We don’t expect our TV reporters to speak Arabic or know much more than where Egypt is situated on a map, but the low level of basic sophistication about political upheavals on the part of our overpaid ‘journalists’ is shocking. I suppose if you have been groomed for years to know what to say when you spot Kim Kardashian emerging from a nightclub, it’s kinda tough to figure out weird things like revolutions in the streets.
The Arab world may be experiencing its Berlin moment, as one Egyptian surmised, but in contrast with that time when U.S. reporters openly sympathized with the East Europeans masses in revolt, now the Egyptian people frequently appear as an afterthought. There are only two topics that seem to get our reporters’ adrenalin flowing: ‘chaos’ and the danger of an Islamist takeover that might threaten our interests.
‘Chaos’ is a highly charged and misleading term, but check how often it is used when one tunes in to the latest news. Dictatorship always say they stand between ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, so the term instantly marks one’s bias about the outcome.
For example, we never heard that Czechs, Poles or Hungarians were throwing their countries into ‘chaos’ in the 1990s—although surely the crumbling communist parties eagerly accused them of doing so. But now when Egyptians rise up against three decades of dictatorship, we hear of nothing else. Unconsciously perhaps, our media are trumpeting their own fears and eagerness for someone we like to come in and settle things down.
There is plenty of evidence that the ‘chaos’ may not be the result of mass action at all but a deliberate policy to scare the population into supporting a crackdown. The Guardian reports that a Human Rights Watch observer witnessed the arrest of two active-duty police officers engaged in looting—highly significant given that the police have withdrawn completely from any attempt to maintain order.
It is ironic that the hated, feared and highly politicized Egyptian police force immediately stopped doing any actual policing when they were most needed. (Residents of the Bronx would not be surprised.) If something similar had happened in Poland during the rise of Solidarity, I suspect the western news media would have sniffed it out quite easily.
The other howler is the worried concern expressed by the blathering heads that ‘Muslim parties’ will seize the opportunity to take over as in Iran. One wonders if these breezy Chatty-Cathys with their permanent, aerobic smiles ever read an article in a magazine.
But ignorance reigns even in the supposedly informed circles of our governing poobahs. Wikileaks exposed a hilarious cable from a Tunisian diplomat acknowledging that the ousted kleptocrat there was a disaster but at least acted as a bulwark against ‘al-Qaeda’ elements in the Magreb. That’s like praising the Gambino family for keeping us safe from gypsies.
However, it does reflect the concern in the White House and among the European allies about what will follow Mubarak and especially their fear that a nasty crackdown that might temporarily save the dictator would set the stage for a far worse outcome down the road. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it like this:
‘It is important for [Mubarak] to initiate that transformation and that broadly based government, and that is what we would like to see. That is far preferable, of course, to Egypt falling into the hands of extremism or a more authoritarian system of government’.
You get the idea despite the willfully ignorant line about a ‘more authoritarian system of government’. Excuse me? More than that of Mubarak?
Meanwhile, tanks massing in the central square is an ominous reminder that the army can still decide to save Mubarak at the cost of many, many deaths.
[update] Everything I am trying to say was just expressed much more eloquently here.