Why Mubarak’s Agents Attacked Western Journalists in Tahrir Square

Blog entry posted 02.12.2011

In the past week, several Western television journalists have been attacked in Tahrir square, the epicenter of Egypt’s anti-government demonstration, by supporters of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime.

Many observers assert that these attacks have been unleashed by the Mubarak regime to discredit the protests that have otherwise been peaceful.

While objectionable, these attacks shouldn’t be so surprising, given the situation that Mubarak now finds himself in. For years, Mubarak has been able to run an oppressive, corrupt regime whose behavior was accepted by Western powers desperate for allies in the Arab world. But under the glare of the global media spotlight, the  political and ethical bankruptcy of this regime can no longer be ignored.

Given that international journalists are writing and broadcasting stories that undermine its authority, it is little wonder that the Egyptian government has targeted them. In fact, this is predictable behavior from authoritarian regimes. States use foreign policy for domestic purposes, while leveraging domestic policy for international legitimacy.  For example, Arab states, especially Egypt, have exploited instability in the Mideast, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to maintain credibility at home. At the same time, states have also used domestic issues to win greater integration within the international system.

The re-orientation of Egyptian foreign policy is a perfect example of this two-level game in practice. Drawing a lesson from his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic radicals, it was one thing to make peace with Israel, but quite another to pursue deeper engagement and cooperation. Mubarak honored the peace treaty, but he would not travel to Tel Aviv or make public shows of affection with his Israeli counterparts that he thought would offend Egyptian honor.

By burying diplomatic relations with Israel, Mubarak was able to repair relations with the Arab League and with the Arab states that had cut their ties to Egypt in 1979. While Mubarak cultivated an image of aloofness towards Israel, he simultaneously but discreetly developed a partnership with Israel on trade and “security” that was far more extensive than Sadat could have imagined. Egyptian and Israeli intelligence services have a close working relationship, and Mubarak has supplied weapons and training to the Palestinian Authority in its war against Hamas, Israel’s sworn enemy.

Mubarak has also used fear of Political Islam in his two-level game. Under Mubarak, praying has become as popular as shopping or football, and like other popular pastimes, serves as a distraction from the innumerable frustrations of Egyptian life. Indeed, Egyptian Islam increasingly caters to consumerist needs. The popular televangelist Amr Khaled mixes Quranic citations with boosterish advice of a more general kind. This variety of Islam is no threat to the regime, but it has made life far less easy-going.   

The State is also using the fear of political Islam in the West to reinforce their legitimacy in the international system. For example, Mubarak and Tunisia’s recently ousted president Ben Ali argued for maintaining the status quo, asserting that they are the only thing standing between internal security and utter chaos. Ben Ali ultimately failed to maintain the status quo, but Mubarak, for all his troubles, persists with trying to maintain as much of the status quo as possible.

In a January 28 speech to the Egyptian public that also broadcast worldwide, Mubarak stated: "There is a fine line between freedom and chaos and I lean toward freedom for the people in expressing their opinions as much as I hold on to the need to maintain Egypt''s safety and stability… I will defend Egypt''s safety and stability and its people''s wishes, for that is the responsibility and the trust endowed in me when I swore an oath in front of God and the nation to protect it." In a February 3 interview with Christiane Amanpour, Mubarak was even more direct, claiming that he was eager to step down as President but feared that by doing so now, “Egypt would sink into chaos.”[1]

The peaceful popular demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities show the irrelevance of such an approach. Thus, a desperate regime’s only recourse is to foment violence and chaos by attacking western media to show the hostility of the masses and their “incivility.” But this is happening not in the polished ambiance of western embassies, but in the rough of the Egyptian street, lifting the veil off Mubarak’s two-faced politics.

[1] Christiane Amanpour, “Reporter’s Notebook: Exclusive Interview with Hosni Mubarak.” 3 February 2011. Article available at: http://abcnews.go.com/International/egypt-abc-news-christiane-amanpour-exclusive-interview-president/story?id=12833673. Video transcript available at: http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/christiane-amanpour-meets-egyptian-president-hosni-mubarak-12833970