Controlling the Narrative of January 25 – Part II

by Jeffry R. Halverson

Events rapidly accelerated in Egypt on Friday, January 28, as expected. On Thursday night, the regime shut down internet access. This startling graphic by Craig Labovitz shows the precipitous drop in online traffic. Over the course of the day, the U.S. government repeatedly modified its official stance after making questionable remarks during the two days prior. Meanwhile, a Time Magazine article quoted a member of Netanyahu’s government in Israel expressing support for Mubarak and stating: “I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process.”

By late Friday night – after the Egyptian military asserted its presence in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities – Hosni Mubarak finally appeared on state television. Mubarak warned about the threat of chaos and nominally acknowledged the concerns of the protesters. But he claimed that a plot was underway to destabilize the country and that time was needed to “fix” the economy and to help the poor and he would appoint a new government to do so. Of course, he (Mubarak) would appoint and lead this new government. As one might guess, the protesters on the streets were not satisfied and they continued with renewed energy into the weekend.

On Saturday, January 29, Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as his Vice-President. This marked the first time in Mubarak’s rule that he has appointed a Vice-President, which is the office that Mubarak previously held under Anwar Sadat. It is rumored that Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, played a role in preventing the appointment of a Vice-President prior to this, in order to position her son, Gamal, as the one to succeed his father. Obviously, that is no longer a possibility, and it is appears (so far) that Suleiman will likely be the one who leads a transitional military government until national elections can occur (scheduled for September). This appointment has not satisfied the protesters though. As Mohamed ElBaradei astutely put it: “This is a mere change of people, and we are talking about a change of regime. The Egyptian people are saying one word: ‘The Egyptian president has to leave’.”

Throughout the “chaos” (as so many news outlets have called it) the UK daily, The Guardian, has had among the most outstanding coverage of developments in Egypt all week. And on Friday afternoon, The Guardian noted the sudden increased U.S. media interest in the protests, as it became the story of the moment, and commented that:

The exception has been Fox News, where coverage has been more muted. ‘You probably don’t give a lot of time thinking about Egypt,’ a Fox News presenter suggested about an hour ago, before explaining that ‘groups linked to al-Qaida’ were in danger of taking over the government in Cairo.

This is the narrative that I warned about in my previous entry. Portraying the protests as an “Islamist uprising” or “revolution,” especially one associated with al-Qaeda, is exactly the sort of narrative Mubarak’s regime and other anti-democracy forces want to promote.

In a statement made on Sunday night, Mubarak claimed that: “Their demonstrations have been infiltrated by a group of people who use the name of religion who don’t take into consideration the constitution rights and citizenship values.” This message seems designed to unsettle the West and to divide the protesters into factions that will weaken opposition to the ruling regime. The threat of Islamist extremists on a global scale is certainly real, but the threat is constantly exploited by regimes in the Arab world in order to curb U.S. pressure for democratic reform and win substantial aid, especially military aid, that helps compensate for corrupt and incompetent economic policies.

Thus far, the Egyptian protests have maintained a distinctly nationalist and patriotic character. Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei joined the protests in Cairo after participating in Friday prayers and faced a confrontation with security forces. He was arrested and placed under house arrest, giving Egypt the dubious distinction of joining China in the group of countries imprisoning their Nobel Peace Prize winners. ElBaradei later issued the statement that:

The Egyptian people will be the ones who will make the change – we are not waiting for help or assistance from the outside world. But what I expect from the outside world, is to practice what you preach – is to defend the rights of the Egyptians for the universal values.

But by Sunday, the regime had pulled police forces from the city and ElBaradei was free to rejoin the protesters. He arrived in Tahrir Square and addressed the crowd – some cheered him, others jeered him as a political opportunist. Either way, it was a significant moment. He has since been appointed as the chief negotiator or representative of the various opposition parties and factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera satellite TV was taken off the air in Egypt, but Egyptian state television continued. The state coverage appeared to focus on images of chaos and disorder, promoting a climate of fear that gangs of armed thugs were roaming the city. This is likely a tactic to keep citizens off the streets, or more ominously a strategic attempt to promote the idea of the necessity of the despot to control the chaos. Indeed, the regime ordered the police off the streets prior to this outbreak.

The U.S. government, as the primary Western patron of Mubarak’s regime, is in a difficult position.  Will we practice what we preach and support democratic transformation in Egypt? Or will our (and/or Israel’s) strategic interests override those ideals, widening that say-do gap in the Middle East?

One final note: As many news outlets have reported, the tear gas being used on the protesters in Egypt is American-made, and the words “Made in the U.S.A.” appear on the canisters. Not a good message in an environment where many people already blame the U.S. for propping up a dictatorial regime.