The revolution may be televised – but don’t expect the full story

For the first time in a long while, not only is there news from the Arab world, there are arresting pictures as well. Revolutions make for exciting live broadcasting, and some of it has been riveting.

At the zenith of the Cairo demonstrations, I sat glued to my television set, watching Hosni Mubarak address the Egyptian people. I could see him speak – there was simultaneous translation – and watch the crowd’s reaction at the same time. Mubarak was in the corner of the picture, but the rest of the screen was filled with chanting Egyptians. For a moment, it was possible to imagine that I was watching the revolution itself unfold in real time. It was almost as if I were there, too.

But, of course, I wasn’t. I could only see what the cameras were showing, and much of what was important was invisible. I couldn’t see the military men in uniforms, negotiating behind the scenes. I don’t know what the envoys from the Obama administration were telling Mubarak and his aides. I couldn’t see Mubarak’s family, and didn’t know whether they were making frantic preparations to leave town or digging in their heels. I couldn’t see the businessmen moving their assets into foreign bank accounts, if that is indeed what they were doing, or the secret policemen burning their files.

Although I could see the happy crowds on the screen, I didn’t know much about was happening on the streets of Cairo either. A few days after the Egyptian revolution seemed to have triumphed – peacefully, or so it had seemed on the television – a truly ugly story emerged. Lara Logan, a prominent television reporter, was reported to be back at home in the US, traumatised after being attacked on February 11, the night of Mubarak’s resignation.

While the crowds in Cairo reportedly danced for joy, Logan, as we’ve now all read, was separated from her crew by an angry mob of some 200 men who beat her and may have raped her; they screamed she was a “Jew” and an “Israeli spy” – which is exactly how official Egyptian media had described all foreign journalists. For many, Logan’s story came as a shock. On the television, we saw the “pro-democracy” demonstrators, young and happy, male and female, celebrating the downfall of the dictator. Yet it seems that there were mobs of angry Egyptian men in the background, who were not at all happy about the dictator’s resignation, and not at all pleased to be making history on the CBS evening news.

Nor was this the only piece of information missing. On TV, it certainly looked as if the power of the crowd had forced Mubarak to concede. But we still don’t know why he decided to board that helicopter and depart for Sharm el-Sheikh. Was there a coup within the army? Did the generals push him out because they prefer democracy, or because they want someone else to take power? This might not have been a revolution at all – or at least not the revolution we thought it was. It is possible that the army will now respond to what the televised crowd wanted, and will hold elections. It is also possible that the army used the protests as a convenient excuse to force Mubarak out of office, while preserving their own power.

But then, every televised revolution is the same. I was in Berlin at the time of the fall of the Wall, and the contrast between the televised narrative and the reality on the streets was just as stark. On television, there were champagne corks popping, people dancing and cheering, politicians making weepy speeches. When I got there, 24 hours later, in the middle of the night, the mood of the city was less light-hearted.

The crowd around the Brandenburg Gate was still there, but I didn’t see any champagne. Instead, people were shouting insults at the East German guards, who were still standing in No Man’s Land beside the wall, dressed in riot gear, looking nervous. Ordinary East Germans were wandering around the western half of the city, looking lost, sleeping on the floors of shopping malls and train stations. Many of them silently lined up for the Deutschmarks promised to them as a “welcome” from the West German government, bought a few bananas, and walked back across the wall to the East.

It wasn’t that the television cameras had lied, exactly, it was just that a vacuum had suddenly opened up, nobody knew what was going to happen next and the mixed emotions that people felt – happiness, confusion, alarm, disorientation – weren’t all that easy to easy to explain or describe, let alone put into pictures and words. And the reality of German unification which followed swiftly turned out to be a disappointment for many people, although one wouldn’t have guessed it from the coverage of the events of November, 1989.

Television isn’t lying about the other Arab revolutions which seem to be taking place. But as they unfold (or don’t) it’s important to remember that television creates the illusion of a linear narrative and a clear-cut story. The uprising in Bahrain, for example, looks like Egypt in the pictures. A young, unarmed crowd; people wrapped in the national flag; a heavily armed regime which fires on its own people; a defiant crowd, now camping out in a square in the centre of the capital. In fact, the conflict in Bahrain is quite different, not least because it is ethnic, as well as political: What we are seeing is a Shi’ite majority threatening a Sunni ruling class and a Sunni monarch. This is as much a civil rights movement as a call for democracy – and there can be no happy resolution following the resignation of the king.

In Libya, paradoxically, there is no televised narrative, or at least not much of one, because Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has successfully kept most of the international press out of the country and followed his Egyptian neighbours in switching off the internet. There are second-hand reports, and a few blurry, shaky video clips which show men standing on street corners, sometimes running, sometimes throwing rocks. Cars honk in the background; people shout; guns go off. In one scene, someone off camera is shouting questions at an injured government soldier, who says he has been sent by “Khamis”, one of Gaddafi’s sons. Images of loyal crowds, waving the national flag and pledging support for Gaddafi are circulating too, possibly from Libyan state television.

It isn’t clear what’s happening in these pictures. They are confusing, not only because there is no logic to them, but because there is no voice-over, nobody to give the story a neat beginning, middle, and end. In fact, if you really want to know what it feels like to be in the middle of something as complex as a national revolution, watch a few of them. You probably won’t understand what is happening – which means you will have an excellent sense of what it is really like to be there.