Terms of Engagement
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.