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Feb 08 2011

My one comment on Egypt

If you aren’t aware of what’s been happening in Egypt over the past couple of weeks, you might want to check your pulse – you might be dead. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, inspired by a similar populist uprising in Tunisia, took to the streets to demand that their “president”, Hosini Mubarak, vacate his office. There are an abundance of news outlets giving much more informed and detailed analyses of the situation than I ever could, and so I will not insult you with my ham-fisted and largely ignorant take on the situation. However, there is something that I think I am in a reasonably comfortable position to comment on.

I mentioned the reality of Egypt briefly back in May, when I noted that Mubarak had renewed the state of emergency powers of his government for yet another iteration. I said this at the time:

Apparently there’s been a state of emergency in Egypt for the past 30 years, such that the emergency powers that allow the government to tap the phones of political opponents, crack down on free media and confiscate property have been on the books since then. Police are also allowed by law to beat protesters – good thing too, because as everyone knows, freedom rings with the sound of boots and truncheons on skulls. While the president has said he plans to remove the wire tapping, confiscation and media provisions, he still insists there’s a constant state of emergency, and that the laws are required “to battle terrorism”. Someone’s been paying attention to the United States – Patriot Act anyone?

I didn’t really give Egypt another thought until a couple of weeks ago when the mass protests started. New facts have come to light, namely the United States’ complicity, nay, de facto encouragement of Egypt’s corrupt leadership. As a result, when the protests started, and given the peaceful and reasonable way in which they began, I was firmly on the side of those demanding regime change. However, knowing my habit of running with the bias of the media (which is obviously going to be pro-democracy here in North America), I tried to keep my skeptical hat firmly screwed on.

It is entirely possible that the protests are fomented by groups that are trying to fragment Egypt and install a radical religious regime, or by those who are trying to destabilize the already-unstable Arab world. That is, at least, what the government has been claiming since day 1. Given that there is a middle class in Egypt, with a fairly secular legislature and history, it might be worthwhile listening to the “official” story rather than buying wholesale into the “rah rah democracy rah” story.

But then reports like this began surfacing:

The United Nations top human rights official and a chorus of European nations on Friday condemned attacks on reporters covering pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt, while TV station Al-Jazeera announced its offices had been stormed and burned and its website hacked. The Qatar-based satellite station — widely watched in the Middle East — portrayed Friday’s attack as an attempt by Egypt’s regime or its supporters to hinder Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the uprising in Egypt. It said the office was burned along with the equipment inside it.

Denmark’s TV2 channel on Thursday aired footage of an attack on veteran reporter Rasmus Tantholdt and his cameraman, Anders Brandt. The two were on their way to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria when they were stopped at a checkpoint and then chased by an angry mob of some 60 to 70 people wielding clubs. They sought shelter in a shop and are now safe in an Alexandria hotel, the station said.

Two Fox News Channel journalists were severely beaten by a mob near Tahrir Square on Wednesday. Correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig had retreated to a building, but someone threw a firebomb inside and the men were attacked as they rushed out, said Michael Clemente, Fox’s senior vice-president for news.

The Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini said its correspondent in Cairo was briefly hospitalized with a stab wound to the leg after being attacked by pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Tahrir Square. A Greek newspaper photographer was punched in the face.

The thing about journalism, at least in today’s reality of live-streamed video and immediate access to a diverse array of reporting, is that it’s nearly impossible to completely stifle a story. The other side of that reality is the fact that it’s never been easier for the average person to access multiple perspectives on the same story, the result of which is that even a casually-interested person can get a more holistic view of events with a minimum of effort. Whether or not people do this is another matter entirely, but they could easily.

When all the different perspectives begin telling a common story – that a huge section of the population in multiple cities in the country are all demanding the same thing, and are demonstrating peacefully and reasonably, it’s difficult to draw any other conclusion. It’s certainly difficult to imagine that this is a cleverly-orchestrated plot by Islamists (who up until now have used violence and religious bullying as their chief weapon) or Zionists (who would have little sway in a Muslim-majority country) to overthrow a benevolent government.

My rejection of the government’s position became absolute, however, when I heard of pro-Mubarak mobs being directed to attack journalists. Whatever credibility the government story may have had (and believe me, it wasn’t much) was immediately undermined by their immediate blacking out of media and internet, and the final nail in the coffin was their willingness to use violence and intimidation to try and silence the voices of dissent, let alone dispassionate viewers of events.

I have seen footage from Tahrir square. I have seen men nimbly avoiding molotov cocktails as they run forward to throw firebombs of their own. I have seen a man dragged from his vehicle and beaten by a crowd. I’ve seen both sides do things that I condemn. However, my attempts to remain neutral and castigate both sides is irreversibly undermined by the attempt of the government to silence dissent. I can understand the willingness of the anti-government protesters to strike back against the thugs who have been pressed into service to try and beat the protesters into submission, and I simply cannot remain objective and neutral when I see an intentionally-orchestrated campaign of violence perpetrated against people who are carrying cameras, trying to document the thing.

If a government has nothing to hide, it does not attempt to silence its critics. If a government is smart, it realizes that in today’s age of instantaneous relaying of information, trying to silence critics is a futile effort.

It seems that Hosini Mubarak’s government is neither of these things.

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