Tahrir Square, January 31. Courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.
With such a crisis on hand and all the mounting international pressure, one would think that the Egyptian authorities would put some serious effort into trying to manage the story and the perceptions abroad. Needless to say, they are failing miserably.
Firstly, of course, there's the domestic side of the info management. Having shut down essentially all communication networks - including the Internet and mobile services - the government also closed down the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo, revoked all AJ reporters' licenses, and even briefly detained six of their journalists on Sunday. (Kudos to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley who devoted 140 characters earlier today to condemn this move by the Egyptian authorities, on Twitter.) They had blocked Al Jazeera's broadcasts in the country earlier (as had, reportedly, several other countries in the region), by which they had hoped to break the enthusiasm of the protesters. Obviously, they were wrong, and if anything, this move only shows the significance of Al Jazeera's reporting.
Instead, the Egyptian State TV offered various "alternative" news, such as the swearing in of the new government, captured here by CBS.
Yet, perhaps the most prominent ridiculousness by the Egyptian State TV happened back on Friday, at the height of the initial protests. While Al Jazeera was broadcasting live pictures of tens (hundreds?) of thousands gathered downtown Cairo, the State TV was showing a laser show at Cairo Tower. (If I were to tweet this, it would certainly deserve the "#epicfail" hashtag...!)
Image from YFrog via @OctaviaNasr.
Furthermore, today morning Al Jazeera mentioned in their live coverage that the State TV also broadcast some pictures of the mass demonstrations, while claiming that they are pro-Mubarak. Do they really think their own people are that stupid? It also seems like he has bought into all the media-and-tweet hype regarding the situation, ignoring the spontaneous nature of the uprising. Yes, without all these communications and information it might be difficult to coordinate and organize better, but the fact that mass demonstrations are planned for tomorrow (Tuesday) too, shows that people will get to the streets anyway.
But that aside, let's look at Mubarak's current "public diplomacy" disaster. Shutting down Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau on Sunday was essentially meant to prevent the network from broadcasting abroad. After all, it has become the source to turn to "on all things Egypt" these days (especially its English-language programming), revealing all that is going on in Egypt for real and framing headlines and perceptions all over the world. Not only doesn't Egypt have an international English-language broadcaster of its own (to at least try and put its own version of the story out there), but it cannot even start hoping that it could ever manage to beat the reach and the credibility enjoyed by Al Jazeera.
Image courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.
Nonetheless, there are exceptions to Mubarak's impotence. For example, he can always rely on Fox News or Netanyahu to sell his own side of the story to the American public...
More importantly, there are several major lobbying and PR companies, that had been long employed by the Egyptian government, to do the "DC-job" on its behalf. Of course, here we are not really talking about public diplomacy per se, and yet, influencing congressional decision-makers themselves constitutes an essential part of the country's image-management efforts. Salon's "War Room" featured an article several days ago detailing some of these long-standing agreements, which were later laid out - in graphics - by Muckety.
It's noteworthy that there have been cases, in the past, where lobbyists have dropped their clients over major political crises. Would all these companies do the same now, though? Would they truly stand up for the protection of all the values and principles America has been so enthusiastically promoting all these years?
The Mubarak regime might have deep ties with the American government, no matter who heads the administration; and yet, at the moment, it seems like the Egyptian people's public diplomacy - whether within the "New Public Diplomacy" concept, or just that promoted by Al Jazeera (still reporting, even if "illegally") - is working better than the government's one in terms of winning public support internationally.
And just to leave you with a laugh that went viral (rather, resurfaced) earlier today:
Note the location of "Egypt". From a Fox News cast two years ago. (Why am I not surprised?!) Read more on Huffington Post.
UPDATE [2/1/2011; 8:00AM]: Some of the latest images and updates from Al Jazeera. Seems like even the telephone services are down now, and yet the flow on people in Cairo has not stopped.