“Blood was spilling and all what we got was the Nile.”
In a few words, a revolutionary Egyptian singer and songwriter summed up the pathetic performance of state TV throughout the 18 days that followed January 25. This line describes the scenes audiences who were naïve enough to assume they could obtain the slightest bit of truth from official media saw when they tried to follow the news. They then realized that the alleged “commotion” falsely reported to have been caused by millions gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was actually a figment of some hallucinating individuals’ imagination and the footage they got of the Nile a few kilometers from the center of the demonstrations, and which had almost become a screensaver during the time, proved that all was quiet on the Egyptian front and that talk of revolution was the making of sneaky satellite channel that destabilized the security of Egypt for a living.
In order not to be that unfair, there were times when a few people would appear in the scene, but these were either passersby going about their daily lives or a bunch of “infiltrators” who were out there to carry out a conspiracy devised by the United States and Israel and Qatar and Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas. The footage happened to be taken each time in only one street, and this street happened to be the one in which the television building was located, so they didn’t even bother to make some effort to fool people.
When clashes erupted around this place and parts of the protest was transferred to the front of the building, they apparently found nowhere else in Egypt to do the job, so they explored other realms of farcical performances. That was when people began speaking on air about foreigners in the square inciting Egyptians against their democratically elected government and tempting them with truckloads of Euros and boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken. One such caller has become quite an icon because he kept whining for a good 10 minutes to one of the news presenters about how the square was infested with English speakers who were set to destroy the country and claim it was a revolution. The faked anxiety on the presenter’s face after hearing the testimony of what he labeled an Egyptian who got to know what was really happening “inside” firsthand – inside” being Tahrir Square – and the equally lousy part gay, part I-want-mommy act was one thing, and the stunning revelation that that witness to the occupation of Egypt turned out to be a presenter himself in Egyptian TV was totally another thing.
A long series of similar charades by other patriots kept coming in and with them rose calls for hanging the minister of information, who was by then considered not less of a criminal then his pal at the Interior who had unleashed his henchmen to kill unarmed civilians. Was Goebbels any less dangerous than Hitler, anyway?
For the January 25 Revolution, toppling official media came right next to toppling the regime, if not hand in hand with it, for the former was a servile satellite of the latter and they both spared no effort to rob the people of any right they should have to know the truth and they both also did their best to clamp down on independent media whenever it went anywhere near exposing their lies. This was bound to change after the revolution, and it did for a while, with people whose faces were banned from showing up on screen or whose names were replaced with “beep” making appearances and issuing statements on all kinds of channels as they proved they were not really the freaks of nature the former government portrayed them to be.
However, we all know that if honeymoons lasted forever the world would be a heaven on earth, for soon the new ruling institution realized that the benefits of freedom of expression are much less than the damages it incurs and the reins had to be pulled only for us to see a reenactment of an old charade that we foolishly thought ended its last season on the day the protagonist stepped down. Amazing how lacking in creativity the new sequel – how many seasons it will last remains to be see – turned out to be.
During Mubarak’s time, every flagrant violation the regime committed was accompanied by two procedures as far as the media is concerned: one, state TV mutates into a relentless propaganda machine; two, satellite channels receive a variety of threats that always revolve around closure in case certain pieces of “malicious” news are reported or certain species of “devious” guests are hosted. The 2010 parliamentary elections, forgery and vote buying and thugs and all the works, offered the starkest of examples, as we were left with the impression that the sweepingly popular members of the National Democratic Party would soon contest in the Congress.
It was hardly different with the massacre of Christian Egyptians on October 9, and no déjà vu has ever felt as powerful. On the same day when dozens of Copts were killed, a presenter at state TV announced that the army was under attack. “And by whom?” she asks. “Not by Israel or any other enemy state, but by a certain group that is also Egyptian.” The “group,” which according to her was willing to set the entire country on fire in order to build one single church, was responsible for killing and injuring several army officers. She, in fact, called upon “patriotic Egyptians” to run to the army’s rescue before the Coptic, unarmed, civilians tore them to pieces. Meanwhile, the bodies of 25 Copts who were shot dead or run over by armored vehicles were ferried to morgues in neighboring hospitals.
The Higher Council for the Armed Forces is a little bit smarter than the former regime, and therefore decided to add a twist to the plot. So, instead of appearing on a TV network whose history of catastrophic reporting made watching The Simpsons more credible, they opted for one of the most watched private channels and the most popular show on this channel and sent two of its senior members to absolve the council and the Egyptian army from any wrongdoing and to reiterate their pledge that not one bullet would be fired at an Egyptian citizen; they then went on forever about how grateful Egyptians should be to every uniform for supporting the revolution and saving the country and all that emotional blackmail in which they, I have to admit, managed to outdo Mubarak’s sacrifice and war blabber.
The script, however, is such a classic, and tampering with a few lines does not mean deviating from the main line of events. A couple of days after the council’s TV appearance, which took place quite a long time after the tragedy – seems they were too much at sea when a change of scenario was necessary –another private channel announced hosting also in its most popular show a famous Egyptian writer to comment on the statements made by council members regarding the killing of Copts. A revolutionary who has never hesitated to speak his mind, Mubarak or no Mubarak, this writer was not by any means expected to say half a word in favor of the army, and popular, as he is, the impact of whatever he was to say on public opinion was expected to be sweepingly forceful. The dictatorship bible is clear on that and so is the Egyptian script. That episode of the show was banned. Right after, the presenter announced suspending the show in protest of “the remarkable deterioration of media freedom” as he himself put it.
“Those in power think they can deny an existing reality or create a non-existent one … and I do not want to be part of this,” he said in the statement he issued right after his withdrawal.
And we keep yawning as we watch the same events unfolding again like we are in some of those harvest cycles in ancient mythology and as we wonder if, like the camera that was posted right outside the TV building and took shots of the same place over and over again, the military council is not even willing to be a bit innovative in showing the people who wears the pants in this country. It also shows how they look down upon their audience, whom they assume are stupid enough not to realize they are watching the same story but with very slight changes, like what happens in Egyptian soap operas when one actress gets pregnant and they have to search for another to play her role in the following season.
As if 30 years of the same performance were not enough! Even Lord of the Rings came in only three parts!
Well, the show’s name translates into “The Last Word,” and it is still remains to be seen whose last word it will be.
(Sonia Farid teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)