The Role Of New And Old Media In Egypt

Adel Iskandar, an instructor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, speaks to host Michele Norris about the protests in Egypt and the role of social media.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

After a day of demonstrations against his regime, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, went on television this evening in an attempt to quell the uprising. Here he is speaking through an interpreter.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through Translator) I call on our youth and call on each and every Egyptian citizen, man and woman, to work for the public interest of the people and to stand up for the (unintelligible) of their country not by setting ablaze or assaulting private and public property. Not by this we can achieve the aspirations of Egypt and its people.

NORRIS: Addressing the camera directly, President Mubarak said he's asked the current government to step down, and that he'll appoint a new government tomorrow. He said nothing about stepping down himself.

The flames of the protests in Egypt are being covered and perhaps fanned by media old and new. Organizers found supporters and planned protests through Facebook, Twitter and text messaging, at least until Internet and cellular communications were shut down earlier today.

News networks, in particular Al Jazeera, are bringing massive attention to the clashes and demonstrations of solidarity in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria.

To examine how new forms of communication are influencing Egypt's upheaval, we're joined now by Adel Iskandar. He's a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.

Thank you so much for coming in.

Professor ADEL ISKANDAR (Media and Communications Lecturer, Georgetown University): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: First, is this uprising brought on by changes in communication? Would this kind of thing even been possible 10 years ago?

Prof. ISKANDAR: I think it's impossible to really assess that. I mean, we have a really perfect storm in many ways. I mean, we have a configuration of a public that is incredibly distraught and very angry and has been building up with this frustration for quite some time -mixed with an ability to communicate in a manner that they couldn't before.

The new media has really infiltrated Egyptian society in a very significant way, that over 20 million Egyptian Internet users - and many of them are on Facebook. So now they have another realm whereby they can resort to information. They can distribute the material. They can mobilize. They can move around. So it's created a whole new space for them to communicate, one that is not afforded to them using the traditional national press.

NORRIS: And as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, this is a country that's experienced a youth bubble - a large portion of the population, very young.

Prof. ISKANDAR: Absolutely. A very, very large youth bubble that is incredibly disenchanted and disenfranchised. These are youth that have very little prospects, very few aspirations that are met with the current conditions in the country. And they refuse to accept anything less than absolute change.

NORRIS: What role has Al Jazeera played in this?

Prof. ISKANDAR: Al Jazeera's role - I mean, there was a lot of criticism of Al Jazeera over the last couple of days or so for failing to report the story on Egypt. They happened to have missed the early days of the protest on Tuesday, because they were too busy covering the Palestine papers. But they were very, very quick to rectify this today, situating, you know, cameras and reporters all over the country from Suez to Alexandria to Hala to Cairo, even in the most strategic locations.

So they've had literally unfettered access to some of the fascinating aerial showcases that we've witnessed. I mean, this is a real revolution literally being televised by Al Jazeera. So it's a major scoop.

NORRIS: Now, you mentioned this is a perfect storm. There had been anti-Mubarak Facebook agitators before. Why was this the right moment? Why did the storm come to a head right now?

Prof. ISKANDAR: I think it's a combination of different factors and variables, one of which is watching the Tunisian regime literally fall within a matter of weeks. I mean, this is something unimaginable and totally impractical. And it's sort of like a film reel literally unfolding in front of the Egyptians' eyes.

I mean, how do you see an Egyptian dictatorial, authoritarian, tyrannical leader all of a sudden board a plane and leave the country and then be called for or being issued an international arrest warrant?

This is something unfathomable.

NORRIS: You mean Tunisia?

Prof. ISKANDAR: Tunisia, yes. Absolutely. So for the Egyptians to see that, I mean, all of a sudden, it's a bright light at the end of the tunnel. And they'd like to see their regime follow suit.

NORRIS: What happens now with Twitter and Facebook virtually shut down?

Prof. ISKANDAR: Well, right now, Egypt is in a complete media blackout. I mean, Egypt is worse than North Korea. It's a drifting island in the middle of nowhere, where there's very little information coming out of Egypt, very little information going into Egypt, and people cannot communicate with another using cell phones. So really, this is a major question.

The point here is that we are starting to witness the Egyptian Internet generation all of a sudden letting go of their gadgets, putting down their Twitter, putting down their Facebook and taking this revolution to the street, which is something that we are usually skeptical about.

NORRIS: So turning off Twitter might have sent more people into the streets?

Prof. ISKANDAR: Sent more people into the street, so it may have actually backfired. So the regime ended up really hurting themselves by resorting to this.

NORRIS: Thank you so much for coming in.

Prof. ISKANDAR: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: That was Adel Iskandar. He's a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.

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