Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
The Egyptian Revolution Did Not Take Place: On Live Television Coverage by Al Jazeera English
Dr. Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman
(Teaching Assistant, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK)
The one thing that the Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and the George Bush Jr. administrations have in common is they often blame Al Jazeera’s Arabic and/or English news channels for causing trouble in the Middle East. Alluding to Al Jazeera, Egypt’s (then) President Mubarak's (then) recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman blamed the increasingly intense protests in Egypt on "some friendly states that have completely unfriendly stations which charge the young against the state ... with false claims and exaggeration" (Reuters, February 3, 2011). Similarly, Al Jazeera was on the long list of people and organizations, such as Al Qaeda and the CIA, singled out by Gaddafi and his sons for instigating the civil war in Libya.
The US government’s opposition to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the US war on and occupation of Iraq since 2003 is well noted. A Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) article (April 15, 2004) lists contradictory statements by US officials, one, alluding again to Al Jazeera: “We have reason to believe that several news organizations do not engage in truthful reporting," while another says that “the pictures and the reporting that Al Jazeera [Arabic] put on the air only adds to the sense of frustration and anger and adds to the problems in Iraq, rather than helping to solve them." Al Jazeera is untruthful, revealing, inconvenient and provides unhelpful truth at the same time. And this is not even to mention the various Al Jazeera personnel that have been wounded or killed by the US armed forces in Iraq since 2003.
The old question, and an entirely subjective political one was: ‘When do the news media as political actors overstep their bounds and interfere in the normal course of events?’ Today this has become: ‘When do the news media as political actors interfere with the message that we are trying to propagate?’ But perhaps a more interesting question is not whether the news media, their reporters, editors and executives have a specific agenda, such as the spread of radical Islam and jihad or the assistance of American imperialism and hegemony, as Al Jazeera has variously been blamed, but a more fundamental one: ‘Would the Egyptian revolution have happened without Al Jazeera’s live coverage?’
I am inspired to ask this question because of a question Baudrillard asks of Reality TV: ‘Would these events still have happened if the cameras were not there?’ ( 1983). The answer is, obviously, of course not. Reality TV from this perspective is about as ‘real’ as a sitcom or police procedural drama, the later which certainly would not exist if not for the cameras. But fictional TV shows and movies to not claim to represent or reflect reality to the same mode as news media. Yet we can still say the individual actions of the people being filmed for a reality TV show certainly happened, as did the performances of actors, as did the events the cameras capture for our 24 hour rolling news cycle. In the same way Baudrillard questioned the ‘war’-ness of the Gulf War and not the action on the ground, we can say it is not these micro-presentations that are under question, it is the presentation of the television as a whole, the macro-stories that are told.
In this essay I critically examine the Egyptian revolution through my experience watching it via the Al Jazeera English (AJE) live stream for many hours per day (8 to 12) for most of the days between January 29 and February 12, 2011, intertwining my observations with Daniel Boorstin’s concept of pseudo-events ( 1992), Baudrillard’s notions of reality TV and the simulacral nature of live television ( 1983), and Slavoj Žižek’s concepts of objective and subjective violence (2008), all in the spirit of Baudrillard’s seminal series of essays on his experience watching the Gulf War ( 1995).
II. Protests as pseudo-events?
One aspect of this question concerns hyper-mediated events like 9/11. Would 9/11 have happened if the cameras were not there? As Taylor and Harris put it (2008:188), 9/11 “gained maximum media impact by using visual terms deliberately designed to fit into the functional categories of a semiotic communicational order ruled by images”. Bin Laden was not the one to place hundreds of cameras, professional and amateur, on helicopters or in tourists’ hands, all over New York to capture every moment after the first plane hit from so many different angles. They relied instead on the existing video-capture infrastructure and our modes of interpretation. All major international television stations that could turned to a live shot of the struck tower and, as was apparently planned, were able to bear witness to the second plane hitting, thus maximizing the spectacle. These events actually happened, but what about their root relationship to a reality in which the media was not a consideration in planning acts of terrorism? Getting back to the subject at hand, could we say the same about AJE’s continuous rolling coverage of the Egyptian protests as we can about 9/11? Is the Egyptian revolution a pseudo-event, as defined by Daniel Boorstin?
Boorstin provides four criteria which I apply to AJE’s coverage ( 1992:11-12): First, the spontaneity of the situation was, at most, ambiguous. Certainly there was no central planning force such as a public relations firm, but neither are mass demonstrations like these ‘natural’ events like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. The protesters, when interviewed by AJE, constantly affirmed the spontaneity of the protests and that they were the beginning of a revolution, and with no leader, no identifiable revolutionary council or concrete manifesto, their assertions were not challenged. After all, are not all countries on earth on an inevitable path to more and more democracy, the true expression of the human condition? It would be rude to assert otherwise.
We can say, assuredly, the protests certainly were planned “for the immediate purpose of being reported” (Ibid.:11-12), planned with media coverage in mind, such as a press conference. The truly spontaneous protests, climaxing in the January 28 “Day of Rage”, featured actual conflict between protesters and the police, actual destruction of government property. However, this soon gave way to the entrenched, permanent protest in Tahrir Square, one simultaneously protected and contained by the Egyptian Army after the police were pulled from the streets. This was a protest with no other immediate goal than to protest. No movements were made to extent the protest zone, to take the tens of thousands of protesters to the Presidential Palace to violently remove Mubarak. The people simply coalesced around the cameras (or can we say the cameras coalesced the people?), chanting, praying, forming a mass, waving their signs, often in English for the convenience of the worldwide media.
The revolution’s relationship to “reality” was certainly “ambiguous” (Ibid.). It was certain that it was happening and, seeing as the crowd was quite large it would appear to be difficult to summarise their aggregate demands. However, the AJE the reporting tried to conclusively ground it, framing it as pro-Democracy or anti-Mubarak. Muslim Brotherhood (an Islamicist organization banned during most of Mubarak’s regime), involvement was consistently squashed in AJE via the words of anti-Mubarak experts and the Muslim Brotherhood themselves, and its democratic nature was constantly reaffirmed. But still, doubts remained for any moderately critical viewer. Were these revolutionaries or a highly vocal minority with a grudge to bear? Were they representative of the majority opinion of Egyptians simply expressing a universal drive for freedom? The news media systematically reinforce a certain sets of ‘truths’ on the ground while leaving the entire construction up for debate by the viewer.
Finally, was it a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (Boorstin:12)? As if in answer to the ambiguity of the reality situation the protesters proclaimed themselves not simply to be protesters, but revolutionaries, and so it was. The revolution, by saying it was a revolution to the cameras, by coalescing in Tahrir Square due to the cameras, became a revolution, in the same way an important press conference is an important press conference because the President or Prime Minister’s press officer says so. The protests largely fulfil the criteria for a pseudo-event, thus we must conclude it is very unlikely they would have occurred without cameras present.
III. Inclusion and exclusion
What about what was included and what was excluded from AJE’s coverage? After January 29, AJE’s coverage was largely a static live shot of Tahrir Square, sometimes turning to Alexandria or other cities, contrasting their coverage with Egypt State TV’s coverage, or edited packages summarizing what has recently happened, but always turned back to Tahrir Square, whether something spectacular was happening or not. This is outwardly quite neutral, how can you argue against a static live shot of the protesters actually gathered in Tahrir Square, growing and shrinking as the day goes on but never disappearing? It is as ‘real’ as you can get with cameras being involved: no editing, wide angles, a high vantage point. AJE, in fact, often compared their coverage with that on Egyptian State TV, placing them side by side to show how their coverage, featuring the throngs in Tahrir Square, contrasted with Egyptian State TV’s calm and barren streets.
But what did this dominant live shot miss? Other action that was happening around the square? Certainly, but they had dozens of journalists reporting anonymously from around the area to fill in much of what we could not see from that shot, something that the other news companies could not get to such a scale and depth. We got interviews with many protesters, mostly ones who could speak English. AJE also featured a ‘Web Desk’ where videos from YouTube and tweets from ‘micro-blogging site’ Twitter were shown, always prefaced with the warning that the contents were not independently verified. A wide scope of material was included but, again, the focus was on Tahrir Square and the gathered masses.
As the Langs observed in the 1950s, describing crowds who gathered to watch a parade, “the cheering, waving, and shouting was often largely a response to the aiming of the camera. The crowd was thrilled to be on television” (1953:10). The crowd in Tahrir Square had portable televisions so that they could keep updated as well as watch themselves on Al Jazeera, as many of them attested. Screens and projectors were also set up in the square, showing Al Jazeera, according to many of the protesters interviewed in the square. This could be described as a tautological ‘demonstration effect’ [for the original conception, applied to democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and Third World countries, see (Randall, 1993:625-46)], not in the broad sense that the recent Tunisian Revolution lead to the Egyptian Revolution because the Egyptians viewed it on TV, which maybe be true, but that the hyper-mediated Egyptian Revolution itself snowballed due to its hyper-mediation. While the protests were once grounded in physical conflict and danger, the revolution was self-contained within the media, the crowd in the square simply a manifestation of that.
But what did we miss despite the extensive and brave live coverage given by the AJE correspondents? Simply all of the important behind-the-scenes bargaining that went on, the negotiations between the US and Egyptian governments, the Egyptian government and protest leaders, as well as, perhaps, between the Egyptian Military Council and Mubarak himself. These negotiations were what ultimately lead to Mubarak’s downfall, the military did not ‘take over’ as some claimed, they simply got rid of the Mubarak figurehead so as to cleanse their image (such as what Tony Hayward did for BP in 2010 following their oil spill in the Mexican Gulf, and what Nixon did for the American system in 1974 after Watergate. I will return to this below.). However, these types of internal discussions cannot be mediated.
This is similar to the substantive negotiations and discussions in the legislative and executive-branches in democracies now being held in closed-door, no camera proceedings so as to escape the view of the public broadcasters (such as C-Span or BBC Parliament) made to bring to light the inner workings of the government. The speeches and discussions on the floor of Congress or Parliament have now become simple performances for the cameras. For Egypt, the image of the crowd was so strong and motivating that became the focus point for the protest and revolution, in effect framing the protests themselves as the cause of the change. The negotiations were hidden and, in the end, resulted in performances from various Egyptian leaders, culminating in the Feb 11 announcement by VP Suleiman of Mubarak’s departure and the investing of presidential power in the Supreme Military Council. The guarded statements by foreign governments were also arrived at in non-public meetings, to be presented to the cameras by press officers and spokespeople, or the leaders themselves, at strategic moments. Thus, we cannot say that the cameras distracted us from the private meetings of public officials by the spectacle on Tahrir Square for such meetings are not made to be mediated, unlike protests.
IV. Cameras and Violence
It is also interesting to consider the ability of the live coverage to shield the protesters from harm. It is my contention that because of this coverage the Mubarak regime was unable to act violently toward the protesters. They learned well from Tiananmen Square 1989, shooting pro-democracy protesters on live TV will gain you no favours and the military regime would lose their legitimacy (considering now they are hailed as ‘heroes’ for not massacring civilians). This illustrates well Žižek’s distinction between objective violence (that is, systemic or symbolic violence that cannot be mediated easily), and subjective violence which is “directly visible” and “performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (Zizek, 2008:1). In contrast, systemic violence is, as Žižek says, “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political system” (Ibid.). Systemic violence is the cause of such protests and revolutions.
When there was subjective violence in Tahrir Square, it was either quite bizarre, men on camels charging the crowd, or quite hard to define. When apparently pro-Mubarak supporters attacked the protesters it took AJE several hours to work out what exactly was happening despite having the live shot of two groups throwing rocks at each other. We only learned later who they were, where they came from, and why they came at that point in time. The live shot added nothing to this, despite it zooming very close to see a great detail. Without any perspective there are some things we simply cannot know, and the lack of perspective at the beginning (i.e. the two groups were “fighting with each other” versus one group attacking the other) can colour the subsequent coverage and had the potential to discredit the protesters.
Similarly, the intense coverage of the protests arguably shielded Mubarak himself from harm. [We can see a contrast to this in the Libyan Civil War. There is not enough stability to have a live shot for the protesters to coalesce around, thus we might say the situation there spiralled out of control into intense use of subjective violence, civil war and the eventual (inevitable?) end of the entire Gaddafi regime, not just the Gaddafi figure head, and excluding those who have jumped ship and joined the ‘rebel’ side.]. Egypt did not descend into French Revolution-style Regime of Terror in which the entire existing governmental apparatus was dismantled and replaced with something else. Mubarak, other senior government officials, and potential enemies of the revolution were not taken and executed by either the protesters or by the army during a coup d’état.
Such as what happens in democracies every four to eight years, or as the result of a political scandal, the figurehead was removed as a sacrifice to maintain the system. To return to Baudrillard, much as political scandal “launders” those in power (Baudrillard, 2002:70), and “regenerate[s] public morality” (Baudrillard  1983:28). The Egyptian regime was laundered by the protesters forcing the ousting of the Mubarak figurehead and, instead of fundamentally changing the system, simply regenerating the public’s opinion of the Egyptian Military’s morality and re-legitimating their rule. The systemic violence of the Egyptian political-economic system, the violence that instigated the protests, was thus unresolved by the Egyptian Revolution. [Whether it will be unaddressed or not is another question, as can be seen from civilian-led raids on the Egyptian Secret Police and their eventual disbanding (see MacFarquhar, March 15, 2011)].
So we can see the cameras manifesting the crowd, creating a popular movement shielded from violence by the state. The crowd formed in Tahrir Square, watching themselves protest live, drawing more and more people to go to the square to protest and watch themselves protest. This observation is not to denigrate anything that went on in the square; from AJE’s voluminous interviews it was quite obvious there was a massive feeling of mutual support, solidarity and the formation of a new popular movement that will have for a very long time power to exert change in Egypt’s government. Whether this will lead to actual systemic revolution is yet to be seen, but the basis, perhaps, has been prepared.
In fact, we might say that the Egyptian Revolution has more power to exact change in their government than in stable democracies because their leaders and the stability of the country can actually be influenced by protesters. When protests in stable democracies occur, because of government actions, the response can simply be: ‘They have legitimacy because they were elected. If you do not like it then vote them out next time’ [An example of this comes from the coverage of the pro-labour union protests in Wisconsin. After the bill stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights was signed, protests continued outside the state capital building. On Mar 12, 2011, a Democrat Wisconsin State Senator Jim Holperin was complaining on Fox News Channel (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=RonB104OTM8) about the way the bill was passed by Republicans without any participation from Democrats. The Fox News anchor replied:
"Well, they [the Republicans] have the power to do that, clearly. And is, isn’t that what democracy is, is all about? In an ensuing election voters decided to dispose of the Democratic majorities in both of the chambers and elect a Republican governor. They, in turn, chose this particular course and passed this law and, you know, if voters don’t like the results they can go to the ballot box in less than two years and change it. You would agree that’s how democracy works". Oddly, Holperin does agree, in stark contrast to the protesters’ chanting: “This is what democracy looks like!”]. This rationale is, of course, untenable in autocracies.
Thus, we have a protest and a revolution as a media event, to reverse-paraphrase the old cliché, it is not simply that the revolution will be televised. The medium and the message have collapsed. As antiquated as it may sound, the revolution is live television, live television is the revolution. AJE is to blame, however not for the reasons given by Mubarak.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1983). “Precession of simulacra”, in Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard ( 1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jean Baudrillard (2002). Screened Out, London: Verso.
Daniel Boorstin ( 1992). The Image. London: Vintage Books.
FAIR (April 15, 2004). “CNN to Al Jazeera: Why Report Civilian Deaths?”. www.FAIR.org/index.php?page=1587
K. Lang and G. E. Lang (1953). “The unique perspective of television and its effect: A Pilot study”. American Sociological Review, 18(1):10.
Neil MacFarquhar (March 15, 2011). “Egypt Ends Domestic Spying Agency, but Creates New One’, New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/middleeast/16egypt.html
Vicky Randall (1993). “The media and democratisation in the Third World”. Third World Quarterly, Volume 4, Number 3: 625-646.
Reuters (February 3, 2011). “Al Jazeera demands release journalists in Egypt”, www.Reuters.com/article/2011/02/03/jazeera-arrests-idUSLDE7122BG20110203
Paul A. Taylor and Jan Ll. Harris (2008). Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now, Berkshire, England: Open University.
Slavoj Žižek. (2008). Violence. London: Verso.