it’s not conspiracy, it’s worse

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

Egypt tourism

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) ]


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.


  • Interesting analysis but we could also add the media’s focus on the Rab3a massacre which is justified based on western media standards of what makes the news. In my opinion this coverage was not biased because when you have images of bloody, horrific attacks, that’s going to take precedence any day. The more gruesome the crime the more attention it receives by the media. So when many fellow Egyptians say the media was biased here, I disagree coz the media just focused on the most visually compelling stories.

    • I am not arguing that any one should ignore anything. I am simply saying that much depends on how you frame the story, as a “coup”, or as a “continued struggle for democracy”. And my criticism is not directed at any Western journalist, but at a paradigm that favours simplicity and drama at the expense of complexity and depth.

  • A rare sharp, detailed and knowledgeable piece on the matter. I’m glad I saw it on a friends f/b site!

  • I have been following the events within Egypt since long before the 25 January revolution, supporting the voices calling for liberal reforms, democracy, acceptance of the other, religious freedom, etc. Although not Egyptian myself, I have a great sympathy for the Egyptian people and their culture. I have learned a tremendous amount from personal associations with people like yourself Magdi and, as such, appreciate the analysis your piece conducts and fully agree with its assessment. I write now to ask the following: is it possible in the current environment where Egypt seems to finds itself alone in the battle to root out home grown (and internationally spread and supported) terrorism—a fight for its very life and soul I have learned–in a way that is in keeping with its fundamental values of peace, justice, and dignity?

    My concern (and one which is shared by many expat Egyptians whose articles we read in the Western media) is in this fierce battle to maintain her sovereignty and Egyptian character, a critical eye to the unavoidable crimes that can be committed during “wartime” gets closed shut. As one example, there are two Canadian journalists who have been held without charge (with reports of severe treatment) in an Egyptian jail for many weeks. Where is the liberal media within Egypt whose job it is to bring transparency to the goings on in your country?

    My Egyptian friends assure me these situations of (apparent) human rights abuse will be investigated and dealt with appropriately. In the most stable of countries (such as the US), this is a very delicate operation but in Egypt, it must be done not only to maintain her best character, but also to silence these orientalist voices who seek more fuel for their fodder.

  • There is no liberal or truly independent media in Egypt. I have read about the two Canadians in custody in Egypt and I have no idea how it will all end. Let us hope that if they are innocent that they should be released as soon as possible. As to the overall situation in Egypt, it is very difficult to tell when will the next eruption be. Egypt has been through an unprecedented social/political earthquake, with a few aftershocks, and many more to come. The struggle for a democratic Egypt has just begun.

  • Thank you very much for this excellent analysis with which I fully agree. I totally admire the courage and resilience of the Egyptian people to take to the streets and take their future into their hands against many odds. I cannot understand at all the hypocritical reaction of Western politicians and intellectuals – and the endless, ad-nausea parroting of the “democratically elected president”… as if they don’t know that to be elected in the ballots is just the first technical step on the road to Democracy…it does not mean that the “democratically” elected entity can become a tyrant and enforce a totalitarian worldview on all, marginalizing all other groups, voices and minorities…democracy is not the tyranny of the majority is it? The Egyptian people did not have any institutionalized to express their indignation and resentment such as calling for a parliamentary “no confidence” motion. What do those self-righteous “democrats” in the West want? That the Egyptian people allow a backward force to take full control of their country in a way that rules out the next democratic elections???

  • This is a very compelling analysis of the inner workings of news making/gathering and it’s impact on editorial choices. But it might not explain the whole debacle of covering Egypt’s Revocoution, as one writer coined a compromise term. There’s for example the egyptianns’ perception of foreign media which tends to elivate it on a much higher moral ground than their own. When foreign media falls short of its golden standard known to those audience in Egypt and other countries the reaction was kind of Shock ans Awe. Something akin to that could explain the rejection, dismay and anger felt and expressed by the vast majority of Egyptians towards MB after less than a year in power. Its the pretentious, megalomanic claims by the MB as the only true Moslems that made Egyptians reaction to them that massive in scope and depth once they were exposed to their true colors. It’s probably the fastest Rise and Fall of a political party/jamaah or whatever they call themselves.

  • I am a journalism student based in London, currently writing my dissertation. My research is concerned with Orientalist themes in American news media in its coverage of Egypt, since the Uprisings. I would love to ask you a few questions on the topic?

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s