Egypt's Media Ecology in a Time of Revolution
Issue 14, Summer 2011
The Egyptian state TV building has been a magnet for protests in 2011 - Photo by Sebo Masr
In 1984 William Beeman published a brief but useful essay on the media ecology of Iran before, during and after the revolution. After briefly discussing the relationship between interpersonal gossip ("the grapevine"), and state television and radio, he discusses the dramatic changes in the news media as the revolution progressed, only to settle back into its original role as a voice for the regime—albeit a new regime. The Egyptian uprising had new elements absent in the Iranian revolution, most notably social media and satellite television. Social media does not replace either "the grapevine" of networks of face-to-face interaction nor the monodirectional power of television (which was, in fact, somewhat less unitary than 1970s Iran because of satellite programming). Rather, it offers a way to extend the "grapevine" networks to link otherwise geographically separated individuals into an entirely new public sphere, on the one hand, and to appropriate, supplement, comment on and reframe other media on the other. The revolutionary media ecology of Egypt—in particular the ways various media index, image and influence one another—suggests that (unlike Iran) whatever the ultimate political outcome of the uprisings, the mediascape of Egypt after the revolution will be significantly different than it was before January 25.
At times newly introduced mass media have produced revolutionary effects in the societal management of time and energy as they forged new spaces for themselves. Thus media are cultural forces as well as cultural objects. In operation, they produce specific cultural effects that cannot be easily predicted (Beeman 1984: 147).
Revolutions are extraordinary times in any society. As they break down pre-existing political, economic and social structures, they usher in periods of enormous creativity and imagination. In his work on social and cultural process, anthropologist Victor Turner described this period as "anti-structure", that period in which the structures of everyday life of the immediate past have been disrupted or overturned, but new structures have not yet emerged to replace them (1969). Borrowing the language of ritual studies, Turner argues that as revolutions move a people from one state to another, they usher in a period of "liminality", in which the world is turned upside down and old rules do not apply.
Unlike traditional rites of passage, however, in which the outcome of the process is known, during a social and political revolution the contingent nature of the future engenders a state of creativity, energy and imagination in which transformational possibilities seem endless (1974).
Media play at least two key roles in this process. On the one hand, their institutional roles — their relations with the state and communities of reader/viewers —may be abruptly changed. On the other hand, as social forces they will play various roles in the revolutionary process. These processes are recursive: transformations in the relations between press and state, for example, will affect the capacity a medium has for contributing, through its representation of various narratives and key symbols, to social change. And the reverse is also true: changes in the ways media represent events in society can lead to shifts in institutional relations between various media industries, as well as between media and their audiences, or with the state.
One of the few efforts to analyze such processes is a brief but insightful essay by William O. Beeman on the media ecology of Iran before, during and after the revolution (1984). After briefly discussing the relationship between interpersonal gossip ("the grapevine"), newspapers, and state television and radio, he discusses the dramatic changes in the news media as the revolution progressed, as well as the way these mainstream media settled back into their original role as a voice for the regime—albeit a new regime. This paper takes Beeman's approach and applies it to the ongoing revolution in Egypt. I am particularly interested in those forms of media absent in the Iranian revolution, most notably social media and satellite television, and curious as to their effects on what I assume to be essentially conservative tendencies by mainstream media.
i For example, in 2008 Ibrahim Eissa, the outspoken editor of Al Dostor newspaper, was sentenced to two months in prison on charges of insulting President Mubarak for reporting–accurately, it turned out–about his health. Eissa subsequently had to fight civil suits by NDP members. Ultimately he was pardoned by President Mubarak. Eissa is wealthy, educated and well-connected. The government has no desire to actually keep him in prison. Rather, the case sent a chill through the Egyptian press, as it was intended to do. In 2010, after his newspaper was bought by a new publisher, Eissa was fired for agreeing to publish an article by Mohamed ElBaradei calling on Egyptians to boycott the unmonitored 2010 elections.