Analysis: From Pro-Tahrir Square to deep ambivalence

The media’s failure and the disenchantment of an Israeli observer watching a "velvet revolution" unfold in the largest Arab country.

February 6, 2011 03:45
Pro and anti-Mubarak protesters face off

Egypt Night Riots 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

CAIRO – The news and the images from Cairo and across Egypt that spread across the world, beginning on January 25, moved and inspired millions.

While the uncertainty about Egypt’s future and what it meant for Israel was very worrying, watching a “velvet revolution” unfold in the Arab world’s largest country was an amazing story of people power and unarmed determination trumping tyranny and fear.

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That was before I went to Cairo and spoke to people in Tahrir square during and after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s historic speech on Tuesday night.

Mubarak’s promise to step down in six months and hold free election seemed to me, at least on the surface, to be a sort of concession that could clear the protestors from Tahrir square and the streets of Alexandria and elsewhere, and return some sense of normalcy to Egypt.

It’s understandable why the protestors wouldn’t take a 30- year despot at his word, but the country needs normalcy and stability desperately, and with each passing day the population became more and more hungry, exhausted and angry – with their patience for the protestors quickly running out.

But we’re not supposed to believe that – not if you watch the cable news channels, or follow the blogs and Twitter feeds covering the event.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt

Instead, this is a completely righteous protest movement supported by most, if not all, of Egypt’s more than 80 million people.

Also, according to the narrative, all of those who support Mubarak are paid thugs, policemen in civilian clothing, or the poor unwashed masses that the state threatened and extorted into coming into the streets. Either that or they’re the upper-class collaborators who have benefited from Mubarak’s rule.

Has anyone tried to prove this? Have we seen any proof that all of the supporters were government agents or cowed peasants? Has anyone really begun asking what the other 79 million Egyptians who didn’t take part in the “million man march” believe, or are they all being paid-off and hung-up by the fingernails as well? The world media completely dropped the ball in covering this story. It’s understandable and morally correct to side with democracy and human rights, but not enough hard questions were asked.

The Egyptians protesting in Cairo and elsewhere want Mubarak gone after 30 years of authoritarian rule? Fair enough, but what is it they want in his place? Do they really want democracy, or do they just want Mubarak gone and for a new man to come in his place and promise them a better life? Is what they’re doing going to actually work, or is the all-out, absolute devotion to staying in Tahrir – no matter the cost – actually working against them? What role did the media play in fomenting this strategy? The media was completely and utterly on the side of the protestors from the get-go, and did not sufficiently challenge the messages coming from the square – which seemed a vague mix of fury, resentment and demands for democracy, “dignity” and “a better life.”

And how exactly did a man – who just two weeks ago was portrayed as a rather benign dictator – become Hitler incarnate overnight? Were we just never paying attention to the treachery of his regime, or did this portrayal help the black and white narrative? Certainly, the Mubarak regime’s paying or threatening Egyptians to fight and inflame tensions, and Egyptian state media’s distortion of the facts on the ground, were treacherous and vile.

Also, the level of violence and intimidation practiced against foreign journalists covering the protests was among the worst the world has ever seen – and certainly didn’t help the world’s portrayal of Mubarak, or those Egyptians who honestly did not want him to leave.

Nonetheless, while the media should not err on the side of tyranny, or those who use torture and intimidation to hold power, it should still always ask questions.

A large number of the Mubarak supporters in Cairo Wednesday were paid or threatened into protesting and fighting the Tahrir Square crowds, but the media portrayed it as though the entire Egyptian population wanted him to flee the country immediately, and that he had no genuine supporters of his own.

The concept that many of these protestors came on their own to Tahrir Wednesday is not hard to believe, and idea that the natives must have been paid or threatened smells of paternalism.

Many of the Mubarak supporters witnessed and spoken to by this reporter were teenage boys or elderly men, religious women in conservative Islamic garb and slightly overweight middle-aged men, who looked exhausted and furious.

They numbered in the thousands in spots all over Cairo beginning on Wednesday, and while some were very intimidating and pushy, for the most part, the ones I spoke to were coherent, angry, and frustrated.

Many, if not most of them, are people who haven’t worked or had any income for over a week. It seemed their anger turned on the protest movement – and became stronger the longer the instability, curfews and lack of law and order in the country continued.

Egyptians who challenged the opposition protestors were not all Mubarak supporters, rather normal Egyptians from a variety of backgrounds expressing real frustration at the protestors after Tuesday night. Many of them also want Mubarak out – they want change – but they also want their lives back, they want the return of normalcy and then free elections in six months.

Many said, “The people in Tahrir got what they want, they won, why don’t they go home?” People expressed their belief that the anti-Mubarak crowds accomplished a historic victory – a concession to the people that is unprecedented in the Arab world – so what do they want now? Also, on the surface level, many of the arguments made by the pro-Mubarak crowd actually made a good deal of sense.

They said they feared the instability gripping their country: The prospect that the fall of Mubarak would bring a war with Israel and that the lives of millions of Egyptians would be lost.

Some of these statements made more sense than what I heard in Tahrir Square, where the courage and determination was moving, but the messages were mainly vague statements about needing freedom, dignity, better jobs, more money, and the immediate removal of Mubarak and his cronies, no matter the cost for the country or the region.

The media needs to ask whether the protest movement has shown great folly in staying in the square and vowing not to move until Mubarak steps down, or whether they encouraged this obstinance.

It should also ask if the anti- Mubarak protestors – who continued to fight to remove the president when the wind already seemed to be blowing in their favor – are foolish and obtuse in the extreme.

Make no mistake, the Mubarak supporters, police and state security officers were the ones who started the violence on Wednesday – and were the only people beating and harassing foreigners and journalists.

The Tahrir Square protestors were mainly just trying to protect themselves and hold the square at all costs – and were becoming more desperate, angry, and terrified by the minute. Still, they were more than capable of doling out their own violence – lynching people they believed were undercover police officers or agent provocateurs.

These victims received no fair trial and no quarter from the mobs.

Democracy is a universal human right, and for the sake of Egypt, Mubarak must step down and leave in six months, and the Egyptian people must get the freedom they deserve.

Those who opened their mouths against Mubarak after decades of fear and statesponsored violence showed incredible courage and determination – but their desire to keep pushing, to keep holding out and fighting should have been questioned more by the media that descended in droves on Tahrir Square to cover the upheaval.

Also, their demands, and the likelihood that the country can promise them the future they want, should have been questioned and not painted in clean black and white stripes.

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