The situation on the ground in Egypt is changing rapidly. So fast that whatever is news right now on Friday morning Australian time is likely to be quickly superseded, perhaps by the time you’re reading this.
It’s possible that the calls for Hosni Mubarak to step down will have been answered by the President’s actual resignation rather than a promise to stand down in advance of an election later in the year — but there are plenty of other scenarios which may play out after a major demonstration planned for Friday Egyptian time that protestors are describing as the deadline for Mubarak’s departure.
If you’re having trouble keeping up, the Mother Jones Explainer is a very good start. If you’re in a real rush, here’s A Guide How Not To Say Stupid Stuff About Egypt. The Guardian also has a live blog dedicated to the protests which is regularly updated. To help you get your bearings, the New York Times has a great interactive map of the protests.
Early in the piece, the New York Times quickly moved to name the Egypt uprising Al Jazeera’s "moment". This backgrounder on AJ and its role in the Arab world frames AJ’s coverage of Egypt as the culmination of years of coverage and upholds its significance "not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago. That narrative has long been implicit in the channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments."
See Alex Pareene in Salon for more on the network’s performance over the first days of the protests.
While there’s no doubt that Al Jazeera has been at the leading edge of coverage of Egypt, there have been restrictions on its ability to report events on the ground. The AJ news bureau in Cairo has been shut and its signal on Nilesat has been blocked so that the network can’t broadcast within Egypt. The network continues to report closely on the protests and has set up new broadcast frequencies and avenues for journalists, bloggers and activists to submit content.They are also posting photos on Flickr for other media to use.
It’s not just Al Jazeera whose journalists have been curtailed, journalists from around the world are reportedly being targetted in violent attacks. Jack Shenker, the Guardian’s reporter in Egypt was beaten by police while reporting and recorded audio of the beating, a BBC journalist was arrested and beaten by Egyptian cops, and there have been numerous other incidents including assaults and threats against ABC Journalists Mark Corcoran and Ben Knight.
Reporters Without Borders are describing the situation now as an "all out witch-hunt against media".
Given the fast-moving nature of the events in Egypt and the difficulties journalists working for big media are facing, you’d be forgiven for thinking that conditions were ripe for the flourishing of social media, citizen journalism and blogging. Not exactly.
The Internet Society published the following on 29 January: "At this point (ref CircleID), 91 per cent of Egypt’s Internet networks are down. Virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide." Here‘s what Cnet had to say about the situation. The Egyptian Government reversed the so-called "kill switch" on Wednesday and mobile and internet networks are back online. (Also on Wednesday, Anonymous shut down Egyptian government websites in support of the protesters.)
As a result there has been less first-hand reportage available online since the protests started on 25 January than there might have been.
Worryingly, Mother Jones reports that phone access appeared to have been selectively restricted for activists: "An interview with Bahgat [an Egyptian human rights activist], however, reveals that Vodafone, and potentially Egypt’s other mobile network operators, may have selectively severed phone access for human rights defenders, lawyers, and political activists starting on Tuesday and continuing into the present."
Vodfaone has also admitted to sending pro-Mubarak propoganda to its customers via text message.
Even though there have been problems accessing communications technology, there’s plenty of information available on Twitter and Facebook. Enter the hashtag #jan25 and you’ll summon up vast numbers of tweets from within Egypt and around the world.
The New York Times has put together a list of on-the-ground Twitter sources in Egypt which you can follow here.
Even with lists like this, how to navigate the volume of material available is another question. The Nieman Journalism Lab, in a post about curating social media content about Egypt, phrases the difficulty succinctly:
"One of the biggest challenges in covering the unrest in Egypt — or, for that matter, in covering any event that’s in some way "foreign" — is determining who can provide relevant and accurate news about the event. To curate content is in large part to curate expertise; faced with a frenzy of news updates — some of them true, some of them false, some of them in-between — how do you know which updates, and whose updates, to listen to? How do you know whom to trust?"
This post points to US tech start up Sulia’s topic channels, which curate expert panels on current topics. Here’s their channel on the protests in Egypt.
The role of social media in actually mobilising protesters is up for grabs, as it was in Iran. Mona Eltahawy, who is profiled by Jezebel here, says it’s Generation Facebook who kickstarted the movement and points to the power of online technologies to create communities of dissent.
She writes: "Too many have rushed in to explain the Arab world to itself. "You like your strongman leader," we’re told. "You’re passive, and apathetic." But a group of young online dissidents dissolved those myths. For at least five years now, they’ve been nimbly moving from the "real" to the "virtual" world where their blogs and Facebook updates and notes and, more recently, tweets offered a self-expression that may have at times been narcissistic but for many Arab youths signalled the triumph of "I". I count, they said again and again." (Wired is now reporting that one of these Facebook organisers may have been arrested.)
Malcolm Gladwell isn’t having a bar of it. He writes: "Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last summer in The New Yorker, "high risk" social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along."
Throughout the protests, independent media outlets have still managed to deliver gripping first hand accounts what’s happening in Egypt. Democracy Now’s Sharif Abdel Kouddos has been reporting live from Cairo and Mother Jones continues to post news from across Egypt. There’s top notch analysis too at Jadaliyya, a group blog produced by writers affiliated with the Arab Studies Journal and plenty of breaking news on The Arabist.
Here at New Matilda read Australian-Egyptian journalist Nadyat El Gawley‘s take on what the uprising means for Egypatians here, and Cairo-based student Maryah Converse’s eyewitness account of events on the ground.
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