Published in Foreign Policy
A week into the demonstrations in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's once unshakeable power structure was in full panic mode. What was once unimaginable had become reality: Egyptians seemed on the verge of overthrowing their government. Last week, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities, shouting again and again their Tunisia-inspired mantra: "The people demand the downfall of the regime!"
As one protester told me and my colleague after viewing some of the dead at one of Alexandria's morgues, "We want to uproot this tree all the way down to its roots, and then plant a new tree" -- terrifying words for the entrenched Egyptian autocracy.
Now, however, on day 16 of the protests, Mubarak and his cronies seemed to have turned a corner. Instead of running scared, the regime is fighting back with both words and violence to quash its opponents, portraying the opposition as a foreign-backed, un-Egyptian group of conspirators. Sadly, its propaganda campaign appears to be as crude as its actual physical crackdown has been.
After Mubarak's defiant last-night speech on Feb. 1, rejecting outright the protesters' demand that he step down, authorities unleashed a stunning wave of violence and intimidation. Gangs armed with sticks and knives attacked protesters. Thugs rode in on horseback and ran demonstrators down. State-run hospitals were under pressure to conceal the toll, so my colleagues and I tried to tally as best we could, visiting wards and morgues across the capital. We've counted more than 300 deaths so far, much higher than the officially acknowledged death toll of 77.
But another target of Mubarak's wrath was, simply, the rest of the world. Thugs hunted down foreigners, including journalists and tourists. Reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times were harassed and detained; al Jazeera's headquarters were stormed, its equipment confiscated, and at least eight of its journalists detained at various times. Attackers told their victims they were looking for an alliance of Israeli Mossad spies, American agents, Iranian and Afghan intelligence, Hamas provocateurs, and other sinister elements that were conspiring to "destroy Egypt."
Why this intense anti-foreigner violence? In short, because the regime was trying just about everything to preserve the privileges of its corrupt rule. There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, his Information Ministry, and elements of his security services sponsored a coordinated campaign to discredit and break up the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests that began on Jan. 25 and to intimidate and silence the journalists, foreign and Egyptian, who were reporting on it.
Senior officials, including Mubarak himself, have darkly hinted of supposed foreign involvement in the protests. On Feb. 1, Mubarak said that honest protesters had been "exploited" by spoilers with political interests. In a nationwide address two days later, his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, more explicitly accused "foreign influences" of spawning chaos.
The innuendo didn't stop there. From the beginning of the protests, "reports" of foreign conspiracies have dominated state television news. Egyptian channels such as Al Oula TV, Nile TV, and Al Masriya TV, all controlled by the Information Ministry, began playing virulent propaganda about the alleged plots and conspiracies hatched abroad. Similar rhetoric also ran on the pro-regime Mehwar TV owned by a close associate of Mubarak's party and in the pages of state-controlled newspapers such as Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar.
Many of the claims of foreign intervention came on so-called call-in shows. On Feb. 1, for example, Mehwar TV broadcast a phone interview with a young woman who claimed she had been at the protests since the first day and had seen a group of "foreign-looking men" -- Turks working for Iranian intelligence, she said -- with lots of cash and satellite phones, distributing expensive gifts and food to protesters. She said they were also distributing political fliers, which is illegal in Egypt. But such calls may well have been staged. The call-in numbers displayed were not even functional, as democracy protesters found out when they tried to dial them.
The next day, Mehwar TV broadcast a breathless interview with a woman whose face they pixelated and who claimed that she had been recruited by Mossad as a spy, had been trained by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House on how to topple the Egyptian government, and had been working closely with Qatar, home of Al Jazeera TV. She said that each of the protest leaders had received $50,000 in cash to round up protesters and instigate the burning of the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. The station offered no independent corroboration of this fanciful story, which among other oddities, implausibly links the Mossad with Al Jazeera -- when the TV network is in fact highly critical of Israel. (It's also quite unclear why the Mossad would want to unseat Mubarak, given that his regime is one of only two Arab governments to have a peace treaty with Israel.)
The absurdities continued. Someone who claimed he was a protester called into state-controlled Al Oula (Channel One) TV on the night of Feb. 2, saying he had just returned from Tahrir Square. He reported that 75 percent of the people there were foreigners, including a group of "Iranians or Afghans" who yelled at him in a language he didn't understand. On Feb. 5, the Mehwar TV show 48 Hours interviewed a young man who claimed he was one of the main protest organizers. He alleged that "Islamists with long beards" had taken over control of Tahrir Square and had smuggled in 23,000 guns into the area, many stolen from police stations. The presenter then took a call from Abd al-Azim Darwish, an editor at Al-Ahram, the main state-owned newspaper, saying he could confirm that the weapons had been taken into Tahrir Square and that he had "top secret security information" that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for smuggling them in.
The Information Ministry even took its propaganda war to the phone networks, forcing mobile-phone carriers including Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat to send out text messages to all subscribers urging them to attend pro-Mubarak rallies. One Vodafone message on Feb. 1 read: "The Armed Forces urge Egypt's loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt." Some messages even mentioned locations for the rallies.
In a country where so many -- particularly the poor who don't have access to satellite television -- rely on the ubiquitous state-controlled media for their information and cell phones for communication, the approach was comprehensive and effective. Rather than being depicted as an expression of popular disgust with the government, the protests were portrayed as a complex international conspiracy. And indeed, such distorted coverage whipped up enough anti-foreigner hysteria that a number of expatriates, including journalists, have been viciously attacked on the streets.
Many in the police and Army were apparently convinced by the propaganda. One activist who was brutally beaten while being detained by the military from Friday until Sunday last week told me how an Army interrogator, who tortured him with electric shocks, was absolutely obsessed with saving the country from the foreign spies trying to ruin it. In an ironic twist, it was another detainee, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- another central part of the "conspiracy" -- who finally convinced the interrogator that his paranoia was unsustainable. "He told the interrogator that we weren't a foreign-inspired movement, explaining it was ridiculous to believe that the Pakistanis, Iran, and the United States were doing this, as they don't work together in any way," the released detainee told me. The Brotherhood member, he said, told the interrogator that "we were all Egyptians in the movement."
Many other state employees, including several prominent members of the media, however, were unconvinced by the propaganda. On Jan. 26, popular TV host Mahmoud Saad resigned from his nightly talk show, Masr ElNahrda, after state television refused to broadcast his candid look at the protests. On Feb. 3, a leading presenter and deputy head of the state-controlled English-language Nile TV, Shahira Amin, also resigned, saying she refused to continue being part of the lies and propaganda. Indeed, many of those who attended pro-Mubarak rallies appeared to be state-company employees. From our hotel balcony, we watched government-run buses go back and forth from Tahrir Square, bringing in the thousands of government supporters.
But the xenophobic, state-sponsored attacks collapsed just as quickly as they begun. By last Friday, Feb. 4, the pro-democracy demonstrators had taken back the momentum of the street, overcoming the fear and staging one of their biggest rallies yet. Foreign journalists once again walked the streets of Cairo without fear. If anything, the government's attempts to crush the protests -- with violence and propaganda -- had the opposite effect, hardening the opposition's resolve.
In the last few days, state-controlled television has even begun broadcasting more objective coverage of the protests. And on Tuesday, Feb. 8, large numbers of state-media employees joined the protesters, demanding the resignation of the bosses who had been responsible for the vicious state propaganda.
And yet the fight for a new, more democratic Egypt, free from state propaganda and intimidation, is far from over. America's new Man in Cairo, Suleiman, carries too much of the baggage of the past. When Christiane Amanpour asked him last Thursday whether the aspirations of the youth for a more democratic society might not represent a real yearning, he responded, "I don't think that's only from the young people; others are pushing them to do that." He warned darkly of "the Islamic current" that was inspiring the youthful protesters. Perhaps he's been watching too much state television.
Peter Bouckaert is the Emergencies director at Human Rights Watch