TV or not to be: Muslim Brotherhood media tactics
by Abdallah Schleifer
The Muslim Brotherhood will be launching a television channel called Rabaa TV - named after the location in Cairo of the massive sit in by pro-Mursi supporters eventually dispersed with serious loss of life by security forces. It is also the home of the four finger symbol of a 1930s sort of Islamist Popular Front consisting of, and directed by, the Muslim Brotherhood along with its sympathizers. The channel is to be headquartered in and transmitted from Istanbul. But true to Popular Front form, the announcement did not come officially from the Brotherhood but from its front organization, the Alliance for Legitimacy Coalition. It should be noted that If the transmissions coming from Istanbul are as hostile to the Egyptian government and armed forces as one would expect, that could conceivably result in Egypt breaking diplomatic relations with Turkey.
That, and the new channel’s slogan “The Pulse of Freedom,” indicates that the Brotherhood will continue the strategy that evolved in the days immediately after the military intervention that deposed Mursi and the Brotherhood from power. The strategy is based on the idea that the Brotherhood is the vanguard of democracy for which its martyrs now sacrifice themselves. Paradise, at this strategically imperative moment, is at least publically on a back burner.
Considering the Brotherhood’s track record, this hardly seems to be a viable strategy if the hope is to rally those in Egypt who seem most concerned about democracy - the Liberal and the Left and generally secular intellectuals disturbed by some of the state’s post-Mursi repressive measures but no less fearful now than before of the Brotherhood’s authoritarian instincts. The same holds true for that segment of the middle classes not aligned with the Brotherhood and influenced by anti-Brotherhood state and private Egyptian media.
Putting food on the table
As for the masses, this is a matter of relative indifference - the driving issue for Cairo’s urban working class and lower middle class, when they turned out for June’s massive demonstration against Mursi and the Brotherhood, was and still remains the difficulty for so many Egyptians to put food on the table, or find benefit in the continued scandalous erosion of public medical care and other state institutions.
That issue, and only that issue, theoretically might in time mobilize some cautious mass support for the Brotherhood if the ambitious transitional government’s present plans to generate jobs do not materialize. But given the business interests that dominate the Brotherhood and the failure during Mursi’s one year in office to generate jobs for the unemployed, social justice is hardly the issue that the neo-liberal Muslim Brotherhood can hold aloft as its banner.
Nearly two years ago, the Brotherhood had a due paying membership of some 750,000. With the arrest of leading cadres and reasonably assumed defections, even two-thirds of that number , at least tripled by non-card -carrying but sympathetic family members, still represents a much larger viewership than the anti-Brotherhood media is ready to grant. And with some quite professionally-trained personnel reportedly moving over to the new channel from al-Jazeera, we can assume a far more professional and potentially lively product coming from Rabaa TV than from the Brotherhood channel Misr 25 which shut down following the deposal of Mursi and his administration. But a significantly professional appearance will not in itself guarantee that the channel will be doing much more than “preaching to the choir,” as one would say in England or America.
Media generated confusion
Meanwhile, the last card the Brotherhood has to play in the politics of the street is to shift from clearly diminishing street marches of equally diminishing interest to both Egyptian and global media, to the deployment of its student cadres and sympathizers to stage often destructive demonstrations and provocation of security forces on campuses or at the gates of Egyptian campuses.
The campus of choice is “al-Azhar University,” which the global press usually refers to as “Egypt’s Islamic University.” There is a profound misunderstanding here, thus the two-sets of quotation marks. The reporting, both regional and global - does not differentiate between the campus of al-Azhar’s secular faculties, ironically imposed upon al-Azhar by the Brotherhood’s bête noir, Gamal Abdul Nasser about half a century ago and what has been known as al-Azhar for more than a thousand years. What I might call Neo-al-Azhar, is also several kilometers away from the al-Azhar Mosque which is the historic center for the various traditional Islamic disciplines that fall within the three broad categories of Theology, Sharia, and Arabic Language taught at the campus adjacent to the mosque.
But media generated confusion between the traditional al-Azhar student body – among whom the Brotherhood has far less influence precisely because it is they, not the Brotherhood youth, who are so knowledgeable in Islamic studies - and the Neo-Azhar student body engaged in secular studies several kilometers away, may explain why the Brotherhood seems to be concentrating its last reserves for political struggle on that more distant campus. In other words, to give the impression, not just to Egyptians but to the entire Muslim world and to the West, that the struggle here in Egypt is between Islam (rather than Islamism) and the Army- backed transitional government. Whether that will carry weight with those sectors of the urban masses who are religious but not sympathetic to the Brotherhood has yet to be determined. But I doubt it.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and 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.”