This morning Al Jazeera reported that Egyptian state TV is urging residents to turn off Al Jazeera’s news coverage, claiming it is biased (here’s the report on the Huff Post). Al Jazeera English did a split screen a moment ago (8:10am CST) with Egyptian state TV showing a military leader talking reasonably with protesters, urging them to obey the curfew and go home. The Al Jazeera video feed focused on the thousands of protesters in the central square in Cairo, chanting for the end of the regime, while being buzzed by military jets. (There’s a history to this friction.)
If you’ve been paying attention to news coverage of these events, you know the contrast between American media and Al Jazeera is equally striking. On Friday, I watched as CNN showed live footage of a small group of protesters lobbing rocks at the police (who were, at that time, still a street presence) while Al Jazeera was showing a huge group of peaceful protesters occupying Cairo’s central square and the 6th October bridge. Al Jazeera’s headline has been “Anger in Egypt,” while CNN reports “fear,” “uncertainty,” and “anarchy.” (What was most striking about the CNN video was the absence of mention that the police both have a history of brutal repression of the population and massive corruption, and that they were–that day–beating citizens with billy clubs, shooting live rounds and more often instigating these incidents of violence.)
Last night, with police absent and the military focused on the thousands in downtown Cairo, the media began to report the appearance of bands of “thugs” roaming the wealthy suburbs, stealing and looting. Al Jazeera was quick to point out that “thug” is an English translation of a slur most commonly used to refer to Egypt’s police. Indeed, they reported that communities in the suburbs were forming “neighborhood watches” of young men, armed with primitive weapons (e.g., a chair leg, a kitchen knife) who were checking all motorists to ensure they have a good reason to enter the area. [And they were quick to say these were citizen reports pouring in by phone, and not confirmed.] Furthermore, Al Jazeera reported that neighborhood watches had detained some of these thugs, only to find ID cards identifying them as members of the
state security forces Interior Ministry. The tactic of using military and security forces to cause civil disorder to convince citizens that they need to retain the current administration is not unusual and has been reported recently in Tunisia. (It was also reported that the police are releasing criminals in Egypt from the jails to terrorize the population.) Meanwhile, CBS news and then CNN reported that the population was turning on itself, burning, looting and stealing. No mention of the reports that the administration was behind these thugs. Confusingly, both the robbers and the neighborhood watchers were described as “thugs,” equivocating an emergent civil order with civil disorder.
And at the end of it, that’s my point here: the US news media are collapsing evidence of civil order (as grassroots as it may be) with civil disorder.
Why is this?
Ignorance is one option. Witness this Fox News map of the middle east as evidence.
How it is that Egypt moved in space to occupy Iraq is a mystery.
Another option is that American interests in Egypt’s ruling order (most especially, their role in relations between Middle East countries and Israel) have influenced how the media report these events. Casting protesters as chaotic, thuggish or disordered suggests they should not be given the full right to self-determination and the US could thus carve out support for their role in deciding what should happen next.
Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that Al Jazeera is free of bias. In fact, if you’re interested in the inner workings of the channel, watch the fascinating documentary Control Room, although it is a few years old. And I am not claiming that ordinary citizens are not looting or stealing. In fact, it seems clear that this is the case. What would you expect when 20% of people live below the poverty line, and 18.5% of the population live on less than $2 per day and police are suddenly absent?