The images are unforgettable. For 18 days in the winter of 2011, Egypt’s cities convulsed with millions of Egyptians, young and old, who were mad as hell. After decades of subordination to a venal military regime, they threw their bodies in front of a brutal police force and machete-wielding hired thugs. These were the people Western news agencies typically used as “colour”. Suddenly, the big question being asked by everyone from the US secretary of state down to the viewer at home was, Who are they and what do they want?
No other network answered this question like Al Jazeera English. They knew this story belonged to the people, not the powerful, and dedicated the lion’s share of their uninterrupted coverage to the voices of ordinary Egyptians.
The Egyptian revolution was to Al Jazeera what the first Gulf War was to CNN – it made the network. That’s why Scott Bridges, a former AJE director, has singled out these 18 days for forensic examination. Bridges wasn’t working with Al Jazeera during the uprising (his contract expired just a few days before it began), so he’s relied on extensive interviews with AJE staff and the coverage itself to piece together a blow-by-blow account.
Reporters being tear gassed, fleeing for their lives, watching citizens get gunned down in front of them – 18 Days should read like an action thriller. And occasionally it does. There are parts vividly evoking the revolution swinging between scenes of utopian unity and unhinged violence, and the crackling tension in between. But too often, the story is weighed down by plodding prose and an excruciating level of operational detail. In contentious sections, where the opinions of management and staff clash, it also suffers from that old journalistic bugbear – he said/she said. While it’s hard for Bridges to make a call on things he didn’t witness, his analytical absence throughout the book leaves the reader feeling unanchored. On page 355, when Bridges finally tells us what he thinks, it’s like someone’s suddenly leapt out of a cupboard – it’s almost shocking to get his opinion.
18 Days is certainly a boon to the area of media studies. Bridges, a journalism lecturer at the University of Canberra, has done researchers a great service in recording this period in such exhaustive detail. But it’s a rare and great storyteller who can make exhaustive detail compelling, and Bridges is not a great storyteller. KP
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Scott Bridges, 18 Days". Subscribe here.