Somewhere Gil Scott-Heron must be reveling in the scene at Tahrir Square. African-Americans may not be pouring into U.S. streets looking for a brighter day, but millions of Egyptian spirits have brought Scott-Heron’s prophetic words to life.
“You will not be able to stay home, brother,” he predicted 41 years ago... “You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out... The revolution will be brought to you without commercial interruption... NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32 PM... The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat... The revolution will be no re-run... The revolution will be live.”
However, even Scott-Heron’s vision may not have seen Al Jazeera coming when he titled his classic poem, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” For those watching Al Jazeera’s 24-hour live feed of Tahrir Square, Egypt’s revolution is televised.
Al Jazeera’s political power entered the Arab World as a hot topic and never looked back. Whether providing Muslims with their own CNN during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, embedded in Lebanon during the 2006 July war, or broadcasting live from a sealed Gaza strip, the West and some Arab states have complained of a news organization with too much power. Just recently, WikiLeaks released files alleging Al Jazeera’s attempt to trade favorable coverage for improved conditions in Gaza.
And while many Palestinians are too numb to feel the shock of "the Palestine papers," they serve as Al Jazeera’s latest mark on the political landscape.
Now Egypt’s ongoing revolution is pushing Al Jazeera’s limit to new heights. If Hosni Mubarak's regime does crumble and give way to real democracy, participating Egyptians will look back 40 years from now and likely view the news organization as integral to their memory. Protesters would generate a similar energy in Al Jazeera’s absence, as illustrated by Egypt’s temporary Internet shutdown. Millions are driven to protest by decades of collective misery and pent-up outrage. But it seems safe to say that Al Jazeera magnified their output by providing a safe-guard against broader government massacres, and through its power to visually unite.
Twitter and Facebook only mimicked Al Jazeera’s two-way channel as a revolutionary enabler.
Yet another layer of Al Jazeera’s power has gone less noticed than its direct cause-and-effect in the Middle East, a power experiencing record growth during Egypt’s revolution. More than influence a given situation, Al Jazeera influences the people watching it. Whether offering Muslims a wider venue to educate and express themselves than traditional state-media allows, or offering Americans a clearer window into the Muslim world, Al Jazeera informs, integrates and stimulates the viewer.
Bill O'Reilly blamed the news channel for raising Egyptians’ anger and Muslim outrage in general. Similar charges were flung during the Gaza war. How? By showing them reality. And the same goes for Americans.
Unlike CNN, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the various U.S. newspapers gasping for breath as they fall behind Egypt’s developments, Al Jazeera is inherently primed to cover such events, and thus always enjoys a head-start. A product of the environment, its natural knowledge (social, religious, ethnic, linguistic) allow it to move freely through the Middle East. This information chasm further splits at Israel, as the U.S. media and its guest officials concentrate on the state from a strategic standpoint.
Although they pull the highest-ranking officials, major U.S. news networks rely on anchors and insiders to flood the air-waves with one or two strains of thought, talking at the viewer rather than with them. Caring less about an accurate picture of Egypt and more about influencing U.S. public opinion and policy in Washington, Egyptians have generally fallen out of the U.S. equation.
Turn to Al Jazeera and one can find a variety of opinions, but they’re mostly united around the future of Egypt and its people. Although the organization is often branded as anti-American, this is largely due to removing itself and allowing its guests to speak, which can come across as anti-American. Al Jazeera is user friendly. By fielding dozens of phone calls from journalists, activists, and average protesters on the ground - and overlaying them on the intuitive genius of a 24-hour broadband feed - Al Jazeera has created the most immersive experience offered on Egypt’s revolution.
While under attack from pro-government forces.
Those staying up Friday morning were able to witness the “Day of Departure” unfold live on Al Jazeera, from dawn's gathering to noon prayers to four+ hours of chanting “Leave, leave, leave.” For an American thousands of miles away, this author was at Tahrir Square, at Alexandria. Soon he will join the solidarity protests back in the U.S., completing the user cycle.
Other Americans craving this virtual experience are responding too. Along with Al Jazeera’s wider spike in global hits (past the Gaza war), Al Jazeera English has witnessed a surge in U.S. viewership over the last two weeks. Half of the website's 1,000% spike is of U.S. origin and Americans comprise 3.5 million of the 9.5 million live feeds on Tahrir Square. As for the number of Americans watching Al Jazeera English directly on their T.V.s - the ultimate viewing experience - the full 24-hour channel is only offered in three markets, the largest being Washington D.C.’s 2.4 million people. But Direct TV’s 18 million subscribers can watch roughly 10 hours of coverage on Link T.V., and rising demand has fielded speculation that Al Jazeera could finally break through its political blackballing.
"Many people are switching us on in the United States for the first time, thereby increasing the pressure on the operators to actually put us out onto people's TVs,” said Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, who added that the White House has the channel on 24/7.
Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Timer Warner Cable, said the provider was "willing to talk" about carrying Al Jazeera English and was not afraid of a backlash. If not now, then next revolution.
"This has shown that Americans do care about foreign news and international affairs," Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online services at Al Jazeera English, declared optimistically. "The huge interest in Egypt and in Tunisia, it has really blown that myth away."
Elaborating on the misconceptions hounding Al Jazeera, Anstey rightfully explains that, "if you watch the content of Al Jazeera English, those misconceptions, if they apply, are immediately dispelled." Rather, Al Jazeera has provided Americans with an open window into Egypt’s revolution. A diversity of views offers a panorama, not a narrow, “anti-American” perspective. As a result, Al Jazeera’s power can be measured by the number of Americans viscerally experiencing Egypt’s awakening.
And a second-hand awakening of their own.