This past week has been all about the uprising in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians have taken to the street, protesting President Hosni Mubarak's thirty year rule. Despite the protesters' explicit calls for Mubarak to step down, he doesn't seem to have gotten the message, instead appointing Omar Sulieman as Vice President, the first in his thirty-year presidency (interestingly, according to Article 139 of the Egyptian Constitution says that the president may appoint multiple vice-presidents , and creating a new political cabinet.
These protests are said to have been inspired by those in Tunisia, which were successful in ousting President Zine el Abidne ben Ali, whom most of the protests were directed against, with charges of corruption and brutal authoritarian rule. Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia on January 14 and major news coverage of the protests began just a few days earlier. However, the protests began nearly a month earlier after 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi (who died January 5) was an unemployed college graduate who tried to make ends meet by setting up a produce stand. However, the police had recently confiscated the stand because he did not have a license and (allegedly) beat Bouazizi. The young man became a symbol for the frustrated youth of the country, many of whom are also unemployed (see this interesting piece from Foreign Policy on whether or not Bouazizi actually had political motives for his suicide).
There have been many parallels drawn between the two uprisings from the similarities in the governments and society to the use of social media to organize and spread the word. However, one thing that interests me, which I haven't seen discussed (and haven't been able to really find anything on over the interwebs), is the disparity in (at least) US media attention the two revolts have received. Although the Tunisia protests began in mid-December and became violent quickly after their start, the American media didn't begin covering the story in full until after the first of the year. In a quick (and very un-scientific) search of CNN's recent online archives, the first article on the Tunisia protests was published on December 24, 2010, reporting that the state security forces had killed one protester and injured four others. The next story on the uprising, didn't appear until January 4, 2011. After Bouazizi's death the next day the number of stories began to slowly climb. However, since the Egyptian uprising began on January 25 (which was discussed in three articles on CNN.com that day), most mentions of Tunisia in the news have been merely citing it as an inspiration for the Egyptian protesters.
I've been trying to piece together reasons for this, but none of them seem to quite fit. Perhaps the media didn't initially think the Tunisia protests would amount to much and therefore gave it only minor coverage at first. After seeing the power of the protesters they may have viewed the start of the Egyptian protests in a different light, realizing that this too could end up being a big deal. In a similar vein, coverage may have been less because the Tunisian protests started off much smaller than the Egyptian ones. However, even after the uprising in Tunisia grew it still did not (at least from my view) receive the same 'round the clock coverage as has been the case in Egypt. Or perhaps it was a simple matter of 'branding.' I won't go into it in depth here (maybe for the next post) but this Slate.com article discusses the interesting practice of
Of course my cynical impression is that Egypt is considered much more important to US political and economic interests, which prompted a greater and more immediate media response. This article from CNN says the US government was "caught off guard" by the Tunisia uprising, not really responding until after Ben Ali had fled and therefore not risk alienating a US ally by demonstrating support for the protesters. However, the Egyptian uprising was anticipated and, of course, continues as Mubarak clings to power. Egypt, and Mubarak in particular, however are key allies of the US in the Middle East and the country is an oil producer and controls the Suez Canal, a major shipping short cut for all types of goods, but especially oil. Any or all of these factors could have contributed to the differences in media coverage and I don't know if there is anyway to determine the actual causes. (Keep on the lookout for other protests gaining momentum and coverage in Sudan and Yemen)
My frustration with the US government response is mostly the opposite of my frustrations with the media's response. In the case of Tunisia, as I noted above, the US seemed to take a fairly strong stance in promoting democracy and the will of the people. Of course, only after the sitting president was deposed. With Egypt, the government seems to be hedging its bets and attempting to stay in the good graces of any and all potential victors. It won't directly call for Mubarak to resign, but has advocated a "transition to a democratic regime." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called for real elections as opposed to "faux democracy." I found this statement particularly irritating because it demonstrates the typical hypocrisy of the American foreign policy. For the last 30-years the US has been supporting Mubarak's "faux democracy" (yes, I'm sure he does win re-election with 90% of the vote...) and constant "state of emergency" because he has helped the US achieve its goals. However, in Iraq (and somewhat in Afghanistan, but that's more complicated) the US had to invade in order to bring democracy to the Iraqi people and end the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein (oh right, and find those WMDs...). These diverging responses to similar governments, hurts America's image in the world. We claim to want to support and fight for democracy around the world, but then only do it under dubious circumstances when it benefits us. Another Slate piece discusses the US's attempts to maintain "stability" in the Middle East through the support of authoritarian government's.
I do understand the US's desire to not alienate Egypt as a continued ally, but it seems to have done this at the expense of its fundamental values of "liberty and justice for all." Laura McGinnis explores this in her most recent blog post on monologue and dialogue in foreign relations and public diplomacy and the CPD blog discusses "Obama's Missed Public Diplomacy Opportunity" by not calling for Mubarak to resign.