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The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Charged Up


As Wadhah Al Shugaa (SFS ’12) walks across the campus of the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, where he is currently studying abroad, all he hears — from the classroom to the souq— is talk of Egypt. “For the past seven days, we’ve had Al Jazeera on almost the entire time. Facebook groups created for the Egyptian ‘Youth Revolution,’ as well as major newspapers providing updates by the hour have became ‘home pages’ on the screens of many students’ laptops,” he says.

Since the uprising began on Jan. 25, the home pages of online news sources, from The New York Times to Al Jazeera, have been flooded by photo galleries, commentary from pundits and policymakers and constant news updates.

On the Hilltop, those close to the 15 Georgetown students once based in Cairo monitored email, Facebook and Twitter to check in on their friends’ safety until word came that the group would be evacuated on Monday to Doha, Qatar.

Half a world away, social networking sites have a more active role: to organize and report the protests on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities.

As regimes topple and thousands gather in the name of democracy, the Internet has become a key medium in spreading not only the news, but the revolutionary spirit itself.

The intense interest in the Egypt protests, spurred by the widespread media coverage, has taken a strong hold over students and faculty members on the main campus, at SFS-Q and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Monday night on the main campus, Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies sponsored a panel discussion of the protests entitled, “Egypt’s Day of Wrath: A Preliminary Assessment,” featuring commentary by Tamim Al-Barghouti, a native of Egypt and professor of Arabic and political science, and adjunct professor Abel Iskandar, whose work focuses on the intersection of media studies and Arab studies.

During the panel discussion, Iskandar pointed out that the protests had been sparked by a Facebook event created by an individual who remains anonymous. If Mubarak’s government falls, which experts say is likely following his pledge on Tuesday that he will not seek re-election this fall, “the first online revolution would have happened before our eyes, and in the heart of the Middle East,” Iskandar said.

According to Iskandar, the initial protests set off a chain of events rooted in a years-long buildup of public unrest. “That was the moment when even the most ambitious estimates of the protests were, literally, imploded. Here was a regime that had left many, many people disgruntled,” he said.

The growing anger that led to the “implosion” was itself tied to new media technologies. Controversy began to surface last spring after a man, having uploaded a YouTube video depicting Egyptian police officers buying drugs, was beaten to death in an Internet cafe by police in front of more than 50 witnesses. Iskandar believes that the circulation of photographs of the beating sparked the demonstrations. He said that the circulation of such photographs, incriminating evidence against the Egyptian police force, is uncommon. Traditionally, Egyptian state media has been, “highly propagandistic,” he said.

Getting information in Egypt became nearly impossible when authorities blocked access to the Internet nationwide on Jan. 29; the Web wasn’t reachable again until Wednesday. According to Iskandar, such a widespread, government-imposed blackout was unprecedented. “It will be studied in the history of the Internet from this point forward,” he said.

In response to the crackdown, Google, Twitter and software engineers SayNow created a Twitter account, speak2tweet, which allows users without an Internet connection to tweet by calling in messages over the phone. The tweets have an #egypt hashtag and link to SayNow’s website, which plays the voice recording. The Twitter account has posted over 2,700 tweets so far.

Supporters of the protests continued to make use of social networking websites to promote new demonstrations. Earlier this week, a Facebook page was created and was titled, “A Virtual ‘March of Millions’ in Solidarity With Egyptian Riots.”

More than 4.2 million people around the world were invited to the Facebook event, and at press time, over 540,000 had indicated that they were “attending.” The event, which many Georgetown students attended or linked to in their Facebook profiles, coincided with the largest protest to date that occurred this past Tuesday, when 2 million Egyptians took to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere.

Back in the U.S., a Facebook event was also used to organize last Saturday’s demonstration at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., which served as a show of solidarity with the Egyptian protesters. Members of the Georgetown community attended the local protest as a way to voice their support for the protesters abroad.

In other corners of the Middle East, students turned to the Al Jazeera English network, based out of Qatar, for coverage of the Egypt crisis. “I must congratulate Qatar’s Al Jazeera News Network for showing the world its level of professionalism and its attempt on showing what was really happening in Egypt,” said Nada Soudy (SFS-Q ’11), an Egyptian studying in Qatar.

Egypt has had a tenuous relationship with Al Jazeera, and after clamping down on the Internet, the government’s next step was to cut the cord on Al Jazeera’s English and Arabic television channels, Iskandar said. He added that in the past, the Egyptian government has attempted to prevent Al Jazeera from operating in Egypt as punishment for “indecent acts,” charges that Iskandar called, “articulations that are cliche and meaningless to most people.”

Despite what Iskandar considers the Egyptian government’s contempt for the channel, Soudy says Al Jazeera has a strong following in the rest of the region.

“I can honestly say that no other Western news agency has been able to keep up with Al Jazeera’s outstanding coverage,” Soudy said.

Al Jazeera has also offered extensive coverage of the protests that is aimed at audiences outside the Middle East. The network’s website, in addition to its usual coverage of Middle Eastern and world events, now has a live audio stream with narration from anchors and correspondents on the ground in Cairo.

The network, an independently owned corporation in a region where many media outlets are state-controlled, does not display overt bias towards either the revolutionary or Egyptian government position. Though Egyptian authorities have accused the network of exaggerating problems within Egypt and detained at least three reporters, according to the Al Jazeera website. However the site has been cited as an authoritative source for up-to-the-minute information by American academics and even American media since the protests began.

Dr. Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics affiliated with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, also said that Western media coverage may miss some of the subtleties of conflict in a Middle Eastern country. “There is a great deal of misinformation and stereotypes about the Arab world, Arabs, Islam [and] Islamist politics that one confronts everyday in the media, general public and — at times — in the classroom,” he said.

One difference between the American and Arab media has been the treatment of the political ramifications of the Egyptian riots. Shehata said the success of recent protests in Tunisia was influential in the surfacing of the Egyptian revolutionary movement.

“Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was mesmerizing for millions in the Arab world and inspirational. It showed people in the Arab world that what was previously thought impossible — overthrowing an autocratic leader that had been in power for decades, was repressive and had the support of Western governments — through peaceful protest — was not impossible,” Shehata said. “It was a spark, a catalyst on top of already existing deep political and economic grievances.”

Some American commentators have raised the question of whether such a battle against oppression could happen again, elsewhere in the Middle East. At first glance it might appear so — after protests began in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan announced on Tuesday that he was firing his cabinet and appointing new officials in response to a series of protests there.

But, Georgetown students studying in Amman as well as that program’s administrators cautioned against reading too much into the events. They all said that discontent and unrest in Jordan were nowhere near the levels they are at in Egypt.

“I think it is also worth mentioning that this is the seventh time in the past 11 years that King Abdullah has dismissed the government because of popular dissatisfaction. Again, while I think Egypt has definitely been a factor in the king’s decision, Jordan’s events are not as uncommon as those happening elsewhere in the region,” said Rebecca Kissel (SFS ’12), who is spending the semester in Amman. “We have been told by the people who work for CIEE [The Council on International Educational Exchange] that the U.S. news on the Jordanian protests has been pretty sensationalized,” she added.

Some students at SFS-Q were similarly unconcerned about the prospect of Qataris taking to the streets, despite the turmoil in other, less stable countries. “[Qatar] is one of the most politically stable countries in the Middle East and unrest is highly unlikely,” Fatima Muneer (SFS-Q ’11) an Omani student currently studying at the Qatar campus said.

John Crist, a professor at SFS-Q, also argued that the seeds of discontent necessary for full-scale revolt are not present in Qatar. “[Qataris’] level of grievance is much, much lower than what we plainly see on the streets of Tunis and Cairo. Widely shared grievances are necessary for mass mobilization, though not sufficient — Egyptians and Tunisians have been deeply upset with the economy and their governments for a long time,” he said.

While students and professors were clear that they did not expect to witness another revolution in Middle Eastern countries other than Egypt, other students felt that they were witnessing a paradigm shift in Middle Eastern politics.

“I think all Arabs, including Qataris, are watching closely as these events unfold because they recognize that the Middle East of tomorrow may not be the Middle East that they have previously known,” Elisabeth Kent (SFS-Q ’11 ) said.

The most recent evidence of impact on the rest of the Arab world was seen in a call for protests this coming Saturday in Syria. According to Al Jazeera, as in Egypt, the protests are being organized over Facebook pages, with demonstrations planned in major Syrian cities and also outside the country.

The British newspaper The Guardian said in an article last Sunday that Syrian officials have been paying attention to events in Egypt and promised reforms in their own government, including measures to stamp out government corruption. These promises of reform, however, were made before the announcement of tomorrow’s planned protests.

With leaders changing positions almost daily, it is impossible to determine what will happen next in the entangled region. But as millions around the world continue to watch the events unfold, it is clear that the protests have been a triumph of not only democratic spirit, but also of the power of the mass media, Al Shugaa said.

“The extent to which we here at SFS-Q are engaged and updated with what is going on in Egypt is, I would say, revolutionary in itself.”

— Hoya Staff Writer Laura Engshuber contributed to this report.

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