The View From Elsewhere


Put a German language newspaper article through a translation site and see if what comes out makes any sense. There’s a world of media and analysis that is inaccessible to monolingual English speakers. The debates that are taking place in global media don’t necessarily have the same parameters as those defined by the big media most familiar to Australian readers — and that’s what makes them so interesting.

In a new regular column, New Matilda’s polyglot European media correspondent, Charles McPhedran, will review what’s going on in the media beyond the Anglosphere. This week, he looks at responses to the uprising in Egypt.

They’ve been holding Tahrir Square for over a week now, building barricades, taking bullets: the revolting Egyptian youth. Indeed, it’s the youth across the Arab world — roughly two thirds of the region’s population — who are the force behind the demonstrations in the Middle East, says the international media. El Pais lists their achievements: Hosni Mubarak now has his back to the wall; Ben Ali has fled from Tunisia; the president of Yemen won’t run for reelection; a State of Emergency is to be lifted after 19 years in Algeria.

The Madrid based centre-left paper quotes an Egyptian social worker: "we’ve spent years suffering from corruption, abuses of power, and lack of opportunities. Little by little we saw that we were going nowhere, the future wasn’t looking good … After the police murdered the boy in Alexandria and things started happening in Tunisia, we felt that we, too, could maybe change things."

In the Berliner Zeitung, meanwhile, Egyptian author Khaled Alkhamissi eulogises the Egyptian youth, describing how after being attacked by water cannons on Tahir Square, protestors cleaned up after the authorities. "I don’t believe that the young people of the 1968 revolt in Europe cleaned the streets up after the police bashed them," writes Alkhamassi.

While attention has been focussed on Egypt this week, Algeria continues to be among the north African nations most likely to experience a popular insurrection.

El Watan, long an independent voice in the north African nation, reported on Sunday that police attacked a sit-in demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labour, with 10 protestors injured, more knocked unconscious. The protest, which aimed to present demands for jobs to the minister, also saw an unemployed man try to set himself on fire, causing panic. Dousing himself in petrol, the 30 something father was taken away in an ambulance "unceasingly denouncing the hogra" (a word used in Algerian Arabic to characterize the brutal contempt of police and rulers for the people). There have been dozens of self-immolations since the start of the year in Algeria, and riots and demonstrations against the government have hardly let up since 5 January.

Meanwhile, a bloody nose for the French government following the Tunisian revolution. Investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîne (which isn’t online) has discovered that as riots raged in Tunis, the French foreign minister was on a junket in Tunisia sponsored by the Ben Ali family. Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has acknowledged that she was wined, dined and flown around the country by the brother-in-law of Ben Ali, (Benhassen Trabelsi) and a mate of his.

"He’s an old friend," responds MAM (as she’s called snidely by the French media), adding that she paid for the trip, which came just before she offered to help lend out the French riot police to help out her old mate’s uncle in law, dictator Ben Ali.

That story, and another in online magazine Rue 89 — revealing two French police bosses instructed their Egyptian colleagues in how to manage crowds just three months ago — must have made even the brazen Nicolas Sarkozy blush over his morning cereal.

Many Italians are also embarrassed following the strong defence of Mubarak by Silvio Berlusconi. Yet Berlusconi’s own media empire seems undaunted by the fuss overseas. Berlusconi, of course, called Mubarak "very sage and a strong point of reference for the Middle East" and added he hoped the leader could cling on, prompting groans from the rest of the EU — who feared that Berlusconi was actually mostly talking about himself in the wake of il caso Ruby.

The Berlusconi clan’s Il Giornale, however, stoutly defends Hosni Mubarak. "It’s too easy to call a personality like Mubarak, who’s no saint, a dictator," crows the newspaper, which adds helpfully that Egypt is vastly more democratic than North Korea. The article goes on to provide a series of facts that seem to contradict its overall argument — including the assertion that the Mubarak family has accumulated an impressive US$40-70 million in investments, mostly in the United States.

More generally, there’s been reflection on what the events in the Middle East mean for Western foreign policy. Andreas Zielcke in the left-liberal, Munich based Süddeutsche Zeitung (not online) offers surprising praise for the words of George W. Bush. Quoting a 2005 speech from Bush, which argued that only human freedom can combat hate and violence, Zielcke writes that it was not Bush’s justification of the invasion on the grounds of human rights abuse that prompted disdain of the President. Rather, it was the obviousness of the true reasons for the invasion: energy supply and geopolitics.

The writer takes up Immanuel Kant’s essay "Perpetual Peace", claiming that when all nations are freed from tyranny, perpetual peace and harmony will follow; for "tyrannies are the source of extremism and political violence". However, Kant’s argument in the essay contained a crucial contradiction. While "Perpetual Peace" argued that "republican" (or free) relations had to be promoted everywhere by free nations, it also forbade interference in the affairs of nation states.

Trying to negotiate this tricky moral dilemma should be the basis of Western foreign policy, argues Zielcke, "for the self-interest of great powers always accords with their moral and political views". 200 years after Kant, strict non-interference in the affairs of other nations is impossible, with globalisation of trade and communications already entrenched. So Western nations should avoid military interference and promote universal human rights.

Yet the last few weeks have shown that this has rarely occurred in practice; hence the public disgrace suffered by the United States and France due to their support for Middle Eastern dictators.

America’s disgrace was long coming, writes philosopher Enrique Dussel in the leftist Mexico City based Jornada. The foreign policy of the United States has always followed the formula set out by master strategist Henry Kissenger: "promote the economic and geopolitical interests of the United States, in the guise of universal normative values," such as freedom of expression or human rights.

Furthermore, claims of Western ideologues that allies such as Mubarak are confronting violent Muslim extremism in the region have been exposed as lies: images of Egyptian protestors peacefully praying on their knees before army tanks have reminded the world of Tiannamen Square. And the daily defiance by Egyptians of Mubarak’s curfew reminds Latin Americans in particular of the lead-up to the 2001 revolution in Argentina, where a corrupt government that the people felt had lost its legitimacy was eventually replaced by a much more popular one: that of the late Néstor Kirchner.

While the political class around the world switch on to Al Jazeera to follow events in the Middle East, the rest of the population is tuning out, according to the centrist French weekly Point. The audience for the big two evening news bulletins in France has fallen by roughly a quarter since the Tunisian revolution triggered the unrest in the Middle East. Meanwhile lifestyle shows are booming, and news editors are praying for a return of snow — which generally ups the ratings in France.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.