Saturday, February 05, 2011

Egypt: Drama and Substance

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There were three excellent TV programmes on the happenings in Egypt on the night of February 4,2011. The first by the courageous ND TV team headed by Barkha Dutt, its Group Editor, from 9-30 to 10 PM provided from Cairo an Indian eye view of the happenings in Egypt as the massive and peaceful protest demonstration demanding the immediate exit of President Hosni Mubarak was winding up to a close for the day.

2. The second was a Delhi-based debate anchored by Karan Thapar ( " The Last Word" from 10 to 10-30 PM on CNN-IBN), which focussed on what was projected as the belated interest of the Indian media in what has been happening across the Arab world---- beginning with the so-called Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, now the street revolution in Egypt and the fears of copy-cat reactions in other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. Why the Indian media was slow to realise the significance of the happenings in Tunisia and Egypt and why the limited coverage by the Indian media of foreign affairs in general ---lack of resources or lack of interest or both? These were the themes.

3. The third was a debate on the significance of the happenings in Egypt and India's belated reaction to it anchored by Nidhi Razdan on the NDTV from 10 to 11 PM under her weekly Friday programme titled " Left, Right & Centre".

4. NDTV and News X were the first to realise the significance of the happenings in Tunisia and Egypt from India's point of view. The people's protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out at a time when the Indian electronic media was totally engrossed in covering domestic developments such as the multiplicity of scams, the controversy over large amounts parked by Indian nationals in foreign bank accounts etc. The public interest in the domestic developments and controversies was more than that in the gathering storm in Tunisia and Egypt.

5. Despte this, it must be said to the credit of NDTV that Maya Mirchandani, its Foreign Affairs Editor, started focusing on Tunisia and Egypt in programmes exclusively devoted to foreign affairs long before other channels woke up to the people's cries coming from these two countries. So did the foreign affairs division of News X.

6. As the protests in Egypt gathered force, NDTV rushed Maya to Cairo to provide an Indian perspective of what has been going on there. A few days later, Barkha joined her and the two have been covering in tandem---- focusing on the drama as well as the substance. Maya's coverage was very people's friendly----readily and easily mixing with the protesters demonstrating in the Tahrir Square. Those who had watched the coverage on foreign TV channels might have noticed that the reporters of Western channels avoided too close an interaction with the protesters---barring one or two exceptions. As against this, Maya's focus was almost entirely on the people---- highlighting their anger, frustration and determination to bring about an end of the Mubarak regime.

7. Barkha and Maya need to be complimented for avoiding an over-focus on their brutal mistreatment by pro-Mubarak supporters when violence broke out on February 3---- as some other Indian TV journalists did--- and for concentrating instead on the implications of the intervention of pro-Mubarak supporters. Even though the protests have been continuing for nearly 10 days now, one still does not have an answer to the question---Is what we are seeing in Egypt purely an anti-Mubarak uprising or is it a revolution with ideological dimensions?

8. Barkha's programme of February 4 was aptlly titled "The Egyptian Uprising". It reflected her attempts through her interactions with the protesters in the Tahrir Square and elsewhere to understand what has been happening in Egypt and share her understanding with the Indian viewers.It is going to take us a long time to understand the strategic significane of what has been happening in Egypt---for Egypt itself, for the region and for the rest of the world.

9. Certain things can be said about the happenings in Egypt even now. Firstly, it was a spontaneous uprising by a people who had suffered under the dictatorial regime of Mubarak for nearly 30 years. Secondly, the protesters were inspired by the success of the revolt in Tunisia.It was the success of the Tunisian revolt that gave them the courage to come out in the streets. If the Tunisian revolt had been crushed, nothing would have most probably happened in Egypt. Thirdly, it was a leaderless uprising by a mix of various sections of the Egyptian civil society----the poor and middle class people, including trade union workers, angered by economic hardships, and the students and the elite frustrated by the absence of freedom and democracy. Perceptions of widespread corruption were a common trigger factor for all of them.Fourthly, it has had no religious colours till now though there is a lingering suspicion that only the Muslim Brotherhood, with its vast well-motivated and well-disciplind cadres, could have provided the domestic inspiration though it has avoided the limelight.

10.From the interviews of Barkha, it came out clearly that at least some sections of the protesters have worries over the dangers of a confrontation with the Army if the more enthusiastic sections of the protesters prevailed in their demand for a march to the Presidential Palace to force Mubarak to quit here and now. It could be suicidal, one of them told Barkha. It was apparent from Barkha's programme that there are elements which are prepared to wait till September instead of forcing a confrontation now.

11. This has come out from the BBC's coverage also. It is evident from the BBC's coverage that a point of view among sections of the protesters is that now that the world has supported their demand for Mubarak's exit and he has promised to quit when his term expires in September, they should shift from daily to weekly Friday protests to keep up the pressure on Mubarak to honour his word. This is an aspect that needs further exploration.

12. When the pro-Mubarak supporters attacked the journalists and seized or even destroyed their equipment, the TV journalists found themselves without the tools of their profession. Subsequently, when the Mubarak supporters were beaten back by the anti-Mubarak protesters and journalists were once again allowed to go to the Square, the local security authorities ordered that TV journalists should not carry their equipment into the Tahrir Square. Barkha and her team immediately got over the difficulty and made innovative use of their mobile telephones for recording and transmitting telling images along with Barkha's commentary.

13. The protesters in Tunisia and Egypt have been making innovative use of modern communication technologies such as the Internet, the Twitters, the mobile telephone etc to communicate with each other and to guide and encourage each other. Barkha's programme brought out the use of Tweets by the protesters for mobilisation.

14. The Egyptian authorities banned the Internet to prevent the protesters from communicating with each other. Companies like Google tried to give a helping hand by suggesting ways of circumventing this ban by phoning or faxing their messages to their sympathisers in third countries and having them transmitted by the Internet from there. Barkha and her team were innovative in having visuals with commentaries recorded and transmitted to their headquarters by mobile telephones. If the mobiles had also been seized or destroyed and if the mobile networks had been jammed, this might not have been possible.

15. The wave of protests not only in Egypt, but also in the rest of the Arab world is likely to continue for some time. TV journalists would face such difficulties in their coverage. What are the various scenarios involving difficulties in communication that could arise and how they could improvise and innovate in order to overcome them?This is a question that should engage the attention of the technical divisions of our TV channels.

16. A very important point made during Karan Thapar's programme was the absence of strategic thinking and planning in our media headquarters---print or electronic. As a result, they find themselves ill-prepared when important events such as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt take place. This is an aspect which needs attention. Our media should closely monitor the public reactions in Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Algeria and other countries so that they are not caught napping once again.

17. While the debate organised by Nidhi Razdan covered many significant aspects, it did not focus on the likely economic implications for India if the Egyptian revolt succeeds and spreads to other countries. Two aspects of the developing situation in the Arab world need our attention: What could be the economic implications for India? Will it lead to a further radicalisation of Islam or will it reverse the present process of radicalisation? (5-2-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.