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An Imperfect Marketplace of Ideas:
The Rise of Independent Media in Egypt
and Implications for U.S. Policy

Adviser: Daniel C. Kurtzer

William T. Wagner

Woodrow Wilson School of Public and
International Affairs

“The research was exhilarating—I truly felt that I was the first to have such extensive access to the leaders of the Egyptian media.”

wagner-william-thomas

It is rare to meet people with an optimistic view of Middle Eastern politics. In discussing the modern Arab world, most focus on the region’s notorious human rights record and disappointing economic performance. However, as a sophomore, I took a seminar with Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab on new media in the Arab world, and for the first time, I saw how increasing media freedom might be a rare chink in the otherwise formidable armor of Arab regimes. With Professor Kuttab, we learned how bloggers in Egypt had published unprecedented accounts of officially sanctioned torture, and how Kuttab’s own private radio station in Jordan was releasing daily reports of corruption and economic mismanagement. These bloggers and independent journalists were fighting their home governments and generating more publicity than almost any other group of dissidents in the region—they were surely the vanguard of change.

Or so things appeared from the wood-paneled seminar room of the Henry House in Princeton. When I traveled to the American University in Cairo the following year to study abroad, I finally got the chance to meet some of the bloggers I had learned about in my journalism seminar. Sitting in a smoke-filled café with the din of Cairo’s notorious traffic almost drowning out our conversation, I remember one political blogger describing his constant surveillance by the secret police (prompting me to study the faces around us quite closely). Other bloggers described how after breaking controversial stories online, their families had been pestered incessantly with phone calls and threats of arrest. By and large, the activists I met were demoralized—they could write about a vast array of subjects on the Internet, but the Mubarak regime was no longer letting these bloggers go unchallenged.

Blogs were not the only new forum for Egyptians to express their political opinions. Since 2003, the Egyptian government had authorized three new private newspapers that had quickly stolen readers from the state-owned press with a blend of daring investigative stories and fiery editorial pages. Private television stations—both domestic and regional—also were broadcasting live nightly talk shows in which hosts routinely held cabinet ministers to account for poor performance. Yet, few editors, journalists, bloggers, or television producers felt that their reports were affecting the course of Egyptian politics. I was witnessing media freedom without political freedom, a difficult concept for me to grasp.

I returned to Princeton for my senior year and approached Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, proposing to explain the puzzling trends in media freedom that I had noticed on the ground in Egypt. In addition to writing about how Egypt’s media had become more free over time, I wanted to explore the limits of that expression and reveal the ways that the Mubarak regime managed to contain an increasingly outspoken media. I also hoped to link my conclusions to the State Department’s public diplomacy strategy—figuring out how diplomats could better use new forms of media to get their messages out to the Arab people. As a former ambassador to Egypt and an observer of the Egyptian government for decades, Ambassador Kurtzer was uniquely well suited to challenge my reasoning and focus me on the political factors that mattered most.

Initially, one of the biggest surprises in my research was the dearth of rigorous scholarship on Arab media. Most scholars wrote about developments in Arab media nonsystematically—focusing on one instance of a blog article sparking a protest rather than on the aggregate impact of the media. Though many people had investigated the origins of Al-Jazeera, the infamous regional satellite news network, few had thought to look at developments in media within Arab countries. In looking at Egypt specifically, I kept reading articles that described the country’s press as monolithically state controlled and unprofessional. I knew from studying in Cairo and monitoring the Egyptian press at the U.S. Embassy that this was an outmoded description of Egyptian media, to say the least.

With very little previous scholarship to support my thesis, Ambassador Kurtzer was crucial in giving me the support I needed to move forward with my research question. He and I both realized that much of the research for my thesis would have to come from interviews with political analysts and leaders in Egyptian media—I would be the first to piece together a narrative of Egypt’s media development. Time and again, Ambassador Kurtzer never hesitated to take out his BlackBerry and give me the names and phone numbers of leading Egyptian journalists and senior U.S. and Egyptian government officials. When they heard I was working with Ambassador Kurtzer, there was suddenly enough time in their schedules to accommodate my request for an interview. Ambassador Kurtzer was so committed to my research that he was always willing to give me access to individuals with pertinent information for my thesis—no matter where in the world or how senior they might be. For instance, I was able to interview every U.S. ambassador to Egypt since 1997 to figure out exactly what role the U.S. government played in Egypt’s media liberalization.

At every stage in the research process, Ambassador Kurtzer was happy to have me stop by and share my ideas. Beyond helping me refine my arguments, Ambassador Kurtzer drew on his extensive professional experience in the Middle East to give me an insider’s perspective into the workings of both the U.S. and Egyptian governments. When I could not figure out why the State Department did not put a greater focus on local media outreach, Ambassador Kurtzer described to me the minimal amount of media preparation included in State Department training. When I at one point advocated that the U.S. government completely abandon its proprietary Arab satellite news network, Ambassador Kurtzer challenged me with a series of arguments no U.S. official involved with the network had even thought to raise. My thesis would not have been nearly as well argued without Ambassador Kurtzer’s constant willingness to find any logical inconsistencies with my argument. Ambassador Kurtzer carefully read every chapter draft I gave him—I could tell because, in addition to his incisive, substantive comments, he caught every split infinitive and dangling modifier in documents 40 pages long.

Ambassador Kurtzer also struck a good balance between letting me direct my research and keeping me on schedule. At the end of one of our meetings in November, I was gathering my materials when Ambassador Kurtzer said, “So, I’ll expect a draft of the first chapter and an outline of the remainder of the thesis by winter break.” Internally, I froze—I could not believe that the moment had come to start writing my senior thesis. I remember staring a short while later at a blank Word document titled “Thesis Chapter 1.doc” and suddenly being overcome by the enormity of the task ahead. Nevertheless, Ambassador Kurtzer’s deadline forced me to focus on gathering my research into a coherent argument and to start the long writing process early. Ultimately, Ambassador Kurtzer’s ambitious deadlines gave me the time I needed later to improve my organization and incorporate details I gained from an intersession trip to Egypt for additional field research.

I will never forget the frenetic two weeks I spent back in Egypt over intersession building upon the many interviews I had conducted in the U.S. during the fall of my senior year. With the help of Ambassador Kurtzer’s contacts, I quickly got the cell phone numbers of senior officials at state television, the editors in chief of Egypt’s major daily newspapers, and even the star hosts of some nightly talk shows. By the end of the first week, I had crisscrossed Cairo enough times that I could direct taxis to the least congested thoroughfares. I managed to get government officials talking on the record about censorship policies and media controls, and I also was able to earn enough trust to get secret internal data on circulation numbers for the country’s major newspapers. The research was exhilarating—I truly felt that I was the first to have such extensive access to the leaders of the Egyptian media.

Two months later, I took the brown wrapping paper off two bound copies of my thesis at the Pequod desk in the U-Store. One of the nicest thesis traditions that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs still observes is the requirement that each student gives a bound copy of his or her thesis to the adviser directly on the due date. As I gave my copy to Ambassador Kurtzer, the significance of the final product sunk in for the first time. For the previous eight months, I had been absorbed in the writing and research process; I never had the time to step back and think about what my thesis was really contributing to my field. Once I finished, though, I was confident that I was the first to describe the development of Egypt’s media, the constraints on that freedom, and implications for U.S. public diplomacy strategies in the Middle East. I had generated my own research question, and with Ambassador Kurtzer’s encouragement and support, I had successfully answered it. The achievement was not just finishing such a long document, but rather applying all of the writing and research skills I had learned at Princeton toward explaining a problem of my choosing.

Perhaps more enduring in my memory will be the many conversations I had with the courageous Egyptians speaking out on new forms of media and senior policymakers both in the U.S. and Egypt. The thesis gave me the chance to get an inside look at the workings of Egyptian media censors, fledgling newspapers and television stations, and the State Department’s public diplomacy operations. These conversations got me excited to put my thoughts down on paper and were opportunities that would not have existed but for the thesis process.

An Imperfect Marketplace of Ideas:
The Rise of Independent Media in Egypt
and Implications for U.S. Policy

William T. Wagner

Daniel C. Kurtzer

S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in
Middle East Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School
of Public and International Affairs

“The number of terrific people at Princeton ready to help seniors (and others) with their research and writing is extraordinary.”

Since leaving government service five years ago, the persistent question asked by friends and former colleagues is whether I like academic life. It is an apt question, for it reflects the view that nothing could compare with the 30-year adrenaline rush of a foreign service career. Yet, my answer invariably has been that life at Princeton has been enormously rewarding; and I have focused, in particular, on the interaction with students—in class, in informal conversations, and, especially, in advising senior theses.

Will Wagner’s thesis and our experience working together proved this point. Will was one of the top academic performers in his class, and he approached the thesis process well prepared for the rigors of research and writing. He had reached near-fluency in Arabic, was deeply immersed in the politics and history of the Middle East, had spent a semester in Egypt thinking about the subject matter of his thesis, and had a clear idea of what policy issues he wanted to address.

As I have done with all my advisees, I explained to Will at the outset my view of my role as his adviser: I would help him refine his topic, ask hard questions, probe his thinking, encourage him to meet tight deadlines, be ready to read and comment on early drafts, and provide guidance and contact information on people to meet and interview. At the same time, I emphasized that this was his thesis, and I did not expect him to change his approach simply because I had raised questions. Indeed, my purpose in raising such issues was to provoke his thinking and ensure that he could defend his conclusions, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not. I told Will I was prepared to meet as frequently as he desired, but that I would not run after him—except when deadlines of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs approached. And, I stressed to Will that the senior thesis should not become all-consuming and that he needed to enjoy the final year of his Princeton undergraduate experience.

Will’s topic was not only interesting and timely, but it also was important for U.S. policy interests in Egypt. The United States had expended much effort during the previous 30 years in encouraging freedom of the press in Egypt and elsewhere, and American diplomats continued to press for the expansion of basic freedoms. During the past decade, however, the growth of Internet usage, blogs, and social networks had expanded quite dramatically, and much news and analysis—free of government control—was now available to Egyptians. Circulation numbers for the government-owned press were dropping as Internet penetration was growing, a sure sign that people were relying less and less on the government-owned press and media for their news. Despite this, U.S. government policy appeared rooted in the demand for greater press freedom, almost as though oblivious of these changes underway. Will set out to understand the reasons for and the implications of the changes for American interests.

The finished thesis is well worth reading, especially for American policymakers. It reflects a prodigious amount of original research, including sensitive analysis of texts and interviews with a wide range of Egyptians and with U.S. current and former officials. The thesis provides a wealth of material on the new media and social networks in Egypt; and it raises important questions about the impact of American policy in an environment in which our diplomats are not as familiar with local developments as they should be. The study also is worthwhile reading for undergraduates interested in seeing what a first-rate thesis looks like.

Apart from the general guidance noted above, I do not have a template or model in mind when discussing senior thesis proposals with rising seniors. Each student has different strengths, and each brings to the thesis process quite different and interesting perspectives. But, as the experience with Will Wagner’s thesis indicates, there are several thoughts worth sharing.

First, the thesis topic needs to “grab” the senior. After all, he or she will live with it for an entire academic year. It is wiser for a senior to start a bit later on his or her research, after deciding on a topic of greatest interest, than to dive in too early if interest in the subject is likely to wane.

Second, having been “grabbed” by the topic, the senior needs to avoid being consumed by it. There will be plenty of opportunities later to refine the research, including the possibility of expanding upon the thesis or modifying it for publication. A proper balance needs to be established between preparing a sound study and stressing over the “perfect” study.

Third, although students differ with respect to their research and writing habits, an early outline and some care devoted to conceptualizing the problem are likely to pay dividends. Outlines and even central questions can evolve over time; it is easier to do that than to fumble around for organizational direction later on.

Fourth, it is wise to write early and consistently, rather than wait until all the research has been done. It is daunting, even for experienced writers, to sit down and face a blank page on the screen. Especially if thesis advisers are willing to read early, rough drafts, as I prefer, the sooner a senior starts writing, the easier I believe it is to see where a thesis is headed and whether a course correction is necessary.

Fifth, the number of terrific people at Princeton ready to help seniors (and others) with their research and writing is extraordinary. I direct all my seniors to check in first with Nancy Pressman-Levy, the head of the Stokes Library for Public and International Affairs, who is a font of wisdom on everything. There also is assistance available for research tips and writing. Senior thesis advisers are not the only resource available to seniors at Princeton.