrir Square. But never before have foreign television crews perched on balconies of high-rise buildings overlooking the center of the action given the world continuous real-time panopticon images of such momentous upheaval.
But what television has brought to the world is only a partial reality. There is only Tahrir; the huge metropolitan expanse of Cairo and the families at home in neighborhoods are beyond the frame, oddly irrelevant. The participants in the revolution are the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, not the equal numbers standing unpicturesque guard by night to ensure the safety of neighborhoods. TV shows a mass, not a massive group of individuals. This televised reality has become hugely controversial.
Egyptians on both sides of the barricades have increasingly strong opinions about the reportage and footage broadcast worldwide. It should be obvious that the view from the balconies much less the television screen is not the same as being on the street. You enter the square from elsewhere in the city, gradually joining a flow of walkers along streets or bridges converging on the central square. You see and interact with the people around you. They are walking, talking, carrying handmade signs in Arabic and English, chanting slogans in Arabic, checking IDs, picking up trash, selling water or food, taking cell-phone pictures. The closer you get the more you feel the jostling and crush of the crowd. Instead of the dominant omniscient voice-over there are barely audible conversations. All of us who have gone after watching the scene on TV found it more intimate, energized, interactive, and human than the view from above and beyond. On Monday and Tuesday this week, being in the then still peaceful demonstration of like-minded, reform-oriented Egyptians felt far more festive, family-friendly, and profoundly moving than the video feed. From the ground, no one can take it all in at once. The square actually has its own social and political geography, different groups in different locations.
From the point of view of those in the center of the square these are complicated issues. Undoubtedly they value favorable coverage and what is in effect the protective shield of the satellite cameras. Alarmed by attacks on foreigners as well as on themselves, anti-regime organizers have pledged to physically protect journalists who venture into the square. But several have also expressed frustration with coverage of White House initiatives, Israeli worries, and the purported risks of an Islamist takeover, all of which feed narratives about "foreign agendas." Some also voice consternation at a few conspicuous expat groups in the crowd and especially the media stars on the balconies who seem to place themselves at the center of the story. People in the thick of things trying to lead chants or organize rescue for the injured are getting exasperated by cell-phone calls from overseas reporters asking them to pause for an exclusive on-the-scene interview.
Meanwhile, the government turned on and turned off Al Jazeera in Arabic and is now targeting CNN, other global telecasters, and journalists in general. Having jammed Facebook, mobile-phone networks, and then the Internet in an effort to cut off dissident communications, the Egyptian regime began accusing the international media of fomenting the oppositional protests. More than 16 million people in the districts of Cairo and four times that number outside the capital have probably been swayed by state propaganda to suspect that outside agitators have stirred up the trouble. But they have also been struck by the sharp contrast between the grim determination, unnatural silence, and physical hardships of the past 10 days and the noisy chaos on international TV. Lots of people complain about coverage of looting and vandalism that relatively few witnessed firsthand and the dearth of acknowledgment of the countless commonplace acts of cooperation and civic responsibility everyone has experienced. Even quite apart from the xenophobic antagonism and even personal vendetta unleashed by pro-Mubarak goons against news reporters and human rights investigators, there’s no question that the popular mood is increasingly suspicious of journalists whether Arab or Western.
These are historic events for Egypt, brought to the world through a true revolution in the media. But we should not forget that news stations based in Britain, Qatar, and the United States are active participants in events rather than mere bystanders recording events. In the first televised revolution, the medium is part of the message.
Sheila Carapico is professor of political science at the University of Richmond and the American University in Cairo.