"Stability" and "Media Freedom" in the Arab Spring

It was predictable, somewhere in the Arab Spring: the forces of security, representatives of the ruling military council, raiding offices and closing down a broadcaster.

Not surprisingly, it was Egypt where this Spring rupture occurred, with the military government disrupting Al Jazeera's specially created local channel, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (Al Jazeera Live -- Egypt), and simultaneously reviewing what general media policy and openness should be in a crisis context.

In many ways, it's the standard story: revolutionary moment, incompletely achieved, leading to resumption of harsh controls. Or it is the story of power shifting -- here from Mubarak to the military -- but the fear of unregulated media continuing to be present. Or is it the story -- a familiar pattern -- of the intensified conflict between "the street" (or "the street" supplemented by soccer fan clubs) dissatisfied with the pace of change by a provisional government (the military), increasing protests and the military clamping down.

In the Egyptian case, the raid was in the wake of government concerns that street protests, if not carefully self-regulated, might spiral out of control and damage consensus notions of post-Tahrir conduct. Apparently, officials representing the military spoke to protestors and to broadcasters ahead of widely announced new gatherings urging a certain degree of caution, especially in coverage. No "incitement to violence" should occur or would be tolerated.

Protests took place. The soccer fan clubs were newly active in the protests and brought a new aggressiveness to certain of the actions.

The Israeli Embassy was not singled out, it seems, but it certainly became one of the most dramatic objects of the protest -- and as a result perhaps the most notable and defining aspects of what occurred on the streets.

The raid on Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr came, according to the New York Times,

as the embassy attack has put pressure on the military council running the country to show that it can control the streets. But it also comes after months of efforts to keep journalists from criticizing the military. The council has warned news organizations to vet their information with the military before publication; summoned journalists and bloggers for questioning about the contents of their writing or broadcasts; and charged a few with the criminal offense of insulting the military.

In just the kind of evolution that is replicated in many post-crisis adjustments, Egypt's minister of media, Osama Heikal, announced that the government would take legal action against stations that "endanger the stability and security" of the nation.

According to Agence France Presse, "The ruling authorities... cracked down on media outlets seen as diffusing information likely to cause instability in Egypt during its transition following the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and transfer of power to the army." Simultaneously, the government ordered a freeze on new satellite television permits, though it's important to note that a large number of channels were established since Mubarak's removal. The action was taken after a meeting with top generals to address "media unruliness," and its effects on the still fragile political process, and on top of the announcement by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to extend enforcement of the country's long-standing, Mubarak-era Emergency Law, despite promises to annul it by September.

All this leaves open the question of "instability" and media regulation. Destabilization is sometime in the eye of the beholder, and when the state is the beholder, the fear of destabilization is very often present.

That said, destabilization exists as a too-often cited phenomenon and it has its media suppressing consequences. Who should decide, and under what circumstances, whether the risk of instability exists and with what results for the media?

The events in Egypt are related to a connect-the-dots global preoccupation by governments with media that they consider "destabilizing" at the very moments of high sensitivity and threatened public order. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, mused over ways of blocking instant messaging on other cell phone applications if they were critical in mobilizing riotous looting in the streets of British cities. In San Francisco, BART, the urban transportation system, cut off cell phone accessibility when it looked like messaging and calling would help motivate demonstrations that might close down parts of the underground.

The manager of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, Ahmed Zein, was quoted as saying "If broadcasting the truth is considered endangering stability, then it is an honor for any media outlet to be endangering stability." The New York Times suggested that the station became known "for its attentive, if not sensational, coverage of street protests."

I asked Adel Iskandar, the noted Georgetown scholar and expert on Egypt, about his take on the protests, the media and the harsh government reaction:

The struggle between reform and stability is at the core of this pendulum of political influence. Protesters demand reform or, as they put it, the culmination of revolution before stability. Alternatively, the military junta, interim government, and their supporters argue that no reform is possible without stability. In a country where stability has been the status quo and modus operandi of the Mubarak regime and its predecessors for decades, if not centuries, the word itself has developed strong negative connotations especially among the revolutionary groups. This is just another stage in what will likely continue to be a tug-of-war between the two camps at least until the presidential elections next year.

This invocation of stability is a problem that seems to be of increasing relevance in more and more contexts. There is a bit of mocking of David Cameron for his remarks (from which he has retreated) and hand-wringing about the possible actions in San Francisco. And the Egyptian military will undoubtedly gain its share of criticism for what seems to be a widespread and heavy-handed frightening of the media.

But for me, the anguish about these efforts and the context in which they are raised reminded me of this William Butler Yeats expression, perhaps counter-revolutionary itself, of societal anxieties in 1919:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Egypt is still the Arab Spring, not this apocalyptic vision. Nor do we know whether and what "rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards" Cairo.