The revolution will not be televised, because it cannot be - what occurred in Tahrir were the symptoms of a shift in Egyptians' sense of self, the shiniest bits of which were then flashed across in the world to feed the ravenous beast of media consumption.
Egypt as perceived by the American media has very little to do with reality.
Watching the Egyptian Revolution unfold on my computer in Washington DC, my experience was limited to snapshots. The fragmented coverage varied from brutal to hopeful: a video of a distraught protestor shouting in English, “I will die today!” A tweet by a well-known twitterer, “Egyptians are probably some of the coolest people on the face of the earth.” Images of protestors run over by tanks on the Qasr el Nil Bridge. The surreality of seeing places I knew becoming sites of unspeakable courage and cruelty contributed to my sense of detachment. Despite two years in Egypt as a journalist, I found it difficult to piece together and make sense of the gaps between the explosive coverage of videos, tweets, heroic images and frantic articles. News media lives on drama, but extreme action rarely conveys much information.
Without a leader to articulate the goals of the movement, some commentators in Washington began to murmur that Mubarak had long been an important US ally and a source of stability in the region.
For Americans with minimal knowledge of Egypt or the Middle East, the strobe-like effect of the American media offered even less help. Early in the January 25th 2011 protests, the Iranian Revolution and its subsequent hostage crisis represented the only comparable situation in the American public memory. Colleagues asked worriedly whether I thought that the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals resembled those of Khomeini. I assured them that Egypt would not become another Iran, but I had to acknowledge that any democracy in Egypt would not reflect the secularism artificially imposed by the Mubarak regime on the country.
Americans’ difficulty in following the media coverage increased as representative individuals failed to appear. The anonymously milling mob of protestors appeared anarchical, and therefore menacing. Without a leader to articulate the goals of the movement, some commentators in Washington began to murmur that Mubarak had long been an important US ally and a source of stability in the region. However, two faces appeared that gave Americans a more specific perception of conditions in Tahrir. Wael Ghonim’s smile, message, and affiliation with such a well-known entity as Google helped to put a less threatening face on the crowds of angry people fighting to death in the streets. He reinforced the concept of a social media revolution, where a site as seemingly innocuous as Facebook had helped to bring down a dictator. Wael Ghonim presented a figure Americans could identify with, a self-made man standing up for what he believed in.
The other face was Lara Logan’s: blonde, pretty, familiar. Far more than hearing of protestors being killed, Logan’s experience shocked and horrified the American public. Given that the dead are mute, death can feel impersonal, especially from 5000 miles away. But the horrid intimacy of sexual assault, retold by one of its victims, sullied the image of Tahrir as a righteous struggle. Orientalist phantoms of the sex-starved Arab man and cloistered Arab woman bubbled up from the American subconscious. While Ghonim strengthened Americans’ ability to identify with Egyptian protestors, Logan reinforced the perception of their fundamental differences. With lynchings already consigned to history, Americans could not imagine themselves forming a mob so anarchic and inhumane as to rape a female journalist in their midst. But as always, the news cycle moved on.
Tahrir is no longer the anarchic hotbed of unrest as it appeared in the American media. Life in Egypt continues, unfortunately, in almost the same way as before, except prices are higher and tourists are fewer
After February 11th, as coverage declined, the gaps in information became wider. Americans were left to ponder the Arab Spring and Egypt through their own schemas: the typical American concern about the rights of women in Muslim societies raised the issue that men in Egypt also had minimal rights Egyptians' right for self-determination could not be extricated from the possibility that radical Islamists would hold power. At the most basic level, Americans wanted to cheer for Egyptians’ struggle for democracy because it reinforced their belief in the superiority of their own system. In mid February I listened to a radio caller from rural North Carolina who expressed concern that the American media was no longer paying as much attention to Egypt. “After all, we invented democracy, right? Shouldn’t we help them with it?” Her attitude reflected a widespread perception that Egypt’s struggle for justice and freedom mirrored the origin-myth of the United States, a struggle with which Americans identify closely.
The sense of ownership Americans felt for the democratic uprisings in the Middle East also partially derived from the American military’s effort to impose democracy in Iraq. The release of Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography in early February of 2011 offered Bush’s Defense Secretary the opportunity to gloat that his “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East had been right all along. Many Americans may have felt their guilty consciences assuaged, seeing in the Arab Spring a kind of long-delayed redemption for the invasion of Iraq. Both Rumsfeld and the radio caller had forgotten the basic definition of democracy as “rule of the people”. If Egypt were to become democratic, it could only occur through the actions of Egyptians themselves.
Months passed, Egypt faded from view, and Libya and Syria’s increasingly violent uprisings reinforced the truism regarding blood and media coverage. Egypt appeared in the headlines periodically, such as when the Maspero killing occurred, and when students from Georgetown were caught throwing Molotov cocktails. But other than wondering periodically whether Egypt might renege on the Camp David Accords, Americans focused on the more action-packed regional conflicts. Even I, with a personal connection to Egypt, found myself checking in more frequently on the situations in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
The violence surrounding the November elections brought Egypt barreling back onto American front pages. Coverage seemed even more incoherent, as it was unclear whether the violence had a purpose or simply represented the chaos of regime change. It was not until the coverage of “the woman with the blue bra”, as she was known, that an image of the situation could crystallize. Apparently, the new government in Egypt was no better than Mubarak’s, protestors were being abused, and again, women were targeted. Then the Islamists won the majority in parliament, and Americans had to ask themselves if they truly believed in democracy, if this was the form it would take. In the case of Hamas, the answer had been no. Americans wait to see who will become president. But they wait as one does for the upcoming season of a favorite show: revolutions make for great television.
As for me, I no longer have to rely on the media's portrayal of Egypt. Friends and colleagues who knew that I was returning to Egypt for six months would ask the usual question—“What is it like for you as a woman in the Middle East?” But now they had a follow-up: “Are you scared?” I could answer the first question as I usually do, that women’s rights are infringed upon everywhere, but differently in the US than the Middle East. The second question I found more difficult. No, I was not scared. But I was not sure that I knew Egypt any longer. The country and people that appeared on my computer screen were no longer familiar. I wondered what I would find.
The first time I walked to Tahrir, I felt nervous. Would it look as I had last seen it depicted, mobbed with screaming youth? I chose to approach it on foot rather than to emerge from the Sadat metro station. I was surprised at the barricades, the barbed wire and huge concrete blocks: the screen had not shown me this. Once I entered the square however, it felt familiar. It looked like “Occupy K Street”, only more vibrant than the increasingly dreary-looking tent cities that had doggedly endured the winter in Washington. Entrepreneurs hawked bouquets of red, white and black flags and Egyptian eagle paraphernalia, sweet potato and lb sellers wheeled their smoking carts through the sparse crowd of men and boys. Some gathered near a speaker with a megaphone, others sat around. This did not look terribly different than usual shebab behavior: sitting around, drinking tea, talking. The atmosphere was easy and relaxed, and I was relieved to provoke almost no attention. Passing the soldiers in tanks by the American embassy had brought on a typical round of catcalls, but the protestors appeared focused on other things.
At the most basic level, Americans wanted to cheer for Egyptians’ struggle for democracy because it reinforced their belief in the superiority of their own system
Tahrir is no longer the anarchic hotbed of unrest as it appeared in the American media. Life in Egypt continues, unfortunately, in almost the same way as before, except prices are higher and tourists are fewer. The improvements are more difficult to document, but they exist. For example, Egyptians seem to feel a greater sense of self-respect. Such a subtle change is challenging to document, but it comes across in the way people carry themselves and interact. One difference that I attribute to greater self respect has been a decrease in my experience of daily harassment. Although violent sexual assault has certainly marred protests, walking around downtown Cairo feels less stressful. My usual retort to unwanted attention is “Ihterem nafsak”, or “Respect yourself”. Two years ago, this usually brought additional giggles and jeers. Today, it makes the giggles stop.
When I have suggested to Egyptian friends that Egyptians seem to feel a greater sense of self respect , they ponder the idea. I think they are unsure of my ability to interpret Egypt accurately. They were surprised that I did not have clearer understanding of current conditions, and was unaware of certain events. I had not heard of Alia El Mahdy, for example.
I try to explain that obtaining information from the media will never offer a complete picture, because that is not its purpose. News media, like all drama, lives on conflict; the easier to understand, the more easily consumed. More substantive and subtle changes, such as a people’s sense of themselves, occur invisibly. The revolution will not be televised, because it cannot be - what occurred in Tahrir were the symptoms of a shift in Egyptians' sense of self, the shiniest bits of which were then flashed across in the world to feed the ravenous beast of media consumption.
Annelle Sheline is a PhD student at George Washington University in Washington DC, currently on a Boren Fellowship in Cairo. She worked in Cairo as a journalist from 2008 to 2010.