For its first episode about post-Mubarak Egypt, Frontline, one of American TV's more dependable sources of news about the world outside that hasn't been transcribed from the latest State Department press release, split its hour into two separate reports, a good enough way to get around the danger of appearing to be trying to sum up recent events that defy easy analysis and that nobody can really understand yet, not that that's stopped any of the pro gasbags on network and cable news shows from pretending that they do. Neither half of the show is perfect, but as a whole, it makes a refreshing change from just hearing that the U.S. government either deserves the credit for Inspiring Change and Democracy or the blame for having failed to somehow shut down all this scary Global Instability.
The first half, "Revolution in Cairo," sets out to profile the April 6 group, which takes its name from the date of the 2008 textile workers' strike that, in retrospect, looks like the ignition point of a long fuse that ended with Mubarak's hasty resignation 11 days ago. The group made social networking key to its organizational approach, which makes for some wry comedy when the Mubarak regime demonstrates its cluelessness in trying to respond to the threat of new media. One of the media stars of April 6 recalls being tortured by the security police: First they demanded that he give them information about "a virtual friend" named Fatima—"They didn't seem to understand that she wasn't a friend in real life"—only to release him after he agreed to give them the nonexistent password for the group's Facebook page. The idea that the strength of organizing online was precisely that anyone could gain easy access to information went right over their heads, which indicates the degree to which the Internet must have seemed like an ungraspable, mysteriously powerful force to them.
That's also how it must seem to many of the people who, desperately trying to make sense of big surprises in the Middle East and elsewhere, have ginned up terms such as "Twitter revolution" and brandished them in the face of surprising events like a cross in the face of a vampire. "Revolution in Cairo" falls for this line a little, especially when the camera feats its eyes on Wired magazine journalist David Wolman, who tries to convey the level of "innovation" among the plugged-in activists by saying, "Every night, they think about, what can we call an event? 'The Tweet Heard Round the World,' or 'The Million Person March,' or 'The Day of Rage.' They're innovating, they're creating." Indeed they are, but Wolman sees most impressed with them when all they're doing is self-marketing and doing it by reviving other peoples' worn out old tag lines at that.
It would also be nice to have some historical perspective brought to bear when Courtney Radsch, a "new media expert" who specializes in Arab politics, talks about the staggering power of videos showing torture and other government atrocities put on YouTube, where they can go viral. Radsch talks as if this sort of thing would be unimaginable without the Internet, and maybe now it is, but both the videos and the impact they have on an outraged public are reminiscent of the most potent horror images from the Vietnam war—the street execution, the napalmed children—which made it into people's homes via TV news and Life magazine, one effect being that the Pentagon has never been that generous about giving people with cameras free range to cover a war in the field since.
The Egyptian protesters learned a lot from early activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who influenced their understanding of the strategic value of nonviolence and more recent groups such as the Serbia's Otpor Movement. Newsweek reporter Mike Giglis says of the April 6 group: "They're not just online activists. They have boots on the ground. They have connections to other experienced activists. I think it's a nice combination of people who know how to use the Internet and are web-savvy and also have real experience with street protests and know how to organize them." This recognition that the most successful new-media protesters have been using social networking as a streamlining tool to better carry out techniques that have been around a long time helps dispel the smoggy mythology surrounding the power of Facebook or whatever as a revolutionary tool. Wolman rightly points out that when Mubarak shut down the Internet and mobile phones after things had reached a boil, it was a sign of "desperation," but it was also ludicrous. He must have hoped that it would be like flipping off a switch; he didn't understand that social networking was just a way to kick something loose that couldn't then just go quietly back inside its bottle. To judge from some of the "Game over!" coverage that appeared in the Western media when he cut off the Internet, he wasn't the only one who didn't get it.
The country got away from Mubarak during the time that "Revolution in Cairo" was being filmed, and the experience might have also gotten away a little from the filmmakers, who couldn't have known, going in, what they would end up recording. They were on hand in Tahir Square when the rubber hit the road, and they came back with some amazing footage. (In one scene that's reminiscent of a moment from The Man Who Would Be King, the protesting crowds suddenly kneel, en masse, for their daily prayers, while the soldiers surrounding them respectfully take five until they're finished and everybody is ready to go back to yelling at each other.)
In the second half, reporter Charles Sennott checks in with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that Glenn Beck has done his best to transform into the latest frontrunner for the title of National Bogeyman. The Brotherhood is one of the oldest and best-organized political organizations in Egypt, but they've never had much of a place in electoral politics, because the country doesn't officially recognize political parties that are based on a specific religion. (In 2005, Brotherhood candidates managed to take 88 seats by running as independents, one of those developments, like Hamas' 2006 triumph at the polls, that can cause great, vaunted believers in making the Mideast more democratic to suddenly detect major flaws in the concept of holding elections.)
When Sennott talks to a Brother who runs a website that focuses on the depiction of the group—or, as the man puts it, "to check lies on the accusations and allegations" made against them—he's perfectly sympathetic to the complaint that "the media coverage in the United States... doesn't distinguish between al-Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood or even Hezbollah." But if he's cautiously optimistic, the accent is definitely on the cautious. The group has a mottled history, including what Sennott gently describes as a "flirtation with fascism" during the Second World War, and if they're not the ultimate Jack Bauer nemesis of Glenn Beck's fever dreams, it's also true that they've never before been in such a good position to achieve enough power to show just how much of a nuisance they might become. Sennott probably has far more to say about their past, present, and possible future than he was able to say in half an hour; the segment feels a little rushed. But it's still nice to see someone who knows a lot more about Egypt than you or I probably do (well, with me, it's definite) share his concerns while freely admitting that he's a long way from having figured it all out yet.