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Cairo instant analysis (2)

Another day of full immersion in Al Jazeera, which I didn't plan; I have work to do! Then again, perhaps this is my work. Anyhow, I don't pretend to know anything about Egypt, so all I can offer is the media critique I do know how to do, and maybe some thoughts on the situation (and I'll to avoid projecting my own understanding onto Egypt; all unhappy oligarchies are unhappy in their own way). I find, whether through dumb luck or skill, that I can use almost the same subject headings today that I used yesterday:

1. Al Jazeera rulez. After a second day of watching AJ, I know it better. Not like I know from Pravda or Izvestia, but better. It's such a pleasure getting a weather report that starts in Central America, sweeps through North America, and ends up in Europe (Berlin, -1).

The anchors: Yesterday was the A-team, I think; today's anchors were good, but the anchor Friday was... accustomed to "serious command," as some Discworld character said of Sam Vimes.

The format: A summary of events at the top of the hour, followed by reporters -- imagine that, bureaus! -- from Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, followed by interviews, many live and, increasingly as the day wears on, taped. The format really works because the anchors can weave the top of the hour reporting into the interviews, and break into the interviews -- "Sorry, sorry but..." -- if there's breaking news. (Try and imagine that happening in our media environment! "Sorry, Senator, but we've got to cut away now....")

The content: With a day under my belt, I can start to see some limitations (giving, perhaps, a new dimension to "rulez," although some rules, and some rulers, are definitely better than others). Take the AJ live cam on Tahrir Square: The camera angle is from on high, looking down on the crowds, and that's because the camera is up in the Cairo AJ building, whose location is admittedly quite strategic: Near the torched NDP headquarters, the Ministry of the Interior, the Museum of Antiquities, and the Square itself. Still, it's like an insurrection in Chicago was being filmed from the Chicago Tribune Building. What about the South Side? Cicero? Highland Park? Heck, Chicagoland itself?

The tone in the AJ studio in Doha (two-hour time difference from Cairo) differed from the tone out of the bureaus -- nervousness, to say the least, for the latter -- and I can't help but think that the elevation and distance of that camera, which is the default shot in the studio, has something to do with the difference. Ditto on elevation from at least one AJ reporter, at least when he worked from high up in the Hilton, also near Tahrir Square. (And did not work near the gunfire at the nearby Ministry of the Interior, although that was a huge, and not covered, battle that went on for many hours.) The tone from the Cairo reporting might also be due to media savvy protesters on their best behavior. Further, I'm guessing that Cairo isn't so poor and ground down as the provincial cities, and so the protesters there are far less likely to be high-minded and media savvy, as those of us above the fray would like them to be. Hence, the reporters in Alexandria and Suez would be much nervier than the reporters in Cairo. All of which goes to show that AJ views Egypt through a keyhole that is much bigger than our own, but is nonetheless a keyhole.

The keyhole is also evident in AJ's choice of guests: Just as here, the studio interviewees are likely to be well-educated (that is, educated in the West), professional, articulate, paid to perform symbol manipulation. AJ still gives interviews to Brookings -- Brookings Doha, to be sure, and far better than the Brookings in Versailles, but still. And surely more of the "Egyptians in the street" speak fluent English than one would expect from a random selection? [Also, there are no youth organizers interviewed, but they exist, if the Guardian is to be believed.]

All that said, AJ is still a joy to watch! They are always moving the story. They're always clear about provenance. They ask probing questions of officials who would rather say nothing or lie. They don't take any shit. Importantly, they also effortlessly made the call-ins they were getting from friends, family, and other contacts in Egypt part of the story; they used those techniques to highlight and forecast the move back to the neighborhoods in the evening very effectively. (In Baghdad, Americans had to discover this technique.)

2. Maturity counts. I'm with DCBlogger on the human chain that people formed round the Museum of Antiquities: "When I heard about the human wall around the Cairo museum, I just cried, I was so moved." Could we, as Americans, honestly say that we would do such a thing? Not just a few of us, but a cross-section of civil society? Hard to imagine. It's also hard to imagine an entire city organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, to protect itself, as Cairo has done tonight. Impressive. Yes, I'm aware that neighborhood watch groups (militias; vigilantes) aren't an unalloyed good (see under "Sundown towns"), but as a feat of pure organizing, what the Cairenes did is beyond anything we can imagine. On the other hand, now we see it can be done.

3. Leaderlessness. This theme had four aspects, today:

(1) Although Mubarak shuffled his cabinet, it wasn't clear that the regime was actually leading the country, or in what direction. I thought Mubarak's choice of Suleiman sent several mutually contradictory messages: To the Egyptian people, that Mubarak was preparing a successor; to the Egyptian military, that they could come out on top; and to the United States, that Egyptian fealty was still theirs. (Suleiman has the I/P brief, the US brief, and the extraordinary rendition brief; could be a spot of blackmail, there, in that last). However, I could well be over-stressing the importance of "outside forces" here; the statement Obama issued after the "principals meeting" in Versailles today made barely a ripple on AJ.) In any case, the Egyptian people, even the rich, were having none of it; Mubarak has to go.

Next, two dogs that have not yet barked: (2) The military. Most agree (and my expert friends agree) that the military is the key actor. It's a widely respected institution, unlike the police, and all Egyptian men serve in it, so culturally, socially, it's part of civil society as well as the state. And although the military has not attacked the protesters, neither has it defended them; further, although the military appealed for people to clear the streets at night so that they could deal with the "thugs," they clearly don't have the strength to do that in a city of twenty million, even if they had the training and the equipment, which they don't. Finally, there are reports that their orders are to protect important buildings, and not the people at all. And there is "no military spokesman," so far as I can tell from AJ.

Then there are (3) the protesters. The AJ anchors and guests were rather impatient, even huffy, that nobody from the protester side had stepped forward to begin a transition (i.e., deal-making) process. Are there no leaders? Are the leaders fighting among themselves? Are the leaders abroad? Are the leaders lying low? Are the real leaders the Muslim Brotherhood, who haven't been able to find a mouthpiece? Are the real leaders people nobody knows, perhaps young? (It's interesting that the protest locations for youth listed by the Guardian at that link don't appear on the Times interactive map.) Interestingly, AJ did little analysis of this question, though they did give Nobel prizewinner ElBaradei -- he of the Iraqi WMD takedown, by a truly delicious irony -- plenty of airtime.

And finally we have (4) the looters. The looters are playing a key role, because the protesters have left central Cairo and returned to their neighborhoods to protect their property and their families (by organizing watch committees). But who are the looters? And is anyone leading them? All day, AJ supplied consistent reports -- though unconfirmed, as by an interview with an actual looter -- that the looters were really "thugs"; that is, plainclothes policemen.

4. The word "chaos" is a tell. It's a word that stinks of lazy analysis and lack of agency. Let's continue with the looters: Odds are that the looters are a police presence with a difference; rather than enforcing the law, what there is of it, or directing traffic, the police have morphed into night riders. Creating a climate of fear as an excuse for a crackdown is an old trick of authoritarian regimes; it's why the Nazis invented "protective custody." However, fear makes for powerful messaging, and even AJ succumbed to it, today (why I say that the anchors were the B-team; they kept playing the same loop of smashed cases from the Museum of Antiquities, without making a distinction between looting and vandalism, or asking who might have had the incentive). Authoritarian regimes can be media savvy, too. All that said, it's hard to see where a crackdown might come from. I don't think the Army, operationally, can do it. I don't think the police can reconstitute themselves, so what force takes point? Unless the force comes from within the heads of the Egyptian people themselves; here I'm reminded of the young street patroller, who, when asked "What do you want?" answered "security." Perhaps if the giant ammonia plant in Alexandria explodes (fire set by whom?) or the Museum of Antiquities burns (fire set by whom?), there might be some sort of stand-down. Who knows?

So... That's it for today. Soon, it will have been a long night for the Egyptian people. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

UPDATE Adding... Cairo with 17 million people, is not Teheran, with 7.8 million, or Baghdad, with 5.6 million. I just can't see the Army reducing it. Morever, the "Green Revolution" in Iran had a split popular base; the middle class thought they were more representative than they were; the regime cracked down, for sure, but there was plenty of class support for the mullahs, too. Baghdad was even more divided, by tribes and religions. However, it seems that in Egypt, the great majority of all classes are in agreement that Mubark must go. Moreover, the Egyptians are self-organizing across classes, unlike the Iranians and the Iraqis. [lambert blushes that anybody who actually knows the Middle East reads this, but these are the thoughts that occur to me, so correct them... ]

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Submitted by lambert on

A correspondent asks:

There are *two* flags visible in the protests, the Egyptian flag and a red and white one. No US news notice of the second flag. What does it represent?