Media dilemma over Egypt: Uprising or coup?

Abdallah Schleifer

Published: Updated:

A peculiar concern of both global and local media after Egyptian armed forces ousted Mohammad Mursi as president was whether or not the intervention marked a coup d’etat.

I even received a call from Canada where a writer for the leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, asked why everyone seemed so concerned about the question.

Here in Cairo the general rule is that, if you opposed Mursi, you don’t consider it a coup, but rather the army responding the popular demands of the Egyptian people as expressed by the millions who took the streets and who signed the Tamarod (rebel) declaration calling upon the former President to step down. But if you supported Mursi then it was a coup d’etat, and a denial of the will of the people as expressed in the free and fair, but still contested election.

My gut reaction to any newsworthy event, conditioned by nearly 50 years of either practicing or teaching journalism in the Anglo-American tradition, is that one tries one’s best to put aside personal opinions in reporting, for the sake of that difficult to achieve, but honoured goal of detachment and objectivity. So while I personally – and most modestly given my status as a foreigner – consider the army move as very positive for the future of my host country, I have no problem, and not the slightest pejorative intent, in describing it in the most matter-of-fact way as a 'coup'.

The alternative to a coup would have been a civil war, which the Muslim Brotherhood would have eventually lost.

Abdallah Schleifer

I consider the Egyptian armed forces to be far more honourable and sincere in seeking reconciliation between the opposing political forces than either former President Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-Salafi alliance, or indeed the leaders of the former opposition.

But I can certainly understand and sympathize with the armed forces’ insistence it was not a coup, but a patriotic move to save Egypt from falling into a pit of chaos. And that is because there is a standing decree by the U.S. Congress that the American government to cut off aid to any army that has overthrown a democratically elected government.

In the most sophisticated presentation of the anti-Mursi case, Prof. Ezzedine Fishere of the American University in Cairo told Norwegian television that there are two types of coup: those against the will of the people, and those on behalf of the people – and what happened in Egypt last week was the latter. But that is small comfort to the armed forces command, since they are painfully aware of the importance of the $1.3bn of military aid that the U.S. provides to Egypt each year.

In the days after the overthrow of Mursi, another global media oversimplification was the reaction to the closure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s TV channel Egypt 25 and two rather vitriolic Islamist satellite channels, as well as the military presence in state TV newsrooms to “monitor content and ensure the military’s messages were broadcast”. The reaction was that this represented a serious, long-term threat to press freedom, akin to that which characterized the Mursi government’s harassment of journalists with arrests for “insulting Islam” and the president.

But the shut-downs and detentions are 'standard operating procedure' for any successful coup - to weaken the ability of the political forces overthrown to rally their supporters. In no way does this imply permanent policy, nor do the closures and detainments intrinsically constitute an ongoing commitment to undermine a free press, which was the low-key protracted procedure of the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom & Justice Party when in power.

The most judicious of former opposition spokesmen or sympathizers have already declared their goal of national reconciliation, with a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in the political life of the country. But these offers of reconciliation and political participation have already been rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen allowed to address the press by the armed forces. The armed forces also allowed the media – both global and local – to cover a powerful, provocative and defiant speech by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide.

At the root of the issue over the accuracy of the term ‘coup’ is the retaining of romantic illusions. The first illusion – one reinforced, not undermined by global media – was that the uprising that began on 25 January 2011, and basically subsided when Mubarak stepped down, was a ‘revolution’ - that Tahrir and the uprisings in other Egyptian cities had overthrown Mubarak. But what Tahrir had done was to put sufficient pressure on the armed forces, despite the deeply indebted status of their then commander, to defy Mubarak’s orders to fire on the people and instead to preserve the unity of the armed forces by telling Mubarak he had to go. In other words, a soft coup d’etat.

And now there is a new media romance, especially in activist or pro-activist driven social media: The extraordinary, almost mind bogglingly huge demonstrations against Mursi, involving many millions across the country, forced him to pack his bags and flee and that the armed forces kind of enabled that to happen. But Mursi didn’t pack his bags – he held on, in defiance, his spine stiffened by the hard-line leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

When it was apparent that Mursi was not going to seriously power share, or even to send a representative to participate in last-minute talks, the armed forces intervened, detaining Mursi and his advisers, ending his presidency, and reducing but not eliminating the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood to resist.

Aside from the American Congress, there is nothing wrong, beiny wey beinak – among ourselves – in calling this a coup. A popular coup, a politically salvific coup, but a coup. The alternative to a coup would have been a civil war, which the Muslim Brotherhood would have eventually lost, most certainly in Cairo, but at the cost of great bloodshed. The coup saved Egypt from civil war – and it did not, as some feared or hoped for, lead to a civil war.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.