Monday, January 31, 2011

Denial Isn't Just a River in Egypt...

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 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 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.


  1. I would hardly accuse you of being a cynic for concluding that the media coverage of the chaos/uprising (the word choice varies depending on your politics) in any country is directly proportional to the vested interests we have in that country. I do consider myself lucky though, to be able to look at the situation through the lens of this class, and to have studied in Cairo in January of last year, and not currently.
    Rumors are flying, diplomats are making opaque public statements, and many different sectors are grasping for power, but public image and media representation seem to be stringing the whole chain of events together. The West hypothetically advocates for a democratic movement in press releases, the President shifts pawns and poses with high-ranking military officials, and nobody can tell if army aircraft are flying in solidarity with protesters or is attempting to scare them out of Tahrir Square.
    Here is my idea for a collaborative project to solve this issue:
    Get famous Cairo band Wust alBalad to put on a music camp with an opposing musical conglomeration and teach kids about civic participation and classical Arabic music. Then, they can play songs for Mubarak, who will be so moved that he will step down and open, free and fair elections observed by national and foreign public servants and press will follow within the month. Mubarak will be legitimately elected as the Minister of Music Education.
    This is how music can be optimally used as a tool of public diplomacy.

  2. I've definitely been thinking a lot about Egypt and public diplomacy over the weekend - I was going to do my own post about it but I think that it's a topic that's already been covered extremely well, especially with your post.

    I think that the United States's attitude towards the Egypt situation can best be termed "cautious," but cynically I have to think that Mubarak has been best for American interests in the region, particularly in keeping up a (relative) peace with Israel - and as long as a regime in the region supports US interests, that our government won't really care who's in charge. The truth is, the US has a history of supporting authoritarian regimes that fall in line with American foreign policy interests, which is why I feel that even the relatively reserved support for a "transition to a democratic regime" is insincere.

    While it is understandable that states will try and maintain their influence and relationships with allies, the US isn't selling its support of Egypt as a country (vs. a state run by Mubarak) and its people well at all. The State Department is sending weak messages, when it could both advocate for democracy and try to maintain a strong relationship with Egypt, and forge new ties with a democratic government.