Former Egyptian President Mursi finally appeared in court, but much of the media did not. TV crews and photojournalists in particular did not enter the courtroom. So, the one or two photos that have emerged of Mursi in his suit, standing with other Muslim Brotherhood defendants in their prison whites, had to have been snatched by camera phones. This illustrates how difficult it is getting to block media coverage, even when doing so is considered a reasonable move.
But, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s call, upon his arrival in Cairo, for “transparent trials” obviously had effect. The decision to let some journalists into the courtroom came after an earlier announcement that there would be no press coverage.
There was a mysterious video uploaded by al-Watan newspaper of Mursi talking to someone for a brief few minutes the night before the trial. It was played that night on a talk show broadcast by the Egyptian satellite channel al-Tahrir.
The mystery of the tape deepens in that it appears to have been ignored by the rest of Egypt’s media. The tape itself could conceivably have been shot on a mobile phone during a meeting of Mursi between either relatives , defence lawyers or openly filmed by interrogators.
Mursi in this tape is relatively composed and reserved, almost fatalistic rather than defiant. So different from his appearance the next day in court, where he kept insisting he was still the president of the Republic, defied the judge, denounced both the military and the judiciary and inspired both his fellow defendants, and well as the Muslim Brotherhood team of defense lawyers, to chant against the army.
But there is now a new form of media for pro-Mursi polemics – graffitiAbdallah Schleifer
All of this behavior - which would never be tolerated during a trail in America and silenced if necessary by police officers as contempt of court - angered members of the Egyptian press, some of whom had been beaten up by MB militants last December. They then started to chant: “Execution! Execution” in response, alluding to the faint possibility of a sentence of death if Mursi is found guilty of inciting murder. Chaos ensued and the judge walked out of the courtroom and adjourned proceedings until January.
Given the treatment of the independent Egyptian media during Mursi’s one year reign - indeed even at that very moment, outside the court room both state and private sector TV crews were being roughed up by pro-Mursi demonstrators - the outbursts in the courtroom are understandable but again point to the partisan polemical state of so much Egyptian journalism.
Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood media in Egypt has been closed down for about three months and the two satellite channels that remain sympathetic to the Brotherhood – al-Jazeera and TRT Arabic (a Turkish state channel) - like any other satellite channels, are not available to that estimated 60 percent of Egypt's population that cannot afford a satellite dish and receiver.
But there is now a new form of media for pro-Mursi polemics – graffiti. And the pro-Mursi graffiti borders on the obscene, covering so many of the walls of Cairo with curses directed at General al-Sisi and whoever supports him. That includes denunciations of the Coptic Patriarch Tawadros as “ a dog” and Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb as “a spy” who “sold the turban and the religion!” And the police are also denounced: “all of them are bastards.”
But as my colleague H.A. Hellyer has already pointed out here a week ago there is one issue that draws these two conflicting forces together , if for very different reasons – and that is anger at the popular satellite TV satirist Bassem Youssef. The Brotherhood and their supporters have been furious with Youssef for his searing satire of Mursi when he was president ,and after an extended summer holiday when Youssef ‘s show went back on air, the first show offended many supporters of Sisi by mocking the general and the transitional government.
But the polarization and the polemical nature of media that feeds the polarization (but is also its product) is not quite as stark as I would have it. There is a third force, so to speak, people opposed to both the Brotherhood and the transitional government put into power by the Egyptian armed forces, and particularly put off by the intense and widely popular demand for General Sisi to run for president in the not too distant future.
At the recording of Youssef’s second show these “Third Force” fans clashed in the streets with anti-Youssef/pro-Sisi demonstrators. That show never made it to air. CBC – the private satellite channel that broadcasts Youssef’s show, refused to air it and Youssef left Cairo for the Gulf.
Youssef has acknowledged as an inspiring influence the American TV satirist Jon Stewart - who is disturbingly considered as a valid source for news by many young Americans, most of whom do not even read newspapers. But I have always been put off by Stewart’s humor which appealed to a certain crude cynicism anchored in disrespect, so I more or less inhabit what is probably and even more marginalized position than Hellyer’s third force: I am put off by Youssef, not as print columnist where he can be highly critical without being base, but as a TV satirist, be he anti-Mursi or anti-Sisi.
Polemics as entertainment or in an opinion column should be anyone’s right as long as it is not obscene. But polemics as the basis for reporting, or for an audience’s perception of what is news, can be devastating.
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.”
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