These things grow and shrink sort of organically, these movements of people on streets. It has something to do with planning, but it also has to do with particular circumstance: whether somehow two groups of 400 people can join together into a group of 800 people, suddenly becoming much more difficult to deal with on the street. And whether then that group of 800 people passes through the right neighborhood where people from another class might also join them, because they’re frustrated, too. Because of all these variables, it’s just so difficult to say which way this movement will go: whether it will gather momentum, or whether it will lose steam, assuming the regime sends the right messages or uses the right mixture of repressive tactics and compromise.
Do you think the Western press is doing a good job at explaining what’s going on?
Well, Egypt has a very sophisticated press, and I’ve gotten to know many of the political reporters here, and they really cover this stuff on such a higher level than the Western press. We sort of have these assumptions, we pop in this model and sort of repeat it in all these different countries: “There’s a street protest, and then either the government falls, or the government acts on its repressive impulses.” When you just follow that model, there might be some truth to it, but a lot of the nuance is lost.
You know, there’s all kinds of complicated deal-making going on in the different opposition parties, about what role they will play, and who will lead the different movements. I think the Egyptian papers do a much better job of capturing the balance of power. The Western press is all about what’s visible on the street and how that reflects what’s going to happen. But a regime that’s been in power for this long is not going to fall on the account of 30,000, or even 50,000, people in the street. The Egyptian government employs millions of people, and it has this huge army, so it’s not going to happen just because of that. It might inspire certain visions within the government, but those discussions are happening behind closed doors, and I don’t think those have really been talked about at all in the Western press. We haven’t heard a single report about the most senior uniformed officials within the military or within the state security forces. All we’ve heard about are maybe the chief interior minister, or the chief of intelligence. But what about the next rung down, the people who actually control the guys who shoot the guns?
I mean, foreign correspondence in Egypt has been better than most other places, because it is a major base abroad for newspapers and newswires. There are people here who know the situation. But then there has been a tremendous addition, of people who have just come in for the last week or so. I think it’s important to think about when you’re reading these accounts.
I complained last week about how so many of the first accounts in the U.S. press of the Tunisian revolution seemed to share a common theme: the use of social media in organizing protests.
Right, that’s an obvious story, because that’s something everyone can connect to. We can all relate to Twitter and Facebook. It’s harder for us to relate to, say, the particular relationship between civil servants and Islamist local government. That’s a more difficult story to tell than the story about how Twitter and Facebook helped make it all happen.
*[Update, Friday a.m.: Note that this conversation took place on Wednesday night; the situation has heated up since then, and as of Friday morning, Egyptian troops had indeed arrived on the scene, and the government had blocked Internet and cell phone service to its citizens. Latest updates at The NYT and The Guardian.]
[Update, Friday p.m.: See Stanton’s story for The National about the Friday, Jan. 28 protests here.]