By Christopher J. McCoy
“…[T]he picture is a complicated one… The general state of the Islamic world with its decline in productivity and well-being, including such phenomena as censorship, the relative absence of democracy, the dismaying prevalence of dictatorships, and fiercely repressive and authoritarian states, some of whom practice and encourage terrorism, torture and genital mutilation seems backward and cruel; this includes such basically Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria, among others. In addition, the (to me) simplistic reductiveness of some numbers of people who have recourse to a hazy fantasy of seventh century Mecca as a panacea for numerous ills in today’s Muslim world makes for an unattractive mix that it would be rank hypocrisy to deny”
Edward Said, “Covering Islam,” 1981
In the United States, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have overwhelmingly been portrayed as chaotic upheavals, with images of masses of Arabs roaming the streets and military forces and police quickly stepping in to confront the protesters.
For example, the first major day of unrest in Egypt is being called the Day of Anger by many major mainstream news outlets. CBS News and FOX News Channel often begin their segments by showing the most violent and horrific clips coming in from Egypt, such as a man being shot and water cannons being blasted on protesters. The New York Times highlights how dangerous it is for foreigners in Cairo—Islamists may take over, etc.
While this may be the case, the danger is often exaggerated by these reports, which include very little background information. Generally, Egyptians are sick of poverty, unemployment and corruption and they want a chance to raise their standard of living. The latest botched elections in November—when publications such as the Los Angeles Times’ blog, “Babylon & Beyond,” posted videos of Egyptian election workers committing fraud on tape—seemed to have pushed many Egyptians close to the edge. It was the revolution in Tunisia that was the final push for Egyptians, igniting a flame that had been smoldering for thirty years.
Having lived in Egypt from August 2009 to August 2010, this is the sentiment as I understand it, but many news outlets do not delve deeply into the motivations of the protestors. I also worked as the media intern for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies this past summer, creating a database of foreign media contacts that may have very well helped increase coverage of what is going on right now.
Many, if not all, of the stories and videos depict a rather chaotic Tunisia and Egypt, with Arabs wailing and shouting en masse. While this may be a misrepresentation, it could also be an illustration of the facts on the ground. How are we, as distant observers, able to evaluate the scene with objective and critical eyes?
A particularly exciting element of this new “revolution”—revolt, uprising, tumult, protest movement, whatever one may call it—is the significance of social media. Twitter is a significant tool, as are blogs and Facebook, which are disseminating YouTube videos and accounts of what is happening on the ground all over Egypt. These tools have proved to be so effective that the government shut down access to the Internet completely—the first time in Internet history. The regime also shut down all cell phone and texting communications, and even pushed for the shutdown of Al Jazeera cable news.
Fortunately, analysts are now discussing in detail the significant relationship that the American government has with the Egyptian government, which involves an annual $1.3 billion in military aid alone. The question to me remains: why does Egypt need that much money for a military that has not seen a war for thirty years?
Much of the media is filtering news through American interests, with many reports referencing 9/11 and terrorism. One video interview with a Carnegie Endowment scholar involved a question such as “Why should a farmer in the Midwest care about what is happening in Egypt?” This begs the question, why should anyone be aware of international affairs and historical crises in general? Many of these broadcasts continue to perpetuate a divide between Western and Islamic cultures in particular—making their reports more exciting to watch, but damaging to the image of Arabs in America.
Photos courtesy of Merrit Kennedy.