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The ’60 Minutes’ as-Sisi Interview as Media Event

January 29, 2019

untitled design(1)“What was he thinking?” is the question people keep asking about General as-Sisi’s Jan. 6 interview on 60 Minutes.

It was interesting to watch the interview, which was heavily edited and used strong anti-regime voices to contextualize as-Sisi’s comments, but even more interesting to look at how the metadiscourses generated by the interview turned it into a media event.

The term “media event” is most commonly used as a synonym for Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-event” an event or activity conducted for the purpose of media publicity, that is, something that wouldn’t really be an event if the media were not present. I prefer to use Boorstin’s term and to reserve media event for news stories that become events by virtue of their mediated impact.

In the largest sense, of course, all news stories are communicative acts in which someone says something to someone through some medium with some effect, and these communicative acts take place within communicative events–recognition of which is the basis of the ethnography of communication. But communicative acts and events are governed by sets of norms and genre rules that give them a sense of standardization and regularity. For a news story, one of these norms is that news is a flow of information about something. News is usually understood as a channel through which information flows, rather than an event in itself.

Except when the publication of the information itself becomes news, becomes something that must itself be reported. This can happen because an investigative story explodes into the mediascape and into public discourse, becoming the basis for other news stories, rebuttals, investigations, dinner conversations, web page trolling, memes, and so forth.

But it isn’t always serendipitous. Media producers often actively seek to create conditions for stories break out into the public sphere.

So in using media event to refer to the as-Sisi interview, I am writing about how the news interview, itself a performance with specific genre characteristics, became itself the basis of news stories and commentaries, before fading into relative obscurity as most media events eventually do. In this sense, the news interview with as-Sisi became a media event as it became reframed by 60 Minutes, CBS News and others as “the story Egypt didn’t want you to see”, and as its real or purported effect in the world becomes a story in itself.

There are multiple overlapping levels of mediated political performances taking place here. As a heuristic, I’ll identify four:

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The Internet & Democracy: Have We Learned Anything?

December 18, 2018

Connected In Cairo headersIn the first wake of the Egyptian uprisings, and their framing as a “Facebook” revolution or Twitter revolution or “social media revolution” there was a lot of Utopian discourse about the power of social media to create political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy.

Where are we now in our understanding of the role of the Internet in social movements, democratization and political transformation?

The Internet is a “great missed opportunity” for democratic political action and democratization, argues Stephen Coleman in his book Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy? (Polity 2017). Coleman’s “missed opportunity” is largely seen as a failure by governments–especially in democratic countries –to use the Internet to reconfigure political practice and connect with citizens.

Those citizens themselves, on the other hand, have adapted their own political practices to the digital era in many ways. Coleman insists that citizens are not masses being affected by technologies of communication but active agents who think about
political agendas and make judgments.

One of the great strengths of Coleman’s work is thus that he abandons technological determinism–“what is the Internet doing to democracy?”–in favor of asking what political actors are doing with the Internet. His answer: not enough.

The core of Coleman’s argument is in Chapter 3, where he lays out six strategies through which the Internet enables–or can enable–citizens to effectively engage in politics:

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Getting Into Grad School

December 11, 2018

Application lettersThis might seem like an odd post because it is only tangentially related to Egypt. But it is based on lessons learned while I was the director of the graduate program in Sociology-Anthropology at the American University in Cairo. These lessons were learned as I went through the process of weeding more than a hundred applications to our graduate program every year, and these lessons helped me advise our students on how to present themselves so that their substantial accomplishments will show to the best effect. And it worked: many of the students I advised got into top notch graduate schools in Europe, North America and Asia.

I thought about this because a student asked me for a letter of recommendation to a graduate program recently, and as part of the package she sent me her “cover letter.” That’s what she called it. And that’s what it read like. And I e-mailed her and suggested she make some substantive changes to her application letter.

I’ve given this talk a hundred times, but I’ve never written it down before. Here it is:

A letter to graduate school is different than a letter applying to an undergraduate program. When you write to a graduate program you applying to a specific group of specialists in a field of research and asking them to invest a great deal of time and money in you, instead of one of the many other applicants for the program. Your application letter is not a cover letter for your c.v.; it is an advertisement of what you have to offer, an explanation to busy graduate faculty of why you should be one of the handful of students they accept into their program this year.

To that end, I usually advise students that a letter to a grad program should serve at least four functions:

  1. First, it should provide a hook, something that makes you stand out.
  2. Second, it should explain and expand on the accomplishments that are just bullet points on the resume.
  3. Third, it should explain not just why you want to study the field you are applying to, but why you want to study that subject with them, in their particular graduate program.
  4. And finally, it should speak to what you will bring to the program.

Let’s take each of these separately.

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Changing Its Tune

December 4, 2018

Back in 2012 I blogged about MidEast Tunes (mideasttunes.com) one of the largest Arabic music sites in the world. I just updated my old post to fix the broken links–they changed their url from mideasttunes.org to mideasttunes.com)–and discovered that the site has gotten bigger and better.

Founded in Beirut in 2010 by an organization called MidEast Youth, the site is another of the myriad efforts to leverage social media as a tool for progressive social change in the Arab World and beyond.

Now you can create playlists, share what you are listening to Facebook and other social media, and even listen off-line.

They also have an app, so you can be mobile with your music.

Get it on the app store
Get it on Google play

Hacking the Homeland Hack

November 27, 2018

Untitled designEarlier this year I published a post describing how back in 2015 three artists  — Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Stone — were hired to create background graffiti for the sets of the TV show Homeland, and decided to express their disdain for the way the show represents Arabs in general, and Muslim Arabs in particular, by inserting messages that broke the fourth wall and critiqued the program in which they appeared.

The artists took credit for the act as soon as the show had aired, and it came to be called “the Homeland Hack,” and much celebrated by activists/artists.

So celebrated that German artists David Krippendorf decided to do a “homage” to the hack. He created an installation called “This Show Does Not Represent the View of the Artist,” a small series of silkscreens that reproduce the graffiti from the hack in gold on silk. This art is in line with much of Krippendorf’s other work, which involves appropriating images from films and media and recontextualizing them to expose and rearticulate  the ideologies that pervade them.

In a less dramatic, more rareified and certainly better compensated way, Krippendorf’s work is inspired by the same impulse that inspired the Homeland hack–which is why he wanted to make an homage to it.

The original artists were deeply offended that their work was appropriated and used without their permission. So they confronted the artist.

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Reporting On Egypt, From China

November 20, 2018

Untitled designThere is an account in Chapter Three of Pál Nyíri’s Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World in which a couple of Chinese correspondents reflect on their reporting of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

They explained that their Western colleagues saw the uprisings, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and the subsequent political chaos as the story of a failed transition to democracy, and this view framed the news stories they wrote.

The Chinese journalists, on the other hand, saw the revolution as the collapse of a great country after the ouster of the strong authority who held it together.

The point of these reflections was that both American and Chinese journalists can struggle to work professionally, and report honestly and accurately, while telling their audiences quite different “truths” rooted in the very different political, economic and historical contexts that make their news meaningful.

For the Chinese correspondents, their experience of the Egyptian uprisings and their aftermath, and the stories they tell about it, offer a cautionary tale relevant to audiences back home, and the wider world: there are worse things that can happen to a country than not having democracy.

I find this story compelling because it offers a more nuanced approach to understanding how different regimes of truth generate different kinds of news than simplistic accounts that reduce ideologies to elementary categories like “free,” “not free,” and “partially free.” (I previously reviewed a paper by Ying Roselyn Du that does just this).

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Is As-Sisi Seeking Legitimization Through Repression?

November 13, 2018

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…“Sisi sworn in for second Egyptian presidential term amid crackdown on critics,” read the headline of the Reuter story on President As-Sisi assuming his second term in office. The Guardian headline was similar: “Egypt’s Sisi is sworn in for a second term, amid crackdown on dissent”

As-Sisi rode to power in 2013 on a wave of enthusiasm. Here, it was hoped, was someone who could bring back stability, improve the economy and be a secular president for all Egyptians. As I wrote elsewhere, reflecting on post-uprising Egypt through the lens of liminality theory:

Egypt’s quest is to find a “ritual specialist” to end this period of liminality by initiating the “decline and fall into structure and law”—the new order that will replace the old. Al-Sisi’s capacity to fulfill this role depends on his ability to present an authoritative narrative of order for the new Egypt…

In the event, as-Sisi’s regime has attempted to crush all forms of dissent, targeting Islamists, critics, activists, human rights organisations and journalists.

Among those arrested during the swearing-in period:

  • Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (Feb. 14), physician and former presidential candidate, accused of leading a terrorist organisation .and spreading false news inside and outside the country
  • Moataz Wadnan (Feb 23), journalist, accused of publishing false news that incites against the state (apparently for interviewing Hisham Geneina), and of joining an illegal group that aims to disrupt state institutions.
  • Adel Sabry (Apr. 3), editor in chief of Masr-al-Arabia, a news web site, for spreading false news by republishing a New York Times article about alleged irregularities during the 2018 presidential election
  • Hisham Geneina (April 24), former head of the Central Auditing Authority, accused of spreading news that harms the armed forces.
  • Shady Abou Zeid (May 6), comedian and vlogger, accused of joining an outlawed group and spreading false news.
  • Amal Fathy (May 11), activist and actress. Accused of membership in a terrorist organization, calling for terrorist acts over the internet, and spreading false news that “damages the public order and harms national security” (apparently for complaining on social media about being sexually harassed by two policemen).
  • Shady Ghazaly Harb (May 15), political activist, accused accused of insulting the president and spreading false news with the intent of destabilizing social peace and national security
  • Haitham Mohamedeen (May 17), activist and human rights lawyer, accused of joining a terrorist organisation and calling for the overthrow of the regime by publishing false news.
  • Ismail Al-Iskandrani (May 22), journalist and social researcher, sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly belonging to an illegal organization and spreading false news regarding national security in Sinai.
  • Wael Abbas (May 23), blogger and journalist. Accused of joining a banned group.
  • Mona el-Mazboh (May 31), Lebanese tourist, accused of deliberately spreading false rumors that are harmful to society and infringing upon religion for posting a video about being harassed and cheated in Egypt.

Yet even as the regime engaged in this effort to silence protests,  as-Sisi proffered in his swearing-in speech a narrative on inclusiveness:

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…

I assure you that accepting the other and creating common spaces between us will be my biggest concern to achieve consensus, social peace and real political development in addition to our economic development…

I will not exclude anyone from this common space except those who chose violence, terrorism and extremist thought as a way to impose their will…

I think there is more going on here than mere hypocracy. This juxtaposition of rhetorical commitment to inclusivity and the common good while engaging in increased arrests and incarcerations (and, let’s face it, torture), made me think about an argument on repression and legitimization in a (relatively) recent article by Mirjam Edel and Maria Josua in the journal Democracy.

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