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Mubarak Speaks–But Not Through Egyptian Media

April 15, 2011

It is not really surprising that, a few days before his arrest, Hosni Mubarak–beleaguered by the news that one hundred thousand people turned out to demand his prosecution and that those of  his former cronies still in power seemed to be listening to them–issued a statement defending himself and calling accusations of corruption false.

What is surprising is that he should do it on Al-Arabiya satellite channel.

Al Arabiya (“The Arabic One”) is a UAE Arabic language television news channel headquartered in Dubai. Launched in 2003, Al Arabiya has become one of the top pan-Arab stations, rivaling to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera in some markets.

So why did Mubarak, recording his message in luxurious, upscale Sharm al-Sheikh,  choose a non-Egyptian channel available only by subscription for his message when Egypt’s state-run TV operates 2 national and 6 regional terrestrial networks as well as about 20 private satellite channels any of which would have been more than happy to broadcast his message?

One possibility being espoused in editorials and popular opinion is that it was simple arrogance.

Abdel-Beri Atwan, Chief Editor of the Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily newspaper said in an editorial, “President Mubarak is still acting with that same arrogance he mastered throughout the thirty years during which he and his family controlled the country, and is dealing with the Egyptian people and their revolutionaries as though they were ignorant and underage.”

Arrogance? Perhaps. But perhaps also uncertainty.

The Egyptian media was, after the police, one of the absolute certainties upon which the regime could rely. The state media was a sycophantic voice of and for the regime in every circumstance, the independent media were subject to laws that made it a criminal offense to criticize the president or his family, and the opposition newspapers were paper tigers.

Everything changed after his resignation. Editors in the official media scrambled to apologize for decades of propaganda. Even former Al-Ahram editor Usama Saraya, who had endured international ridicule for digitally enhancing photos of the president to “express” his leadership, did an about-face and lauded the fall of the regime. And even if they had not to a man (and they were almost all men) turned on him, they were all replaced by the Supreme Council anyway.

It seems to me very plausible that Hosni Mubarak was simply too uncertain of how his statements would be reported and contextualized by Egyptian media; that he might have worried that Egyptian media would deliberately contextualize or comment on his statements in critical ways in order to distance themselves from charges of being sympathetic to the ruler.

Whatever the reasons, Mubarak made a mistake, I think. If there remains a large contingent of Egyptians still loyal–or at least sympathetic–to the president, they are likely to be among the urban and regional middle classes who suffered economically under the chaos of the protests. Most of them have always gotten their news and information from state media, and they are unlikely to spend the money needed to be subscribers to Al-Arabiya.

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