< Egypt's 'Girl In The Blue Bra'

Transcript

Friday, December 23, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The image ricocheted around the world, beginning last weekend in Cairo.

[CROWD NOISE]

A woman is beaten to the ground by members of the military who proceed to drag, club and stomp on her, even as her Abaya is pulled over her head, exposing her blue bra and torso. After a few seconds she appears to be unconscious but the beating goes on.

Filmed by a professional cameraman, both the  footage and the still are reproduced everywhere, making it crystal clear that at least in this case the once vaunted military has brutally turned on Egyptian protesters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expresses outrage, and on Tuesday 10,000 people, mostly women, march in Cairo, many carrying photos of the “blue bra woman.” Isander El Amrani is a journalist in Cairo who’s been following the Egyptian media's coverage of the story. Issandr, welcome to the show.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

My pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So I noticed you've been resorting to a pun that dates back to the early days of vaudeville. You call Egypt still “the land of denial (de Nile).”

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

Yeah, it’s a golden oldie. And it seems more true than ever these days, when you have so much just completely denial of reality by  the military rulers of Egypt and by their  supporters in the Egyptian media who will deny what everyone is seeing on video, and that the Egyptian army has in the last few weeks moved to crush protests in a way that’s so shocking.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It seems as if the control over the press is not as pervasive as it used to be.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

No, but you have to remember the outrage was not immediate. First we had a picture that came out, and then eventually the video. And the video initially came out on YouTube and blogs and only later made it to the private stations that have a certain popular following among maybe wealthier people in Egypt.

But only later did it go to the TV stations, where you had guests on the political talk shows trying to deny what happened, saying, this is not possible, the army does not do this, people alleging in this case that the pictures of the video was photoshopped - was doctored in some way. It really took the protests we had a couple of days ago here, with about 10,000 women coming up into the streets bearing that picture, for the army itself to acknowledge that this, in fact, happened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So this story would not have become the touch point that it has become, if it hadn't been for digital media that is outside the control of the Egyptian military?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

Well, not only social media and the Internet, but also traditional media, satellite TV stations and newspapers, looked into the picture, looked into the allegations that it was doctored and found out that it wasn't. And about three days ago you have a very critical newspaper come out with, on its cover, the picture of the woman being beaten and the headline was “Liars.”  The fact that they initially denied it, it really made people angry. And it's a sign of the extent to which the armed forces don’t seem to realize how much the world was changed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What does the role of the image of gratuitous violence do to a movement? I remember the infamous murder of Neda on the streets of Iran, and I wonder if in some ways a movement begins to coalesce because of the nature of its victims.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

Absolutely, and it’s very much the case of the Egyptian uprising. Since last January you have artists putting up portraits across the city of over 850 people who died between January and February of this year. There's an iconography here of the marchers and, likewise, seeing people beat up on television, like this woman, brings them together. You may be an Islamist, you may be a socialist, you may be a liberal, but we can all agree that this behavior is unacceptable.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you think that the “woman in the blue bra” is destined to become an icon of this phase of the revolution?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

Yes, absolutely, I think that image will remain in people's minds. But we have to remember that Egypt is a country that’s about 40 percent illiterate. Only about maybe 20, 25 percent of the population has regular access to the Internet. A lot of people solely get their information from state television, state radio and state newspapers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And yet, the protesters know this. They carry these images on the street. They put them in front of people who may never get near a computer or who may not be able to read.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

That’s true. A lot people have been printing out the image of the “girl in the blue bra” on large cardboard, taking it to protests, going around in their neighborhoods and showing people.

Also, the activists – the reason they record so much and they make such a use of YouTube and so much time editing things, it’s not just because they want to address the 20 percent of Egyptians that’s online. It’s because they know that it will be picked up by the newspapers, by the television stations, and so on, so that ultimately if a video ends up on Al Jazeera, one of the most watched news channels in the Arab world, it becomes an international event. We saw it with the “girl in the blue bra.” Within a couple of days the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to react to this. It becomes no longer possible for state TV to ignore it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And this is a pattern we're likely to see repeated.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

Unless you want to be a completely closed state like North Korea is, your media cannot be completely closed. And we’re seeing, I think, a rapid transformation of the Egyptian media in a way that I don't think that any ministry of information is going to be able to control.

And, in fact, some political parties and leaders and activists have made calls for the abolition of the Ministry of Information, after 60 years of centralized state-controlled media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Is that a pipedream?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

A year ago I might have told you that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is a pipedream. I don't think so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Issandr, thank you very much.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI:

My pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Issandr El Amrani is a journalist in Cairo and founder of TheArabist.net.