“The revolution will not be televised”, sang Gil Scott-Heron in a 1970s proto-rap number in the wake of the United States civil rights movement. But when revolution broke out in Egypt in January, it was not only televised, it was tweeted, Facebooked, YouTubed, linked by email and splashed on the front page of newspapers at home and abroad.
Those far away in Europe and the United States, perhaps seeking to assert a Western contribution to the popular uprising, dubbed it another Facebook or Twitter revolution, as they had with Tunisia a few weeks earlier. Others emphasized the role of the Qatari satellite news channel Al Jazeera, which amplified the voices of the Egyptians protesting on the streets, carrying their words of defiance into living rooms and coffee shops across the Arab world.
Media academics are now picking through the electronic trail that the revolutionaries left behind them, trying to work out who was in touch with whom and which media was decisive in mobilizing the masses and winning over international public opinion. They should not ignore the old-technology media, which evolved incredibly in the latter years of Hosni Mubarak’s long reign. When he took office in 1981, the Egyptian state still had an iron grip on all information, through the three flagship mass-circulation daily newspapers nationalized in 1960 and the state broadcasting service, which monopolized television and dominated the radio airwaves. Alternative media in those days meant Radio Monte Carlo, the BBC and Voice Of America’s Arabic services, and a few weekly newspapers run by small opposition parties that were poorly produced and riddled with turgid rhetoric by polemicists. Egyptians with enough spare cash could buy foreign newspapers and magazines, which arrived several days late.
The media began to change in earnest around the turn of the millennium, as the price of satellite dishes and receivers dropped and Arab countries launched more satellites offering hundreds of television channels. Commercial interests, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, drove the boom and most of the fare on offer was popular culture, plus a heavy dose of Islamic televangelism. But news and current affairs found a niche too, especially after the September 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. At about the same time, again under commercial pressures, the Egyptian government allowed independent satellite broadcasters to set up shop in Cairo. Their late-night talk shows, which delved deeper and deeper into the country’s internal affairs, stole millions of viewers from state television.
Egyptian businessmen were also pressing for licenses for independent newspapers, and the Mubarak regime relented, apparently confident that it had the country firmly under its thumb; the government’s attitude became one of indifference. Editor Ibrahim Eissa in al-Dostour and novelist Alaa el-Aswany in el-Shorouk attacked Mubarak and his family relentlessly week after week, usually without serious repercussions. In retrospect, Mubarak and his retinue may be regretting their tolerance. Independent media and the Internet, which the Egyptian government very rarely tried to censor, slowly eroded the prestige of the president and the people around him. State media lost its audience, depriving the government of what was traditionally a valuable propaganda tool.
Facebook clearly played its part too, especially in the last few years, creating online communities that rapidly evolved into solidarity on the street in the first few days of the uprising. But at one of the crucial moments of the revolution, a domestic television station helped to keep the protest movement alive. Millions watched talk show host Mona el-Shazli’s February 7 interview with Google executive and Internet activist Wael Ghonim on the evening he emerged from 11 days in detention. Ghonim put a modern human face on the young revolutionaries, whom the government had alternately dismissed as foreign agents or rabid Islamists. On February 12, the day after Mubarak lost power, even the state newspaper Al Ahram had to abandon the man it had loyally served for 30 years. “The People Overthrow the Regime” was the triumphal banner headline, a classic in the annals of turncoat journalism.
Today state media is in limbo, kept on life support by the inertia of the ruling military council, which has been reluctant to tamper with such longstanding institutions. But short of an improbable counter-revolution, it’s hard to imagine that any future Egyptian government will try to put the media genie back in the bottle.
Jonathan Wright is managing editor of Arab Media and Society