(Feb. 2, 2011) As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.
It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.
It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.
Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.
But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.
“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”
And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.
“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”
Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.
The media is by no means the only force at play in the continuing upheaval in Egypt, the Tunisian revolution, or the copy-cat demonstrations going on elsewhere in the Arab world. At root is a raw anger fed by decades of political, intellectual, and economic stagnation that has led to a powerful convergence of the region’s three main political trends — pan-Arab nationalism, nation-state nationalism, and Islamism.
However, Arab media have been at the vanguard of articulating this new and explosive development. Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera — and the increasingly aggressive ethos of Arab print journalism exemplified by newspapers like Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm and Tunisia’s crusadingKalima Tunisie — have fueled a sense of common cause among Arabs across the region every bit as real as the “imagined communities” that are at the core of the concept of nation.
As Faisal Kasim, host of Al-Ittijah al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), one of Al Jazeera’s most popular and controversial shows, which often features shouting matches between those representing the region’s most extreme views, put it: “Our media should be harnessed to liberate the Arab people from their internal gladiators.”
Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process.
Even though the Egyptian government cut most Internet and cell-phone links, disrupting the ability of political activists to use social media to organize, satellite television (including an array of privately-owned Cairo-based stations) continues to be the great unifying force as Egyptians — and Arabs across the region — watch live coverage of the violence in the streets and Mubarak’s faltering response.
Journalism purists in the West may object to the idea of news organizations overtly helping to foster revolution. But the history of American journalism is replete with media activists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams, to name a few. The state of politics in the Arab world today has much in common with 18th-century America; the same is true of its journalism.
That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.
On Jan. 29, when partial cell-phone service was restored in Cairo, my teenage daughter finally managed to reach several friends. One was in tears; gunshots could be heard in the background as roaming bands of thugs broke into neighboring homes. Another friend said her father and other men from the neighborhood were out on the street to drive off armed looters who had just torched a nearby shopping center. I said a quick hello to her mother. “Are you watching the coverage?” she asked. Of course, I told her. “What channel?” I said I was switching between Al Jazeera, CNN, and BBC World.
“Oh, don’t watch Jazeera,” she exclaimed. “They exaggerate.”
Many Arabs would beg to disagree. Not long after, I read this tweet — “people in #alexandria: #aljazeera is the only honest channel, all #egyptian channels are liars.”
Still, no matter what satellite channel they prefer, most Arabs would agree that all are a vast improvement over Egypt’s state-controlled television broadcast, which is dutifully serving the regime, broadcasting footage of otherwise elusive pro-Mubarak rallies, punctuated by patriotic videos of stalwart citizens and the Egyptian flag set to the soundtrack of the national anthem.
Note to Mubarak: The era in which government broadcasters can manufacture reality is as dead as the age of the fax. Just look at that big TV screen in Tahrir Square.