This just (not) in: What’s missing from the 24/7 Cairo news
Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It’s gripping and the news ...
Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It's gripping and the news comes fast enough that at the best moments it's compelling viewing.
Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It’s gripping and the news comes fast enough that at the best moments it’s compelling viewing.
The problem is that when a story stretches out over the days and the "breaking news" stops living up to the breathless titles that are flashing below and atop the screen that the coverage becomes circular, repetitive and at times distorted. That happened this weekend. The distortions came as American audiences were frequently treated to American analysts talking about what America should do or what America wanted out of this revolution that was happening far far away in a place over which we have much less influence than our news broadcasts would have you believe.
That said what I found even more frustrating was that this story is full of fascinating elements that were often underplayed or ignored. Here are a few that struck me:
- Who might have imagined when Joe Biden said during the 2008 campaign that Obama would be tested that one of the biggest tests would come not from some high profile adversary but from a 28 year-old Tunisian fruit seller who, fed-up with demands for bribes and a stifling dictatorship, set himself on fire and posed a loaded question to citizens across the entire Middle East?
- I remember sitting with Condoleezza Rice in her West Wing office listening to her talk about the possibility of people power revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Like many, I thought that she had been too influenced by her background as an East Europe specialist and that what we once saw in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Roumania and the Soviet Union could not possibly happen in the much different cultural climate of the Arab and Persian worlds. She and her president were wrong to think that the invasion of Iraq might produce such uprisings…but they may have been right that the region was riper for change than many thought. It is interesting to imagine what a historian might think of this period and its events if the period from the late 1980s to through this decade might be seen as one of technology-driven revolutions and uprisings that echoed similar times in the late 18th and mid-19th Century. It is far too early to tell where all this goes in the Middle East but it is interesting to contemplate.
- The technology component of this cell-phone and Twitter fueled popular wildfire is fascinating not only in that it feels both new and here to stay but that it suggests that democracy itself may have to be updated to stay abreast of contemporary realities. For example, the outrage at shutting down the Internet raises a real question about whether the natural extension of accepted beliefs about both a free press and the right to peaceful public assembly is a new right to virtual public assembly to e-association. Far more people have cell phone than had access to either printing presses or their products (or the ability to read them) in the day that the right to a free press was enshrined as fundamental.
- The demands to shut down phones and networks promise to raise interesting challenges for private companies that provide those services who, by complying with a sitting government, might alienate successor governments or populaces at a time of change. It is not going to be easy to be government relations specialist for IT and telecom companies in the years ahead.
- How long will it be before the conspiracy theorists are positing that Julian Assange was actually working for the CIA? (What a cover! How subtle and clever!) After all, his leaks that were seemingly intended to take down the U.S. a notch have had striking unintended consequences. Not only have they been broadly seen as showing U.S. diplomats in a good light as they worked hard behind the scenes doing what most would hope they were doing … but the Wiki revelations have been very unsettling to Middle Eastern autocrats. Next up? Qaddafi coping with the embarrassing insights into his excessive and corrupt lifestyle?
- Another stress factor leading in the eyes of some to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and restiveness elsewhere is rising food prices. Of course, such rising prices are triggered in part by rising energy prices (energy makes up a large component of food prices). Energy prices are rising in part because of America’s weaker dollar policies (as barrels of oil are seen as direct hedges against the greenback). Of course, uprisings like these might produce further upticks in energy prices…and thus more unrest. Further, higher energy and food prices can only stoke inflationary pressures that analysts are starting to worry may be one of the biggest macro threats facing the world.
- The potential that what has spread from Tunisia to Egypt might spread elsewhere in the region has, of course, generated much commentary. It is very real but a couple dimensions of it are worth noting. In the near term, the development most likely to lead to war in the region has to do with the Hezbollah take-over of the Lebanese government and the increased tension on Israel’s northern border. Take that, volatility in Egypt, fragility in Jordan and Iran’s continuing nuclear threat and Israel’s strategic position could change more in the months ahead than at any time since 1967.
- The tone-deafness of Mubarak seems only to be matched by that of the Saudi regime as evidenced by the bizarre "he-said, he-said" reports of the U.S.-Saudi exchange over the weekend. The dueling press releases following the conversation could have been reporting on two different meetings. Why? Because few leaders could be as threatened by the uprising in the streets of Egypt as the Saudi royal family. Though not in jeopardy today, democratization or even a call for more responsive government is not something they are prepared for.
- Finally, the possibility that sweeping change might come to the region from the street, driven by a demographic tsunami of young, frustrated, technologically savvy people with little to lose, has clearly risen in the past few days. Is America ready for this? Certainly, this is what Barack Obama called for in his Cairo speech…as it is what George W. Bush hoped for too. Our influence is more limited than we would like, as acknowledged above. But strategies and tactics for promoting change and for forestalling the rise of dangerous extremist actors clearly need to be rapidly developed in light of what we have recently learned. This could be one of those classic "be careful what you wished for moments"…but on the other hand, we need to be responsive to that which we don’t control…and we need to clearly act in ways that are consistent with our most basic values including promoting democracy even if it empowers people with whom we have great differences.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.