Cell phones, camels and the global call for democracy

In the Arab spring, new social media and the established media disseminated the voices of dissent and images of state brutality worldwide. The sheer drama of these unfolding events conveyed to us by correspondents physically embedded among the protestors, vividly conveyed the elation involved in challenging repressive state power.
Simon Cottle
27 September 2011

Media and communications, both old and new, performed an inextricable function in the so-called ‘Arab Uprising’ or ‘Arab Spring.’ They continue to do so in its unfolding political trajectory around the world. The very terms ‘Arab Uprising’ and ‘Arab Spring,’ have become, courtesy of the western media, part of the established lexicon for these momentous developments, labels which resonate with images and ideas of democratic struggle. There was not one ‘Arab Uprising’ however, but many ‘uprisings’ across the Middle East and North Africa in the first half of 2011, and each continues to unfold according to its own political dynamics.

The role of media and communications within and across these uprisings is also no less complex or differentiated. Though it is much referred to, with some western commentators tempted to christen such events the ‘Facebook Revolution’ or ‘Twitter Revolution’, the role of media and communications within them is a good deal more complex than this. We need to better understand the overlapping and interpenetrating ways in which media systems and communication networks complexly entered into these events and communicated them around the world. As I argue elsewhere (1), here are some of the questions they pose:

1) How did state-controlled Arab media recognize or ignore calls for social justice and political democracy in the period preceding the 2011 uprisings? How and why did western media turn a blind eye to these same forces of growing discontent?

2) Did western media and global communication flows have a wider role in valorizing cultures of consumerism and the tenets of democracy inside different Arab societies over recent years?

3) What was the role of new media in sustaining new forms of social conviviality in everyday life and thereby sustaining, both virtually and physically, pluralized identities and interactions in an emergent civil society?

4) How did new social media, often in interaction with mainstream media and communication flows, serve to coordinate mass protests and disseminate messages of solidarity to potential supporters and graphic images of the human costs of their non-violent struggle to publics worldwide?

5) How were these same new media tools deployed by repressive states to target and debilitate the voices of opposition and deny dissident voices communication channels to the outside world?

6) What was the role of media in transnationalizing protest across the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf states? 

7) What was the role of international media and communications in helping to recognize and legitimize the political views and democratic aspirations of the oppositional movements, sometimes in advance of national and international political elites?

8) How did the events reverberate in repressive states around the world? How did this influence their own internal forms of media censorship and control directed at future opposition?

9) How did the established international human rights regime and, specifically, the United Nations’ protocols on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), inform media representations and public deliberation of the United Nation’s interventions in Libya, but not, for example, Syria?

10) How were processes of democratic momentum in the post-uprising phase either stymied or supported through new forms of media and institutional and regulatory frameworks?

In all these ways, media and communications have entered into the politics of the uprisings both temporally and spatially, across local, national, regional and international political jurisdictions. Here, I want to begin exploring how and why media and communications helped to grant these politically tumultuous events a human and sympathetic face around much of the world and helped thereby to legitimize the protesters' collective actions as part of a democratic struggle.

On first consideration, such ‘democratic’ media framing in western mainstream media might be seen as unlikely. In a post-9/11 world marked by the ‘global war on terrorism’ and bloody military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, western media have often been criticized for contributing to a widespread and reductionist view of Arab societies, Islam and Muslims, viewing each through a homogenizing lens of suspicion, fear and ignorance (2). Something of this western Orientalist outlook certainly surfaced early on in the first wave of protests in Tunisia then Egypt, with media commentators and others expressing surprise at their secular, non-violent and democratic nature -  confounding expectations that radical Islamists must be 'behind' such mass challenges to state power.

Secondly, according to established research findings, radical protests and demonstrations are unlikely to find balanced, much less sympathetic, media representation. Past studies document how news frames invariably delegitimize political protests and their political claims, denigrating or demonizing the participants involved, and labelling them as deviant, while also emptying out ‘the political’ by emphasizing violence, drama and spectacle (3). Geopolitical interests and outlooks can enter the media frame when there are reports on political protests and movements that challenge regimes ‘hostile’ to the media’s host nation (4). But this was not exactly the case, for example, in Mubarak’s Egypt, widely regarded as the most ’westernized’ of Arab societies and the most important bastion of western support in the Middle East. So how can we account for this humanizing and generally sympathetic coverage found in much of the western media and contrary to established political and academic expectations?

Cell phones: the rising tide of democratizing communication

New social media - YouTube, Twitter, Facebook - along with online bloggers, mobile telephony and more traditional means of communication media all played their part in communicating, coordinating and channelling the rising tide of opposition. Together they managed to bypass state-controlled national media and circumvented attempts at control and blanket censorship, propelling images and ideas of mass defiance across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Early images of Mohammed Bouaziz setting fire to himself in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, a desperate act of defiance, were captured on video phones by passers by. Posted on YouTube and Facebook, together with images of the mass protests that followed his funeral and the state repression that ensued, they proved incendiary. In the simmering political discontent of Tunisia and further afield across the Arab world, these images symbolized not only a desperate act of defiance but also unmet democratic aspirations in the face of growing youth unemployment, social injustice and political corruption and authoritarianism.

With 65% of the population of the Middle East under the age of 30 and many  technology-savvy and adept at using new forms of communication to bypass state controls and mobilize around common issues or grievances a powerful means of coordinating and communicating mass protests was in their hands. Bloggers in Egypt and Tunisia were instrumental in publicizing and spreading accounts of torture and human rights violations by the security services. As protestors came up against state repression and military violence, images and accounts of human rights abuses rapidly coursed through available media channels and networks, often confounding attempts by authorities to censor and control the communications environment. Dubbed ‘The Global YouTube News Bureau’, vivid images bearing witness to human rights abuses circulated widely including those originating from countries where some of the worst state atrocities took place such as Libya and Syria and where authorities banned or tightly corralled foreign correspondents. Graphically documenting nonviolent protests being met by deadly state violence, many of these dramatic images flowed through the world’s mainstream news services.

International news media, in turn, including Al-Jazeera, helped to distribute the flood of disturbing scenes and reports of the uprisings easily accessed via Google’s YouTube and boomeranged them back into the countries concerned. Mainstream newspapers and news broadcasters in their online variants also increasingly incorporated direct links to new social media, effectively acting as a portal to the near live-streaming of images coming direct from the protests. As the report Social Media in the Arab World concludes ‘If content had remained strictly on Facebook, its audience would have been limited to those who are members of certain groups, and would not likely have been disseminated in ways that proved pivotal to the media coverage’ (5). 

Camels: symbolism and dramaturgy for democracy

The democratizing impetus of today’s interpenetrating communication networks and media systems does not only inhere in the technological capacity to capture and circulate images and ideas speedily and extensively to different places and publics. It also depends on the nature of those images and ideas and how they came to powerfully resonate with distant audiences. What gave those images their political charge? All social collectives draw upon established cultural scripts, symbols and performances to help make sense of new events. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is no exception.

In the decidedly undemocratic context of the Arab uprising, the protestors were under no illusion about the likely repressive responses by state authorities when their coercive, illegitimate power was challenged. They sought to confront this ‘democratically’ nonetheless through mass demonstrations and, for the most part, using nonviolent means. When witnessed by global communication systems such scenes and performances resonated strongly with the normative outlooks and democratic sensibilities of western audiences.  

Jeffrey Alexander, in The Civil Sphere (2006) considers Martin Luther King’s strategy for civil rights in the US, observing how, ‘By provoking repression and possibly even violence from the movement’s southern opponents, nonviolent tactics could make visible and dramatically powerful the anticivil domination that characterized southern society. “Instead of submitting to surreptitious cruelty in thousands of dark jail cells and on countless shadowed street corners,” Martin Luther King wrote, the movement’s nonviolent tactics would force the southern “oppressor to commit his brutality openly – in the light of day – with the rest of world looking on.” (6).This 24/7 ‘looking on’, was clearly heightened in the global coverage of the mass demonstrations in the Arab Spring. A few examples of the symbolic drama will make the case.

The most startling and dramatic scenes of the mass demonstrations in Egypt, including the ‘Day of Anger’ (January 25) followed by the ‘Day of Rage’ and then the ‘March of the Millions’ (February 1), that forced Hosni Mubarak’s departure, all took place in Tahrir Square. Like other major squares and plazas in capital cities, Tahrir Square (Liberation Square), symbolized an important landmark in the nation’s capital and is positioned close to a number of sovereign national institutions. The square had already accrued symbolic meaning as the site of the 1977 Bread Riots and March 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War and, before that, historically, as the site of demonstrations against British occupation in 1919 and nationalist opposition to Kedive Tawfik in 1881. Through sustained media coverage, however, the symbol and drama of Tahrir Square became known worldwide.

The images of the protestors in Tahrir Square beamed across the Western media, showed the good nature and harmonious atmosphere of the assembled crowds, literally ‘demonstrating’ their civility and democratic purpose in and through their actions. Inside the Square people engaged in animated discussions, monitored different media and entertained each other through songs, music and poetry. Flowers were offered to the military overseeing the Square and Coptic Christians formed a protective ring around praying Muslims. It was the generally secular ambition of the demonstration, however, that came to publicly define it in the media, reinforced through political slogans written on placards and posters in English and prominently displayed for western media by protestors who wore, as is generally the case in the capital city, western attire. Images such as these carried a symbolic and democratizing charge that also helped to rupture western post-9/11 enemy images of Arab societies populated by religious fundamentalists and violent extremists. This symbolism was, inevitably, thrown into sharper relief when juxtaposed against the images of state brutality meted out by armed police and security personnel targeting peaceful demonstrators and the dead and bloodied bodies left in their wake. This was a powerful binary symbol situated as it was, in the reporting of live, dramatically unfolding events.  

One of the most graphic illustrations of this powerful dramaturgy came on February 2 when armed supporters of President Mubarak mounted horses, camels and chariots and rode at full speed into the amassed crowds, beating them with clubs and sticks as they went. Captured live by many of the world’s TV media now encamped around the Square, here is a CNN reporter responding as best he can, to these unexpected, unscripted scenes.  

CNN Live, Breaking News:  Camels and Horses Storm Tahrir Square

Oh it’s absolutely tense, it’s even more than tense, there’s a really strange scene unfolding there right now. We just saw a group of riders on horseback and we’re still seeing it, charging into the crowd, we see guys on horseback with clubs, charging, they’re pro-Mubarak protestors, charging into the crowds, right there, up there, outside the Egyptian museum, guys on horseback with clubs, guys on camelback, guys on chariots who are now charging into the crowd. I would say it’s about 50 or 60 horses that are now charging.  …  You can probably see the horses coming back here as well, as it seems both sides are trying to fight for turf there, on Tahrir Square which of course is such an important symbol in this, if you will, this ‘uprising’ which has been going on, and so far occupied solely by anti-Mubarak demonstrators but now these pro-Mubarak demonstrators on the scene and seemingly bringing in any weapon that they can with these people on horseback. … Right now I have not yet seen any sort of ambulances on the scene. So it’s obviously a very serious situation, where you have these things happen, like when you have an army of rioters on horseback come in.                           

CNN Live, February 2, 2011

As the presenter struggles to make sense of the unexpected scenes unfolding in front of his eyes, his impromptu commentary betrays not only a loss of fluency brought on by the drama and excitement of what is being witnessed, but also how blame and culpability are  infused in the moment of making sense of the unfolding drama and its symbolic forms. Camels, so long the tourist symbol par excellence of Egypt, when set alongside chariots and even horses in this violent incursion, here take on a decidedly less benign aspect.  In the setting of Tahrir Square and unleashed in such dynamic movement against the established presence of nonviolent crowds, they become not only the symbols of traditional, pre-modern Egyptian society, but anti-symbols visibly pitched against civility and democracy. No wonder that the CNN correspondent narrating the scenes stumbles toward the language of ‘uprising’. This was just one notable moment that  resonated through the western media’s ‘sense-making’ of the Egyptian uprising. There were of course many such dramaturgical moments and symbolic performances in the reporting of the ‘Arab Spring’. Activists and protesters on the ground were also aware of the need for international media recognition and were often seen clamoring to put their case to international audiences and governments in front of mainstream news cameras. How the world’s assembled media in Tahrir Square responded to these calls for democracy, also played its part.

The global call for democracy:  journalism getting close up and personal

At least 846 Egyptians, we know, lost their lives in Egypt’s uprising and over 6000 were wounded. Foreign correspondents in Tahrir Square not only helped to focus world attention on these momentous events but also granted them a human face. By these means, mass demonstrations on the streets of Egypt became less distanced, less humanly remote. Visceral scenes and emotional testimonies elicited in places like Tahrir Square brought home to watching millions something of the protestors’ everyday despair and democratic aspirations as well as their extraordinary courage in confronting, by non-violent means, repressive state violence. 

Western governments at first seemed to be wrong-footed by the surprise and speed of the Arab revolts and equivocated about their possible causes, demographic composition and legitimacy (especially in respect to their foremost Middle East ally, Egypt), many western news media appeared to grant early recognition to the protesters’ aims, sense of grievance and cause. Only as the political efficacy of the mass protests was grasped and the imminent demise of regimes such as Mubarak’s Egypt anticipated, did official pronouncements begin to move toward a more supportive position toward calls for regime change.

This finding suggests that mainstream media can, on some occasions, adopt a more independent and critically engaged news stance even when political elites exhibit a relatively united front in terms of their expressed views on the political contention in question (7). Part of the explanation for this more independent and sympathetic media representation can be found in today’s global media ecology (8), where 24/7 news channels including CNN, BBC World and Al-Jazeera, mobile telephony and new social media all provide in differing permutations new opportunities for communicating the voices of dissent and disseminating images of human rights abuses. The phenomenological dimension of embedding, so acutely observed and consequential in the context of war reporting (9), can also  be at work in other contexts of journalist immersion, especially when witnessing human vulnerability and traumatic events, whether humanitarian crises (10), disasters (11), or popular uprisings confronting state violence: 

The images of state brutality and repressive violence captured via new social media and media monitoring services such as BBC Monitoring, that surveyround-the-clock, TV, radio, press, Internet and news agency sources worldwide, help to ‘narrow the distance’ between unfolding events and those witnessing them whether geographically dispersed audiences or the news editors and journalists watching and editing them back in the newsroom.

It is the personal testimony provided by user-generated content that gives the emotional power to the storytelling - unlike much of the professionally shot material, which is one step removed from the events portrayed. This is an emotional power that has an impact on our audience and newsroom journalists alike. But it is not just the graphic images that make up this new frontline. Technology - from mobile phones to Skype - now allows participants and bystanders to share their experiences, direct and unmediated. 

Assistant Editor, BBC Interactivity and Social Media Development (12)

The Guardian newspaper, for example, recounted numerous instances of violence meted out to journalists in its article ‘Egypt protests: BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera journalists attacked’. Here we read how journalists from the BBCal-Jazeera, and other Arab news organizations were ‘facing fresh attacks from pro-government "thugs"’ and how Channel 4 News reported that ‘Mubarak's "secret police" were threatening journalists to keep away from the streets of Cairo’ and ‘Jonathan Rugman, Channel 4 News's foreign correspondent, tweeted: "One journalist punched in face, another stabbed in leg by pro-Mubarak thugs in Cairo this morning. On their way to hospital now." Jon Snow, the broadcaster's chief news anchor was also quoted, amongst many others, saying, "Media hotel [is] suffering Mubarak thugs attacking all our attempts to get out to report."(13) Correspondents who witness violence and experience threats and personal attacks, will recognise all the more sharply the democratic nature of the protestors’ struggle.

Here’s BBC correspondent George Alagiah reporting from the heart of Tahrir Square:

They came from all over Cairo converging on Liberation Square, hoping it would live up to its name. And some came from much further afield.

Now this gentleman has just shown me his British passport and he says he’s just flown in to be here. “Why is it important to be here today?”

“I wanted to be with my brothers and sisters, the young, the old, the children, the people on the wheelchairs, all the people that have suffered during Mubarak’s term, for 30 years.”

This uprising has given space to those whose voices have not always been heard.

“We’re all Egyptian”, she says, “women, men and children. We all represent the country equally.”

Young and old, rich and poor, they were all here. Even the children have a message for the president. “Go away” they shout. A father who hopes his daughters will remember this day as the one that changed their fortunes.

Now you only have to be here for a few moments and you get that sense of elation, that ability to speak out for the first time in, what, 30 years or so. Look at this: You’ve got flowers given to the soldiers as a gift probably, and down here you’ve got a sweet stand. A traditional sweet stand. This is part rebellion, but it’s also part festival. This was a show of unity. All want Mubarak to go. … (14)

Journalists and correspondents embedded inside the physical sites of democratic struggle experience not only the imminent sense of threat and repressive state violence arraigned against the protestors and themselves, but also something of the solidarity of the crowds and their sense of elation when united in their democratic endeavor .


A combination of media and communication factors have combined here to enhance the public definition and elaboration of the ‘Arab Uprising’ or ‘Arab Spring’ as legitimate movements for democracy. The role of new social media in combination with established media in disseminating voices of dissent and images of state brutality worldwide; the symbolic and dramatic form taken by these unfolding events; and the role of correspondents physically embedded with the protestors - all played a key part in reporting the ‘Arab Spring.’ It was by these means that western news media accepted early on their democratic claims and represented these momentous political challenges as legitimate struggles for democracy. 


This is a summary version of the author’s chapter in R. Keeble and J. Mair (Eds) (2011) Mirage in the Desert?: Reporting the Arab Spring. Bury St Edmunds: Arima Publishing.  




(1) Cottle, S. (2011) ‘Reporting the Arab Uprisings: Notes for Research’ Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(5) 647-659; Cottle, S. (2011) ‘Afterword: Media and the Arab Uprisings of 2011’ in Cottle, S. and Lester, L. (Eds) Transnational Protests and the Media. New York: Peter Lang.

(2) See, for example, Poole, E. & Richardson, J. (Eds) (2006) Muslims and the News Media. London: I.B. Tauris; Altheide, D. (2009) Terror Post 9/11 and the Media. New York: Peter Lang.

(3) For reviews see Cottle, S. (2008) ‘Reporting Demonstrations: The Changing Media Politics of Dissent’ Media, Culture & Society, 30(6): 853- 872; Cottle & Lester 2011.

(4) See Fang, Y-J. (1994) ‘”Riots” and Demonstrations in the Chinese Press: A Case Study of Language and Ideology’, Discourse & Society, 5(4): 463-81; Cottle 2008.

(5) Ghannam, J. (2011) Social Media in the Arab World: Leading Up to the Uprisings of 2011. Washington, D.C.: Center for International Media Assistance. p.16

(6) Also see: McAdam, D. (2000) Movement Strategy and Dramaturgic Framing in Democratic States: The Case of the American Civil Rights Movement, in Chambers, S. and Costan. A. (Eds) Deliberation, Democracy and the Media. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield pp 117-134, and Alexander, J. (2011) Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power. New York: Bloomsbury.

(7) cf. Bennett, L. (1990) Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States, Journal of Communication, Vol. 40, No. 2 pp 103-25; Bennett, L., Lawrence, R. and Livingstone, S. (2007) When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina, Chicago: Chicago University Press; Hallin, D, (1994) We Keep America on Top of The World, London: Routledge

(8) Cottle, S. (2009) Global Crisis Reporting: Journalism in the Global Age, Maidenhead: Open University Press

(9) Morrison, D. and Tumber, H. (1988) Journalists at War: The Dynamics of News Reporting During the Falklands Conflict, London: Sage; Morrison, D. (1994) Journalists and the Social Construction of War, Contemporary Record, Vol. 8, No. 2 pp 305-320

(10) Cottle, S. and Nolan, D. (2007) Global Humanitarianism and the Changing Aid-Media Field: “Everyone was Dying for Footage”’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 8, No. 6 pp 862-878

(11) Cottle, S. (2013) ‘Journalists Witnessing Disasters: From the Calculus of Death to the Injunction to Care,’ (forthcoming)

(12) Eltringham, M. (2011) ‘The New Frontline is Inside the Newsroom’ BBC, College of Journalism. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/blog/2011/03/how-the-newsroom-handles-confl.shtml, accessed on 1 August 2011

(13) Halliday, J. (2011) Egypt protests: BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera journalists, MediaGuardian, 3 February. Available online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/feb/03/journalists-attacked-in-egypt-protests, accessed on 1 August 2011

(14) Halliday, J. (2011) Egypt protests: BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera journalists, MediaGuardian, 3 February. Available online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/feb/03/journalists-attacked-in-egypt-protests, accessed on 1 August 2011

(15) BBC, Cross-section of Egyptian society attend protest 1 February 2011. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12339344, accessed on 1 August 2011



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