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Book Review. Media, revolution and politics in Egypt

The role played by media – both traditional and social – in the 2011 Arab uprisings cannot be underestimated, and this is particularly true in the case of Egypt. In the years that preceded the successful anti Mubarak uprising from 25th January to 11th February, Facebook and Twitter were used by activists as a platform to express and, to some extent, organize dissent. During the mobilization itself, Qatar-based satellite network Al-Jazeera widely covered the events and was used as a key source of information both by citizens and viewers in other countries.

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In general, events linked to the media or broadcast by it (arrests and trials of journalists, talk shows, televised speeches) have been one of the key features not only of the few days which brought the Mubarak rule to an end, but of the entire political process that has taken place in Egypt since 2011. In his book Media revolution and politics in Egypt. The story of an uprising, Abdalla F. Hassan recounts the days which could have changed Egypt, and the following years, from this particular point of view. However, the author – currently a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford after having worked as a journalist in Egypt for 20 years – tries to put the events and the subsequent media analysis in an even broader context. In fact, the first 35 pages of the text (out of a total of 222, excluding notes and indexes) are dedicated to what the author calls “a prologue to the revolution”: a range of events spanning from Mubarak’s inaugural presidential speech to the toppling of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis. Each one is examined both in itself and with regard to its media representation and subsequent impact.

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The same method is used throughout the rest of the book, which follows a chronological approach. Five major blocs of events are analyzed: the last eighteen days of the Mubarak regime, the transitional phase in which the Supreme council of armed forces held the power, the contrast between the military and the revolutionary leaders, the rise (through the elections) of the Muslim Brotherhood, the return of the police state under the current president, former field marshal Abdelfattah al-Sisi. All the fundamental political turning points in this period of time are reported and widely analyzed, as is done with the major events and measures linked to the media and the freedom of the press (for instance, the banning of comedian Bassem Youssef’s TV show, the arrest of activist-blogger Alaa Abdelfattah and of Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed).

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Nevertheless, also apparently minor developments are dealt with, if, in the author’s opinion, they can shed light on a particular issue or person. For instance, in the already mentioned “prologue”, Hassan spends some pages in examining Muhammad Sobhi’s 1989 comedic play, Takharif (“Delusions”) and the 2006 comedy Zaza, starring actor Hany Ramzy. They are put on the same plan of the account of the birth of the April 6 movement (a key player in the Tahrir Square protests) or the return in Egypt of presidential hopeful Mohamed El-Baradei, because they are a clear example of both the attitude of some artists towards the regime and of the limitations imposed by censorship. Another such example, further in the book, is an heated tv debate between writer Alaa Al-Aswany and the former prime minister Ahmad Shafik: the character and ideas of the latter, who will be one of the main contenders in the 2012 presidential election, are well sketched in this way.  Even if written in a plain, readable style, Hassan’s work aims to be more an academic essay than a journalistic account of what happened. This is shown also by the fact that the last pages of the book go under the title of Media matters and contain 14 observations which aim to sum up the evolution of the political landscape and the way in which communication-related developments and choices have helped to shape it.

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This epilogue and the prevalence of written, video and web sources on direct witnesses, further contribute to the overall impression of objectivity given by the book. Hassan seems less interested in taking parts than in analyzing the context and, when coming to personal judgements, he is equally critic of the military rule and of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, nevertheless, he does not use as a scapegoat. If the author seems more sympathetic to one part, this is the revolutionaries’ side. Maybe it’s not by chance that the last chapter before the epilogue closes with the account murder of 32-year old activist Shaimaa Elsabbagh, whose aftermath brings the author to write a sentence equally emblematic of the political and media situation in the country: “Egyptians await their revolution”. (J.T.)

Media revolution and politics in Egypt. The story of an uprising, by Abdalla F. Hassan, I.B. Tauris, London-New York, 276 pp.

 

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