Why, for example, aren’t Americans and the Twitterverse abuzz about the Egyptian democratic reform movement? Is it because Egypt is under a secular autocracy rather than a religious one? Or something else? ~Aziz Poonawalla
I know Aziz is genuinely curious when he asks this question, but I think the answer is staring us in the face. It’s not just that Egyptian reformers and democrats are much weaker politically and the Egyptian election system (at least prior to the past week) is much less competitive. For one thing, most Americans are not interested in the fortunes of Egypt’s political opposition, because so much of it is still made up by al-Ikhwan, and Washington isn’t interested in undermining a more or less reliable allied dictator. To be very blunt, another key reason is that Ayman Nour and friends haven’t been put on television, so that whereas Mousavi has become much more of a familiar name most people outside of wonks and political junkies have no clue who Nour is.
Putting a face to a name, and putting faces to an entire movement, is extremely important for generating sympathy for foreign political movements. Would the West have been half as animated about the crackdown in Burma two years ago if Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture had not been so widely distributed and her story covered fairly extensively for years and years before that? Probably not. Also, lacking some easily digestible, oversimplified narrative about “pro-Western democrats” struggling against authoritarianism, these movements will often never come to the public’s attention. Good luck selling the Muslim Brotherhood as the vanguard of democracy. (Then again, if Mousavi can be lauded as some sort of champion of liberalism, who knows?) Practically no one paid much attention when Karimov butchered those Islamist protesters in Andijan a few years ago, because the protesters were the wrong kind of people, and the anti-Saakashvili protests earlier this year prompted a collective yawn from most people. Those protests were too complicated in any case, and the Georgian protests might conflict with the earlier story of the virtuous Rose Revolution. The more complicated the story, the harder it is to work oneself up into an enthusiastic lather.
P.S. On that last line, I should also add that all of these stories are complicated, but they are not always perceived as such.