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EGYPT: Al Jazeera and White House Mixed Messaging in the Age of Wikileak Cables, Twitter and Facebook

**UPDATES BELOW**

This has been an extraordinary week. What follows is a remarkable story I’ve done my best to unpack and requires a lot of investment on your part. I don’t claim this is perfectly packaged, but I’ve done the very best I can on a story I think is historic, including news late last night that Egypt had left the Internet, as well as flummoxing for U.S. leaders.

The cables, which cover the first year of the Obama presidency, leave little doubt about how valuable an ally Mr. Mubarak has been, detailing how he backed the United States in its confrontation with Iran, played mediator between Israel and the Palestinians and supported Iraq’s fledgling government, despite his opposition to the American-led war. Privately, Ambassador Scobey pressed Egypt’s interior minister to free three bloggers, as well as a Coptic priest who performed a wedding for a Christian convert, according to one of her cables to Washington. She also asked that three American pro-democracy groups be granted formal permission to operate in the country, a request the Egyptians rejected. – Cables Show Delicate U.S. Dealings With Egypt’s Leaders

The Obama administration needs to up its game. Al Jazeera is watching and broadcasting to a region that is convulsing with freedom pangs in the era of transformative media access through Wikileaks, Twitter and Facebook that empowers people held in bondage by brutal regimes, which we often bankroll, including $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt yearly.

When Al Jazeera English became available in parts of the U.S., like the Beltway, it was a seminal event as far as I am concerned. It’s the most important channel not enough people are watching, a tiny part of that because it’s not available everywhere. It’s the first successful channel to connect the Arab world while blasting what is happening into America, which the U.S. media ignores at our peril and they do so because it doesn’t pay and we’re such a navel gazing country most don’t understand the repercussions of our own ignorance. It’s also why too many Americans accept Beck-Palin-Rush stereotypes of the people whose countries we are occupying and the regimes we continue to bolster, even against what the people want.

The first post I did on the beginnings of the Arab eruptions this week, on Monday, was centered around Al Jazeera’s prominent role in the Palestine Papers. This story revealed Sect. Clinton allegedly saying the Palestinians are “always in a chapter of a Greek tragedy,” with Al Jazeera reporting the U.S. as anything but an honest broker. Watching the Palestine Papers unfold on Al Jazeera English, as well as on Twitter, was stunning, all of which came on the wave of what happened in Tunisia.

Today, Friday, the New York Times writes in more detail what I began covering on Monday, which is that Al Jazeera is at the center this story as much as anything else. (My tweet below mirrors what others tweeting that day were also witnessing on Al Jazeera English, which the New York Times confirms today, the “finally” meaning they finally woke up.)

On Tuesday afternoon, as the street protests in Egypt were heating up, Al Jazeera was uncharacteristically slow to report them, airing a culture documentary, a sports show and more of its “Palestine Papers” coverage of the leaked documents.

Many Egyptians felt betrayed, and Facebook and Twitter were full of rumors about a deal between Qatar – the Persian Gulf emirate whose emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, founded Al Jazeera in 1996 – and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who visited the emir in Doha last month. Within a day, Al Jazeera was reporting from the streets in Cairo in its usual manic style.

Al Jazeera’s freewheeling broadcasts have long made it the bête noire of Arab governments, and in some earlier instances they have succeeded in reining it in.

In 2007, the channel received orders to soften its blunt coverage of Saudi Arabia after Qatar and the Saudis mended a smoldering political feud. That remains a weak point for Al Jazeera – as for most of the pan-Arab press, which is largely owned by Saudi Arabia.

Yet for all its flaws, Al Jazeera still operates with less constraint than almost any other Arab outlet, and remains the most popular channel in the region. To many Arabs, Al Jazeera’s recent exposé on the Palestinian Authority documents – sometimes called “Pali-leaks” – is of a piece with its reporting on protests against autocratic Arab regimes.

The story continues to widen with Vice Pres. Joe Biden’s unhelpful statements to PBS last night, the latest foreign policy fodder to be subject to Twitter and Facebook responses and relays that ricochet.

V.P. Biden with Jim Lehrer last night on PBS (video below loads slowly):


JIM LEHRER: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?

JOE BIDEN: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there. These are — a lot of the people out there protesting are middle-class folks who are looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.

And the two things we have been saying here, Jim, is that violence isn’t appropriate and people have a right to protest. And so — and we think that — I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will — is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.

JIM LEHRER: You know President Mubarak.

JOE BIDEN: I know him fairly well.

JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him about this?

JOE BIDEN: I haven’t talked to him in the last three days.

I — last time I — actually, I haven’t talked to him in about a month. But I speak to him fairly regularly. And I think that, you know, there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually. And there’s — a lot of these countries are beginning to sort of take stock of where they are and what they have to do. [...] [...]

JIM LEHRER: The word — the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?

JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.

And I think that it would be — I would not refer to him as a dictator.

When asked about Pres. Mubarak being a “dictator,” Biden’s first response even in the face of what has been covered on Al Jazeera just this week, was to talk in terms of our “geopolitical” relationship that in the 20th century was the way people talked about foreign policy, before it became as multidimensional as it is today.

I also cannot figure out why, considering Biden knows Mubarak “fairly well” and speaks to him “fairly regularly,” he hasn’t spoken to him “the last three days.”

The State Dept.’s spokesman P.J. Crowley went down a similar road on Al Jazeera, as I wrote about yesterday and it was ugly.

Blake Hounshell posted the Administration’s statements on Egypt late last night, thinking on similar lines as myself, without the narrative I’m constructing.

Others may disagree with me, but all of this combined with the Wikileaks cables on Egypt that has us saying one thing privately about human rights, then in public making statements that might aid Mubarak while Al Jazeera is broadcasting reality, add in the Palestine Papers revelations, makes for potentially vulnerable geopolitical ramifications Biden seems not to have considered.

There is no way we can survive humiliation through our current 20th century thinking in a world now connected via Twitter and Facebook and with Al Jazeera beaming into homes across the Arab world, especially now that we can also see what the Arab world is seeing.

The contagion since Tunisia is proof, regardless of whether “governments topple,” something Biden at least had the humility to admit he could be misjudging.

I have no opinion on this, because I don’t think anyone knows what the new media platforms working in synchronicity with the people driving them at once can achieve today.

But it’s simply none of the U.S.’s business to declare whether Mubarak is a “dictator,” a nice word for what he’s leveled on his own people, or say he should or should not step down. Not even our financial investment or geopolitical alliance gives us this right and that we still think it does is one of the problems of our foreign policy in this converging new media century.

After Sect. Clinton’s very first meeting with Pres. Mubarak at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, March 2009, which the cables at the top of this post reference, Clinton was reported to have said something much more tuned in than what she initially said this week. Back in 2009, on a question on Egypt’s human rights, Hillary responded as follows, emphasis added.

“We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that Mr. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, were friends of her family, and that it was up to the Egyptian people to decide the president’s future.

Yet her first response on Tuesday, like Biden ridiculously stating Mubarak wasn’t a “dictator,” however his splitting hairs definition defines it, was to bolster the Egyptian government and describe it as “stable.”

Clinton’s first statement looked even worse when ElBaradei landed in Cairo yesterday, with CNN’s Ben Wedeman tweeting his message from Cairo: ElBaradei at airport says the point of no return has been reached must be peaceful change govt must stop using violence.

Much earlier Thursday, so it was leaked on Wednesday at some point, it was reported that an anonymous administration official was saying Pres. Obama was “poised to intensity U.S. criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak.”

So what to make of V.P. Joe Biden’s interview on PBS Thursday night? From where I sit it was a serious and embarrassing misstep from a foreign policy veteran, but also the Administration, who hasn’t caught up with how world events are zipping around the globe on multiple and converging media platforms that everyone can see.

Pres. Obama didn’t address what’s been happening in Egypt publicly until yesterday. That may have been good for his time table, but it was woefully late considering Tunisia and what happened this week.

Once upon a time not so long ago, in a century that now seems so far away where communication, media and social platforms are concerned, the Obama administration might have caught a break.

It’s been the week that Al Jazeera has been waiting for, coming on the heels of Wikileaks, as Twitter and Facebook continue to rock the globe, with Pres. Obama and his administration still not quite getting what they’re up against, the most challenging of which may yet be to come.

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Pres. Obama talked about the people first, stressing the importance that there be no violence. He stressed the important relationship with Egypt, stating reforms must be made, which he relayed to Mubarak. Backs Mubarak, but strongly leans towards the people and once again reiterated that it’s up to the people of Egypt. Importantly, Pres. Obama finished by saying we’ll know more in the morning. It clearly stated to me that after the Egyptian people digest what Mubarak said we’ll see if the protests continue and what the govt. does about opening up the communication gateway. Pres. Obama transmitting the real dangers in the situation and walking very, very carefully, as he should. This is a long play not a one act. It will be developing for a while.

UPDATE 6:30 pm: Waiting for Pres. Obama to speak. Via Chuck Todd he finally spoke to Pres. Mubarak and the conversation reportedly lasted 30 minutes.



UPDATE 5:19 pm: Mubarak saying demonstrations representative of “freedoms” offered by Egypt through his presidency. Will “always adhere to the right of freedom…” Mubarak then sacks his whole government, but he continues on. Outside the protesters continued to yell “Down, down with Mubarak.” Via CNN’s Nic Robertson, chants “We don’t want him” rising. Mubarak obviously has gotten assurances from Egyptian military. We’ll see what develops when the Internet and communications are switched on again. Nothing in Egypt will ever be the same.

UPDATE 3:15 pm: Gibbs after being challenged about his words (3:54 pm): “I’m not tempering one word or one syllable of one word. .. we’ve reached a point where grievances have to be addressed.” Robert Gibbs: “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days.” Chip Reid: Has he tried to reach Mubarak? Gibbs: “Not that I’m aware of.” MESSAGE SENT TO EGYPT. Why isn’t the President standing where you’re standing? Not much to say on that one, so Gibbs vamps. At top, Gibbs invoked “legitimate grievances” people have must be addressed by Egyptian gov. “immediately,” emphasizes it, including communication. Gibbs rightly points story back to the Egyptian people, “this will be solved by the Egyptian people.” Again stresses “grievances” re Mubarak. Never been a fan of Gibbs, but this is one of his best moments and it comes at a critical time for Pres. Obama & the US govt. Chuck Todd: Has anyone condemned house arrest of ElBaradei? Gibbs: “a Nobel Laureate… type of activities gov has responsibility to change.”


UPDATE 2:55 pm: picture via Mike Memoli.

UPDATE 12:56 pm: STILL WAITING FOR MUBARACK TO SPEAK. Marc Lynch on Twitter: Mubarak’s silence is increasingly becoming the story. Egyptians continue to defy curfew.

UPDATE 12:14 pm: Sect. Hillary Clinton just spoke condemning internet shutdown and urging govt to address “grievances” of people. She made a shift towards people (finally), putting them before government. The trouble is that though the US is powerless here, our govt. props up Mubarak against the people’s will. A very sobering moment for the US.


Picture above is the NDP in flames. Egyptian’s National Museum is near.

UPDATE 11:26 pm: Pictures from AJE… Iconic imagery now. Huge plumes of deep black smoke rising from NDP (National Democratic Party) headquarters & complex of buildings, which is the ruling establishment of Mubarak, going back to ’80s.

BREAKING… MUBARAK TO SPEAK SOON. CURFEW NOW IN EFFECT… loud cries still being heard. People are not leaving the streets. Egyptian state media says Pres. Mubarak has ordered the Egyptian State Army on to the streets.

UPDATE 10:27 a.m.: Curfew now imposed in Egypt, which is 30 min. away.

UPDATE III: A very important point by media expert on Al Jazeera, Kevin Anderson, correctly reporting that in Egypt the “overlap betweeen internet activists and activists is almost complete. The activists in Egypt have long been using the internet.” Primarily from blogging, with Egyptian political bloggers well known.

“Egypt has enjoyed a long history of internet activism,” Kevin Anderson continues. “Now they have a very sophisticated way of not just using FB & Twitter… but also SMS and mobile networks, which have also been effective in this clampdown.”

UPDATE II: ElBaradei now under house arrest.

UPDATE: ElBaradei: “Egyptian government on last legs…”

ElBaradei has already criticised the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for describing the Egyptian government as stable and he stepped up his calls for the rest of the world to explicitly condemn Mubarak, who is a close ally of the US.

“The international community must understand we are being denied every human right day by day,” he said. “Egypt today is one big prison. If the international community does not speak out it will have a lot of implications. We are fighting for universal values here. If the west is not going to speak out now, then when?”

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