by Emelie Laurin
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With more than 20 million Internet and 55 million mobile phone users, Egypt is the most connected country in the Arab World. Modern methods of communication played an integral part in the countrys recent breathtaking revolution. Emelie Laurin talked to Ahmed el-Fadley, a senior Egyptian diplomat, about Facebook, Al Jazeera, and a government that was not ready to hear its people speak out.
We Egyptians take pride in our history and culture. But we never shy away from self-criticism, says Ahmed el-Fadley. Maybe it is the government defining what is critique and was is not; what is an insult and what is not. Maybe those definitions make us appear very strict compared to other countries. But we werent ready. The government was not ready to deal with the consequences of letting people speak freely online or watching dubious TV channels, because if you open up like that, youll have to engage, to get involved. The government didnt realize that.
With more than 20 million Internet and 55 million mobile phone users, Egypt is the most connected country in the Arab World. Communities like Facebook and Twitter are becoming increasingly popular, and the number of people consuming international satellite TV is growing every day. Ahmed is keen on emphasizing that the Egyptian government never sought to prevent its people from accessing the rest of the world, or from voicing their opinions publicly.
The Egyptian government has provided its people with the basic infrastructure to go online and to connect with the world, be it with mobile phones, Internet, satellite TV or whatever. Imagine those enormous investments, who would be able to do that in Egypt aside from the government? The government provided its people with that basic service, but the government did no cease to be the one and only legitimate institution to create laws in Egypt. The government was still the one to set the rules of the game. Some people the angry middle class youth forgot that.
Ahmeds blunt description of media and freedom of expression in Egypt paints a picture of a somewhat laissez-faire government policy. In Egypt, very basic freedoms such as freedom to go online do exist, while critiques that citizens may see as justified could be construed as an insult to the government, an insult punishable by the heavily criticized Egyptian Media Law.
The name of the game is to let them say what they want to say but also to let the government do what it wants to do. Building infrastructure is part of giving people freedom of speech, but that does not mean that the government has to listen to that speech. It does not mean unlimited freedom either. It does mean, however, that the government should have been more prepared - prepared to deal with the impact of Internet and TV. There is no detailed, reliable data on the spread of internet usage over generations and social groups in Egypt, but it is a fairly reasonable assumption to make that internet is more common among the upper layers of the Egyptian society, whereas satellite TV remains a form of media available to almost everyone.
People were triggered by the scenes reported by international media. I am not talking about the Internet now. Internet was just a tool to organize the demonstrations but it was not internet as such that triggered the silent majority to take to the streets. It was the international news media with its broadcast of sensational rather than objective reporting that triggered people.
Revolutions are often a mayhem of causalities, deaths and burning buildings. What was different this time around in Egypt was the rate and the magnitude, intensified by the availability of technical tools to trigger the masses. As a way of making use of that tool, dates and places for demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria were announced on Facebook at the very beginning of the turmoil in Egypt. Aware of that fact and of the recent Tunisian experience, the Egyptian government and the army did indeed expect chaos to erupt, but not the kind of veritable chaos that eventually unfolded during the days to follow. By way of attempting to manage the critical situation, the Egyptian government ordered the shut-down of the Cairo office of a TV channel frequently scapegoated for being one-sided, if not biased: Al Jazeera.
The media footage of al Jazeera was not the problem. It was the same as on all the other channels reporting on the events in Egypt. It was the commentary of al Jazeera that was the problem. It was always different from all other channels in the sense that they were involved. They were announcing the time and place of demonstrations. To me, that was not reporting. That was propagating. So frankly speaking, I understand why the government banned them from working. But the government never banned its people from watching Al Jazeera.
It is not only the Egyptian government that fears the impact that Al Jazeera may have on its audience. For years, the channel has been banned from operating in Saudi Arabia. Authorities on the West Bank have repeatedly tried to crack down on the channel. Still, it is the most popular pan-Arab TV channel and similar to any other media outlet with an editorial policy, it has an agenda. This ranges from taking sides in the Israeli-Arab conflict, or as in February 2011, broadcasting material from Egypt 24-7 with a commentary that was siding a little bit too much with the people for the Egyptian government to remain passive.
Whatever actions are taken, even if the audiovisual material from a revolution is the same today as it was 50 years ago, the time between hearing and seeing something happen, and reacting to it, is so short that everything happens real time. Revolutions have gone live, leaving the Egyptian state and society with a lot to learn:
This is not a one-time event. It is a continuation, a transition phase from one step to another. Look at Egypt in 1919 and the revolts against the British Occupation. That was a strive for national independence, for freedom. Look at the 1952 Free Officers Movements that started as a military coup détat and turned into a popular freedom movement against monarchy. Look at Egypt in February 2011. Everybody knew change was coming. The only question was when and how, with the surprising part being the how. It turned out to be a part of that continuity of our history. Today, the Egyptians are completing the picture. The government and the society is getting ready, ready for freedom of speech.