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The (R)Evolution of Al Ahram

February 20, 2011

Reading the news in Cairo. Photo: Sophie Peterson.

Al-Ahram, the state-controlled newspaper with the highest circulation, apologized Feb. 13th to the Egyptian people for it’s decades of “bias in favor of the corrupt regime” and pledged for the future “to always side with the legitimate demands of the people” and to become “the conscience of this nation”.

In so doing, it took a further step toward distancing itself from the government for whom it had so long been a mouthpiece. It has, like electronic state media, been driven by uncertainty about its role in the new Egypt the pro-democracy protesters are trying to create.

Since well before the Mubarak regime, the Arabic press had served as apologist for the rulers of Egypt. The function of the press, following lines laid down as far back as the Nasser regime, was to serve as the voice through which the paternal state spoke to its literate children (while state television served as its voice to the nonliterate population).

On the one hand, the press was supposed to help bind the people of Egypt together by sharing with them common content and a common perspective on the state, and make them aware through the common practice of reading the news, that they were members of a collective Egyptian nation, rather than dominated by a foreign power as they had been more-or-less since the Ptolemies.

In addition, this common perspective included a coherent narrative that idealized Hosni Mubarak personally. I would argue that, as Akhil Gupta has claimed for India, the state narrative blamed the sufferings of the common man on the corruption of petty bureaucrats, and the anti-Egyptian machinations of external actors like the Zionists (variously construed) and Iran, and portrayed the president as engaged in a heroic struggle to overcome these besetting ills.

The idealization of Mubarak was graphically revealed to the world in the famous photograph in which Pres­i­dent Mubarak was photoshopped from a position trail­ing Obama, Netanyahu, Abbas and King Abdul­lah walk­ing in the White House, to a position in which he was leading the group.

On the other hand, by putting a positive spin on almost every action of the state, and by selective silence about criticisms and protests against the state, the state press isolated critics of the regime—even though they were almost everywhere. It may be that you and everyone you knew hated the Mubarak regime, but you could not be sure of the millions of other Egyptian citizens with whom you have no direct intercourse but “know” only through media representation.

Its early coverage of the Tahrir protests fit this model well. On Jan. 26 Al Ahram reported that there had been protests in Lebanon the previous day, but not in Tahrir Square. It noted that citizens had celebrated Police Day by exchanging “chocolate and flowers” with policemen.

Four days later, on Jan. 30th, Al Ahram reporters signed a letter asking the paper’s editor asking that the newspaper distance itself from the government. But on Feb 3 the front page headline of Al-Ahram Arabic daily read “Millions march in support of Mubarak”

After mobile phones and Inter­net con­nec­tion were restored, and Al Jazeera found a way to con­tinue broad­cast­ing, Al-Ahram found it more and more difficult to sustain its position that the protests were the product of a few hundred agitators paid by foreign powers and that the state had everything under control

Finally, on Feb. 7 Al Ahram finally changed its narrative when the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Osama Saraya hailed the “nobil­ity” of what he described as a “rev­o­lu­tion” and demanded that the gov­ern­ment embark of irre­versible con­sti­tu­tional and leg­isla­tive changes. A few days later, on Feb 12, the newspaper’s headline trumpeted “The people have ousted the regime.”

The changes have not gone unnoticed. “[T]he Egyptian media landscape is witnessing the preambles of a revolution that may radically change the past equations and restore to the Egyptian media its leading role that it had lost but with a new spirit, a higher level of freedoms, and total liberation from the pressures of hegemony that took it to extremely low professional levels,” wrote Abdel Beri-Atwan in a Feb. 15 editorial in the Palestinian-owned newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi.

But does this mark real change? Or is Al-Ahram merely awaiting a new regime to which to give voice.

In his study of media during the Iranian revolution, William O. Beeman argued that during the revolution, all the state media—press, radio and television—seemed to undergo extraordinary transformations. Yet, once the revolution had taken place, within six months, the media returned to its familiar, well-established cultural role in Iranian society as a mouthpiece of and for the state.

But there’s one difference between Egypt in the 21st century and Iran in the 20th: social media. Social media allows people to bypass state and private media to connect, and to appropriate and comment on those very media representations. It allows citizens to make one another aware thay others do share common criticisms of the regime.

Certainly, social media played a significant role in this regard in the uprising. But Internet penetration in Egypt is only 17-20 percent, so its hard to know if these new media will really initiate significant structural changes in Egypt’s media ecology. Al Ahram is an interesting test case to see just how far reaching the changes initiated by the so-called Twitter revolution really are.

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