The media: Down and out, in and about Egypt
by Abdallah Schleifer
What is the big question in the press in Egypt? How deep, for how long and why is America a partner in conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood? Of course conspiracy theories, like complex paranoiac constructions, would not be able to so effectively grip people’s imaginations unless there were a grain of truth, however misinterpreted, at the heart of a vast illusion. The “American-Muslim Brotherhood Conspiracy,” that has been an on-going phenomena in much of the Egyptian media since the deposal of Mursi and the Brotherhood, has fastened onto the curious and misguided response of the Obama regime to events in Egypt as its grain of truth.
In the final years of the Mubarak regime, Brotherhood members of parliament suddenly became quite visible at American embassy functions and were quite favorably seated when Obama spoke at Cairo University. In fact, the entire audience was there by virtue of a U.S. Embassy invitation. I was there (I was commissioned by Al-Jazeera’s website to cover the event) and I was struck by the presence in the VIP section of the audience of a number of Muslim Brotherhood MPs. Their numbers at this event appeared far out of proportion to their strength in the parliament. And there would be the well-publicized visit by then U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to Ahmed Shafik, Mursi’s second-round opponent in the contest for president, urging him not to contest Mursi’s narrow margin of victory despite Shafik’s plausible concern about fraud. And of course the curious, almost insulting, indifference on the part of the White House to the grave concerns by America’s most reliable allies in the Arab world - Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, about the Muslim Brotherhood governing Egypt.
Still a grassroots movement
On its own, the MB reciprocated the interest sending good will missions led by articulate, sophisticated English-speaking delegations to Washington, DC and possibly other cities of interest. Little attention was paid to those good will visits. That indicated once again that the MB, however fundamentally flawed it is in its strategic thinking (Islamist Revolution from the top without an available armed force to impose it), however intransigent in its ability to lose friends and not influence people, and however Neo-Liberal in its readiness to dismantle rather than dramatically improve what remains of a public sector in the Egyptian economy, nevertheless was the only disciplined, dedicated, grassroots political movement in the country until the rise of Tamarod.
But these curious tilts relate in part to the CIA’s post 9/11 observation that the only political movement that was both disciplined and with deep roots among the masses in Egypt and elsewhere and opposed to al-Qaeda in those first years after 9/11, was the Muslim Brotherhood. What CIA observation and policy recommendations missed - in large part because the foreign press missed it - was that the apolitical “silent majority “of the Egyptian masses, who by virtue of being apolitical were under the radar of both foreign media recognition and intelligence evaluation, have nursed reservations about the Brotherhood for decades. Those reservations were to be grossly inflamed scarcely more than six months into Mursi’s and the Brotherhood’s one year of incompetent and intransigent reign. What the White House also missed because most foreign media coverage missed, was the extent to which the Brotherhood and /or their Salifist allies were fostering sectarian hatred and violence against Sufi shrines, against Egyptian Shiites and most particularly against Coptic Christians and their churches before Mursi took power. This went on during his rule and most dramatically following his loss of power.
The other great topic shared by Egyptian media on one hand, and critics of the army’s intervention in foreign media as well pro-Mursi Egyptian and regional social media, is the commander of the Egyptian armed forces, Minister of Defense and Vice Premier, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The case of General Sisi
Critics have accused the state media of fostering a Sisi cult of personality since the general deposed Mursi in the first week of July. But on June 30, as on the morning of July 3rd, hours before the coup, when the state media was at least still nominally pro-Mursi, as it had once been obsessively pro-Mubarak, obsessively pro-Sadat and obsessively pro-Nasser, I was observing in this column that Egypt’s silent majority, tormented by the lack of stability and the lack of economic recovery, did not just want Mursi out; they wanted General al-Sisi and the Army in.
He was already the strong, sensible, personally pious but non-sectarian nationalist leader Egypt’s silent majority craved, even before the ink had dried on the first editorials in the state media hailing Sisi.
So, this time it is the critics of critics of Sisi who have fallen back into conspiracy theories; and indeed upon that oldest of conspiracy theories one can invoke in the modern Arab world to discredit one’s opponents - that your enemy is a Jew or at least of Jewish origin. And that means by implication, or direct accusation, that he or she is part of a Zionist conspiracy. I can remember when Yasser Arafat, whatever his possible faults, was being described in some Arab newspapers in the early 1970s as the descendent of an Albanian Jew.
So now it is General Sisi’s turn. The defamation began with a former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood media adviser, now apparently working as a news commentator in Qatar, who commented, reportedly on Al-Jazeera, that he had discovered - courtesy of a report in an Algerian newspaper al-Watan- that Sisi is of Jewish origin. The commentator said that Sisi’s uncle had served in a Zionist militia, and that this proves that the Egyptian Army’s intervention against former President Mursi was all part of a Zionist conspiracy. This defamation has spread quickly and widely. It has been spread by pro-Mursi social media in Egypt and the region, in turn magnified by pro -Mursi publications and/or online sites like Crescent International, published in the UK and self-described as “the news magazine of the Islamic movement,” and on any number of online sites originating in the West that focused on the Middle East, the Arabs and the Muslims for any number of reasons - including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism - and fascinated by anything sensationalist.
But the irony is that most media outlets, even if they were too embarrassed to credit it, picked up the story from the widely read MEMRI, a very energetic American-based online publication founded by two former officers in Israeli military intelligence. Its critics say they still are members of the intelligence organization.
MEMRI conveniently provides the editors and columnists of American media, and anyone else interested, with a slew of English sub-captioned videos from Arab television or translations of articles from the Arab press, which tend to focus on the absurd and the outrageous. MEMRI’s critics say those translations are on occasion flawed to further the effect.
But back in Egypt the most troubling aspect to Egyptian media is the ongoing and ever escalating domination of polemics displacing reporting. Because Ambassador Patterson expressed President Obama’s assumption that victory in a free election could transform an authoritarian into a democrat, did not mean as al-Ahram “reported” in a travesty of journalism, that Ambassador Patterson was encouraging the Brotherhood to de-stabilize Egypt in wake of the military intervention.
Because Mohammad ElBaradei, who resigned as a member of the new transitional government, worked well as a leader of the anti-Mursi alliance to protest against the use of force to break up the Brotherhood sit-ins, he has been accused by predominantly state media, along with the more vituperative segments of the independent media, of being a secret sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood. As have other political figures who have called for a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood for the sake of an inclusive political system.
I think ElBaradei was naïve in not recognizing the extent of violence vented by armed elements of the MB and its allies, and the number of police and other security forces killed in attacks against police stations and prisons throughout the country during the first days of the Tahrir Uprising. Then in July 2013, right after Mursi was deposed but weeks before security forces had taken their revenge when breaking up the Brotherhood sit-ins, police stations were again being stormed and policemen killed by pro-Mursi forces. At the same moment the attacks by Salafist-Jihadist groups against both police and soldiers in the Sinai dramatically escalated. As for reconciliation, whenever prominent Egyptians have attempted dialogue, it would be the Brotherhood’s insistence on Mursi’s return to power as a pre-condition for serious negotiations towards reconciliation that doomed these initiatives.
But at worst, naivety does not make ElBaradei, and others like him, part of a U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy. The polemical insistence by Egyptian state media upon such a conspiracy is in itself far more discouraging than any excesses or failings of the present transitional government.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”