Many people in Egypt believe that western media is biased in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think they are right, but for the wrong reasons. It is not because of a sinister western conspiracy to empower the Muslim Brothers, as Egyptian media never tire of telling their public. The reasons are simpler and perhaps more depressing. Some are related to how the media operates, while others have to do with occidental perceptions of Egyptian society.
During a recent visit to Sweden I heard the public radio network (P1) describe the interim-government in Egypt as the “military regime”. I was shocked. But then this is a country whose energetic foreign minister, Carl Bildt, has been a vociferous critic of the 30/6 uprising and the subsequent military intervention that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood president, firing the occasional tweet calling on the EU not to pull its punches and punish Egypt. Thank god Mr Bildt is not in the EU’s driving seat.
Why should the man who’s supposed to be the voice of Sweden on the global stage be on the side of an extremely reactionary political movement (in fact a cult of religious supremacy) that is in every conceivable aspect the opposite of what Sweden stands for: freedom of belief (more people were tried for blasphemy during Mursi than any other time); equality between the sexes (Sweden tops the global list); the parliament dominated by the MB and their Salafi friends was in favour of removing the ban on minimum age for marriage for girls, and removing the ban on the abhorrent practice of female circumcision, otherwise known as FMG.
So what kind of “democracy” is Mr Bildt championing for Egypt !
Although we expect foreign ministers to rely on little more than headlines to find out what actually happens in far away places, I think western media bears part of the blame.
By that I don’t mean individual journalists, some of whom I know personally and respect for their professional integrity. But I mean the dominant news paradigm, which determines how news stories should be told.
This model favours simplicity, stark black and white narratives with clearly defined heroes and villains. If it has to deal with complex or ambiguous developments, it will iron them out to fit them into its straitjacket. But the devil as we all know is always in the details.
According to this paradigm the story of a “coup” is a lot simpler and sexier than say “another uprising backed by the army” (which sounds like a déjà vu, given what happened in February 2011). The coup narrative envisages a dramatic development, a counter-revolution, that is hard news, tangible leap into the unknown. You can already hear the potential for suspense.
The alternative narrative of the “revolution continues” is dull, boring and predictable, “continue” is not a very newsy verb and does not create headlines.
Although the Egyptian scenario deviated in many significant respects from the classic coup narrative template (an army colonel reads the first communiqué, announces the formation of a revolutionary council that assumes all powers, and sends all the civilian political class home or to jail ) it didn’t stop the media or many Western pundits from persevering in their monochrome vision.
Once you have superimposed the “coup template”, many details fall into place, the story almost tells itself, because it follows a well-trodden path : an elected president against an unelected general. And Egypt has seen it all before, all the more reason to invoke yet another trope “history repeats itself” and the story is so easy to sell and explain. Once you have inserted the complex reality into this needle’s eye of a template, the drama unfolds effortlessly.
But what about the millions who took to the streets demanding Mursi to step down, and who urged the army to intervene — these are facts that disrupt the “coup narrative template” and would make the story too complex to tell — “people and the army together” does not simply fit into any of the readily available narrative templates. Even when the individual reporter does acknowledge that people supported the army or demanded the military to intervene, this will figure way down in the story and the headline (the most effective of all messages) will still have the word “coup” or “coup leader” in it. Alternatively, the reporter may narrate it with a degree of skepticism and incredulity; it is presented as an opinion or a point of view, rather than a hard fact like the tanks on the streets, bloodstained faces etc .. all that stuff sells the story much better as a coup than anything else
Next to the media I put the blame on what you may describe as, short of a better phrase –the cultural prism through which Egypt is seen by Western eyes.
Many have made the assumption that because most Egyptians are religious and socially conservative then the Muslim Brotherhood must be truly representative of the majority. The MB itself has worked tirelessly for decades to convince Western journalists and think tanks to buy into this self-serving myth.
But this this has been proven to be blatantly untrue. The past two years have demolished this fallacy — one can be conservative without being a supporter of the MB or any other Salafi group. Egyptians now know these are political parties and will judge them as such.
Further, a close examination of all the polls since February 2011 has revealed that if you factor in the turn-out figures the MB are not a majority, but in fact an organized minority.
Most Egyptians are religious, but unlike the MB, they have always found a way to combine fun with faith. Wearing hijab has never stopped Egyptian girls from trying to look elegant and attractive. In fact, Egypt has turned the headscarf into an Islamic fashion item that comes in all shapes and colours.
There’s also the the other myth that the Muslim Brotherhood is the voice of the downtrodden masses, they are closer to the average Egyptian than the urban and well-off population of Cairo or Alexandria for example. There’s an old leftist bias here with a dash of orientalism, which obfuscates the nature of the conflict and serves the interests of the Mulsim Brothers rather well.
The MB are not poor, but prey on the poor. They are in every bit as capitalist as capitalism can be. Remember too, these are the men who joined hands with Ronald Reagan back in the nineteen eighties to defeat communism. The MB are a global network backed up by multimillion-dollar business empire whose exact finances are known only to the few. The poor were the human shields and cannon fodder in the bloody confrontation with the security forces while the Muslim Brothers “aristocracy” were in hiding.
The Muslim Brothers have also benefited from a political taboo prevalent mainly among the left in Europe and America. Left leaning journalists don’t like to be seen criticizing or exposing Islamism for what it is , a supremacist ideology prone to violence, out of fear of being seen as Islamophobes, a charge they prefer to hurl at their political enemies of the far-right in Western Europe and the neo-cons in America. In this context, siding with the MuslimBrothers appears progressive, a way of burnishing your leftist credentials and asserting your place in the ideological battle raging back home, which has little or nothing to do with Egypt.
All of this has fed into an orientalist bias that the MB are “the authentic Other”, while their opponents are not truly representative of the average Egyptian. To explain this let me digress briefly.
A young English lady travels to Cairo for the first time. She was disappointed when the taxi that took her from the airport was a modern air-conditioned car, not the old rickety black and white vehicle she had heard about. She missed the “exotic” thrill. Something very similar happened with another former European colleague who didn’t like the newly restored quarter in old Cairo (done with great care to the historic nature of the area in coordination with UNESCO) because it was no longer “authentic”. So the only way to stay authentic is to be doomed for ever to live in chaos and covered in historic dust.
The Orientalist prism was evident in the condescending advice from seemingly well-meaning Western friends (former American Ambassador Anne Patterson is the best example ) : this is not how democracy works, you must wait till the next round of election and vote the elected president out of office. The 30/6 uprising was a slap in the face to the likes of Mss Patterson. So it was also for Western professors who built their careers on the study of the Muslim Brothers and worked hard to sell them to policy makers in Washington and London as an effective anti-dote to the militancy of Al-Qaeda. They were suddenly made redundant by the Egyptians rising up and rejecting political Islam. Those quarrelsome, garrulous natives — how dare they!
Egyptian writer and academic, Galal Amin, had a rhetorical question for the likes of Mss Patterson and Mr Bildt. In his weekly column in Al-Shorouk newspaper he wrote :
“I am really surprised that those supporting the Islamists are people who come from a culture whose civilisation began with a revolt against fanatical religious discourse hostile to freedom and science ! What drives the representatives of such culture to deny us the same right to reject what they rejected 3 centuries ago – but hypocrisy and the defence of their narrow interests !”
[written for the Islamist Gate (under construction) ]