Protests continue to roil Egypt, with tense standoffs between security forces and protestors, and 200-300 protestors (mostly Muslim Brothers) arrested. The bad news: repression was fierce. Ayman Nour's
sentence to five years in jail was reaffirmed, putting Mubarak's main
electoral competitor in a highly symbolic jail cell. The less bad news: one of the judges (Mahmoud Mekki) was found innocent of the charges of damaging Egypt's national security by publicizing irregularities in the election. Hisham Bastawisi, the other judge, who could not sit for the verdict after suffering a heart attack, was reprimanded, but evidently will not lose his job. These verdicts might be seen as a partial victory for the protestors, though I've not yet heard much about how they are in fact being read. (The al-Quds al-Arabi headline: protestors challenge the security forces and the government declares war on the judge's Intifada. Baheyya, the ultimate stop for all things Egyptian judiciary, thinks that "judge's intifada" is an absurd phrase - and has much more besides).
Huwayda Taha had an interesting piece in al-Quds al-Arabi yesterday (May 17), lamenting the absence of supportive satellite television coverage. While the local press had been courageous and unusually bold in covering the protests, satellite TV evidently went missing. Since Egpytian TV - whether state television or "private" stations like Dream - avoided any real coverage of the protests, only the regional satellites could have brought the confrontation to a mass public and pushed the demonstrations from hundreds of people to millions and ushered in the real revolution Taha believes is possible. If only a satellite TV station could be rented for the occasion to get the message out, the essay concludes!
A number of interesting points in Taha's piece. Last week, I had suggested that the circle of effective contentious politics was closing, with a regime caught off guard, and satellite TV again intersecting with popular protest and some signs of American / external pressure. Now two of the three legs seem wobbly. (editorial query: do circles in fact have three legs?)
Al-Jazeera reported, and everyone has picked up, Gamal Mubarak's casual meeting with Bush, Cheney, and various worthies - which rather undermines the State Departments strong statements. The restoration of diplomatic relations with Libya, whatever the strategic justification, have been taken by many Arab democracy advocates as a clear message that the United States can not be counted on to support democratic change - that the US will abandon them the second it sees some slight advantage in doing so.
As for satellite TV, I had heard many complaints from Egyptian activists that al-Jazeera had sold them out, presumably in exchange for the release of their correspondent who had been arrested over his coverage of the Sinai bombings. I had seen some coverage on al-Jazeera of the protests, and thought that this might be changing. Evidently not. Having learned well the lessons of the potential power granted by Arab satellite TV, Egyptian security forces have been engaging in rather savage repression of television cameras attempting to cover the protests, attacks on journalists, and intimidation of others.
But that repression of journalists on the ground isn't enough to explain the relative silence of al-Jazeera. Not a single episode of al-Jazeera's key nightly prime time news/interview program Behind the News has been devoted to Egypt: issues deemed more important include the Kuwaiti parliamentary showdown, Somalia, the fourth European-Latin American summit, the war of words between America and Russia, American public diplomacy efforts, and the Syrian opposition... only two of which (Kuwait and Somalia) are even arguably of more pressing concern to Arab viewers than the Egyptian protests. None of the other major programs seems to have touched Egypt over the last couple of weeks. Al-Arabiya doesn't seem to have had any talk shows on the subject either, though that is less surprising. Khaled al-Shami, also writing in al-Quds al-Arabi, describes the weak coverage of the protests by the Arab satellites as doing the same thing to its viewers that the security forces are doing to the protestors and the journalists... repression of another kind. While I rarely have kind words for the American station al-Hurra, it's worth noting that Huwayda Taha pointedly writes that al-Hurra at least did invite one of the key judges (Bustawisi) on to one of its programs to discuss the crisis, which is more than al-Jazeera seems to have done.