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Cairo instant analysis

My plan for today really wasn't to be full immersion in the Al Jazeera feed (hat tip, John Halle). But what a day! Here are some random observations:

1. Al Jazeera rulez. I haven't seen such great anchoring, and such great reporting, in a long, long time. Caveat that I know nothing about what has happening on the ground, but I know what a team of crack professionals firing on all cylinders looks and sounds like when they're all caught up in covering the story of a lifetime, and Al Jazeera was most definitely that today. It's so clear the tragedy of how a working press been taken from us in this country; we just don't have the capability here that AJ does, these days.

2. Maturity counts. I've often returned to Ian Welsh's remark that "The future isn't happening in the United States any more." In some ways I disagree -- there is definitely a future for agriculture and post-Peak Oil that's happening right here in Maine -- but for the dynamic, even the revolutionary... Thailand. Tunisia. Egypt. And here? I don't think it's only a question that Americans still have a lot to lose before they hit bottom, but that can't be the only factor; Thailand's farmers, after all, are the richest in Asia. It might well be a question of maturity. Surely, in all three countries, the people/activists/demonstrators/movement showed far greater maturity than "the left" here (including myself), if you look at axes like messaging, discipline, tactics, strategy (even if I regard the Red Shirts as a great tragedy, since a Buddhist nation didn't find a non-violent way forward).*

3. Leaderlessness. One point that was made over and over again today was that the the nameless Egyptian movement didn't have leaders. Now, that might not be true, since I don't know the ground. What is undeniably true is that no leader stepped forward, and that the Egyptian goverrnment, and the United States government, who have every incentive to point the finger, didn't, perhaps because there was no one to point the finger at. (Massive intelligence failure? New kind of movement? Impossible to know today.) Now, when you read about slickly produced brochures explaining how to participate -- non-violently! -- in demonstrations, you have to think somebody's organized the marketing collateral, but maybe, just maybe, when a situation has simplified enough (and tyranny does simplify) and there are distributed mass media like cell phones (and mosques) simple messages can propagate rapidly through large populations. With presumably a decade or so of under-the-radar work to get the talking points right (and here I project). Those of us on the left who have seen multiple betrayals by leaders, intensifying greatly since, oh, 2008 or so, may find this a comforting, even an inspiring development.

4. The word "chaos" is a tell. (Ditto "anarchy".) Even AJ was using the "chaos" talking point, but I just don't think it's right. AJ was clever to put up a split screen of their shot of the NDP headquarters on fire, and state television's shot of the Cairo opera house, but there was still a grain of truth in what state television showed. There wasn't chaos everyhere! In the same way that the statue of Saddam toppling was such a story because it happened right across from the hotel that a lot of journalists were staying in, the "iconic" shot of the NDP building in flames happened because the AJ cameras were close by, in their headquarters building (near the Ministry of Information, which makes sense). Chaos implies that violence was random, with people being dragged out of their cars, and widespread looting, and fires on every block. None of the happened. Police stations were targeted; the NDP was targeted. That's not "chaos." And demonstrators and the military cooperating to save the Cairo Museum from burning isn't chaotic at all; in fact, it's totally civilized (unlike what we let happen to the museum in Baghdad, I might add). So "chaos" is a tell. Be skeptical of anybody who uses it, even AJ. [The Times has an interactive map here; so when I was watching AJ, my focus, along with theirs, was downtown, and there was more going on. Still, not chaos. Just as in Bangkok, the life of the city went on, traffic and everything.]

5. Avoid "social media". I'll believe that twitter and Facebook had anything to do with the events from January 25 on when I hear evidence on AJ, and not before. Call me foily, but I think the US is insisting access to the Internet be restored because they've got Facebook and twitter wired up the wazoo, and when Mubarak shut down the Internet US intelligence suddenly felt itself blinded. (Since they're out of touch, they're already blind, regardless of what they feel, but that's another story.) I'm betting that cell phones and the mosques were way more powerful.

NOTE * I also think that Americans are not metaphorically but almost literally narcotized by television and made ill or poisoned by diet (see the Archdruid here for the effects). We cannot separate these terrible terrible public health problems in the United States from political paralysis.

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CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Lambert writes:

I haven't seen such great anchoring, and such great reporting, in a long, long time.

Now granted, this story of unrest in Egypt is one they are all prepared to discuss and it was refreshing to a lot of us just not to be listening endlessly to Amero-centric pro-The Imperium views. But everything about the presentation of that Al Jazeera feed was so much more sophisticated and energized than what you get from the always stale network and cable news reporters here and their same old guests.

Like when that female reporter was interviewing Sen. Kerry, she let him drone on for a short while but then cornered him with just a couple of questions. Hell, the weatherperson was gesturing at a series of maps while fast talking her way through a rundown for South America, southern Africa, and the subcontinent, before she finished up with a forecast for the Mideast.

You get the sense the rest of the world is moving on.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

I especially want to highlight point 5. It's good, solid intelligence work: seeing something that does not make a lot of sense in and of itself, and conjecturing what other reasons there are for that something existing.

The one thing that bothers me are the brochures. We really need to know who created, printed, and distributed those. I can see a dissident lawyer's office printing a few hundred, but tens of thousands of brochures would require a considerable chunk of change. The other possibility is that its was distributed electronically, or on CDs, or flash drives, and a number of different people, such as a network of dissident lawyers, each printed a few hundred. If there were thousands or tens of thousands of the brochures distributed, there sure as hell is some kind of organized capability behind it.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

Naked Capitalism links to a Telegraph report on US support of Egyptian dissidents, according to U.S. State Dept. cables in Wikileaks.

The US government has previously been a supporter of Mr Mubarak’s regime. But the leaked documents show the extent to which America was offering support to pro-democracy activists in Egypt while publicly praising Mr Mubarak as an important ally in the Middle East.

In a secret diplomatic dispatch, sent on December 30 2008, Margaret Scobey, the US Ambassador to Cairo, recorded that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for “regime change” to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.

The memo, which Ambassador Scobey sent to the US Secretary of State in Washington DC, was marked “confidential” and headed: “April 6 activist on his US visit and regime change in Egypt.”

It said the activist claimed “several opposition forces” had “agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections”. The embassy’s source said the plan was “so sensitive it cannot be written down”.

So, here's the possibilities I see right now.

1) This report is the full and complete truth. The implication is that the U.S. government (under Bush, no less) is fully in favor of democratic reform of Egypt. Highly unlikely.

2) This report is partly true. It would be SOP for a U.S. embassy to keep tabs on dissidents, even to the point of "assisting" dissidents in sneaking in and out of their country. There are a few reasons this "news" would be released right now.
2A) It is relevant news that the Telegraph saw fit to print in its capacity as a news organization. Likely.
2B) The U.S. wanted this printed now in an attempt to discredit Egyptian dissidents, knowing that an association with the U.S. embassy in Cairo will be viewed unfavorably by the Egyptian people. Not likely.
2C) The U.S. wanted this printed now in an attempt to reach out to dissidents, in the recognition that Mubarak's reign is ending. Likely, pending someone providing an analysis to what extent Egyptian professionals admire the U.S. (the question of pecuniary culture plays a role here).
2D) The U.S. wanted this printed now in an attempt to assure allies (in and outside Egypt) and others that it in fact has a handle on the situation, and in fact was working towards eventual regime change in Egypt. Likely, even if it's not true. (What has been the Israeli reaction to the events in Egypt so far? I've not seen ANYTHING about this important aspect, and it is VERY important).

3) The report is entirely false. Either there is no such Wikileaks cable; or there is such a Wikileaks cable, but it was planted. Almost completely implausible.

Submitted by Lex on

And still trying to fully digest it.

One thing i see is that the Telegraph insinuates far beyond what the one cable they offer as evidence establishes. That cable ends with a rather negative view of the mystery dissident, yet the Telegraph words the story to sound like the US is behind the protests.

The attempt to paint the US as broadly supportive of foreign dissidents is troubling, given that such support could be for intelligence gathering as easily as it could be for true support. Intelligence on dissident activity is valuable when you're pretty closely aligned with the regime the dissident is acting against. (I'm nor suggesting that the US is/was selling out these dissidents. I'm only unwilling to assume pure motives.)

I'm currently leaning towards 2D) in your list, especially given the push to have Mubarak name US friendly people to his new cabinet...most likely with the idea that one of them will take power after Mubarak.

This protest/revolution does not have the hallmarks of US instigated actions elsewhere. All the color revolutions have followed a pretty standard playbook and this looks nothing like those.

The manuals are an interesting facet of the story and could be questionable; on the other hand, putting the information together wouldn't be difficult and distribution could have been a purely samizdat affair. The Egyptian dissident community is rather large and has long experience working under/around a police state.

Submitted by Lex on

Indeed. That the protesters made sure to protect the museum says perhaps everything that needs to be said about this situation. And that my local paper reprinting AP crap this morning didn't mention it/showed shit burning says a whole lot about a great many other things.

I think you're exactly right about the internet "freedom" noises coming out of DC, lambert. I don't know of a single example in the modern era (and very few historically) where the American establishment was actually in favor of freedom for its own sake. But it may all be a blessing in disguise for the protesters, since the use of those communication tools is so easily compromised.

It appears that the game is up. Mubarak has been tossed under the bus by Obama/Clinton, and i can't see them doing so if they thought his regime could be salvaged.

I'm also guessing that the real chaos is in DC. If/when Mubarak falls, it will be the second regime in less than a month. Neither falls under the classic means of these sorts of events. It will take a while to shake out, but the structure of the world is changing and no establishment likes that...least of all an imperial establishment.

Ian Welsh's picture
Submitted by Ian Welsh on

farmers aren't fat and heavily medicated, nor is their propaganda complex nearly as powerful as the US's (not that media is the main factor).

Thailand also wasn't a revolution. More of an internal disagreement between power blocs, as best I can tell.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

wow lambert, excellent catch about social media.