Egypt: hating the message, shooting the messenger

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Al Arabiya in which I condemned deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi’s crackdown on his media critics. Unfortunately, violations and censorship have continued since his ouster - the only difference is which news outlets are being targeted.

The new authorities are now clamping down on media affiliated with Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and foreign news organizations deemed sympathetic to him or the group. The arrests, closures, restrictions and physical attacks - there are too many examples to list - have been condemned by international human rights organizations and media watchdogs.

Human Rights Watch slammed such “arbitrary acts,” which Amnesty International described as “a blow to freedom of expression.” The International Federation of Journalists said it is “deeply concerned,” and the Committee to Protect Journalists said it is “alarmed.”

Both camps should stop being so foolish or arrogant as to believe that they have a monopoly on the ‘truth.’

Sharif Nashashibi

Since Mursi’s overthrow, “respect for freedom of information continues to worsen and increasingly resembles the situation under the authoritarian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011,” said Reporters Without Borders. This is not surprising, since the SCAF is back in charge, at least for the time being.

“The so-called road map, in the form of a ‘constitutional declaration’ by the military-appointed president...includes negligible protections for basic rights, including free speech,” and “grants the military autonomy outside the president’s control,” wrote David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief and Middle East correspondent for The New York Times.

Furthermore, the media crackdown is overtly backed, and even encouraged, by news organizations opposed to Mursi and the Brotherhood, instead of criticizing it on general principle as an attack on their colleagues. One of the most blatant examples was the ejection from a military press conference of Al Jazeera reporters, to the applause of other journalists.

Not that the Brotherhood-affiliated media acted differently when it was in power. This is disturbing, but unsurprising - in times of internal conflict in any country, domestic media often reflect, and can even exacerbate, national divisions. As in Egypt, the profession can be both victim and - unprofessionally - perpetrator.

Propaganda war

As with any conflict, the one being played out on the streets of Egypt is occurring in tandem with a propaganda war by both camps. When dozens of pro-Mursi protesters were killed by troops outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, the Brotherhood and army PR machines reacted with lightning speed.

The propaganda war has spawned a mob mentality that is prevailing in Egypt - as long as this is the case, the country and its people will be unable to move forward.

Sharif Nashashibi

They organized press conferences, arranged interviews, and provided eye-witness accounts and video footage to reinforce their own version of events. It soon resembled a morbid contest of which side could most capitalize politically from these deaths.

Terminology is being fiercely fought over - for example, whether the overthrow was a military coup or a popular revolution (or both); whether Mursi, despite being democratically elected, lost his ‘legitimacy’ during his time in office; and whether his supporters are extremists or democrats.

Claims and counter-claims abound - some valid, others easily refuted. Many people on social media sites have been alleging that there were 33 million anti-Mursi protesters on the streets on June 30 - citing the BBC and CNN - and that the BBC described this as “the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind.”

No corroborating links to either news organization are provided, and I cannot find such a figure or quote on either of their websites. The BBC would certainly not make such a statement, which is what immediately aroused my suspicion. There is no need to disseminate false figures and claims when there were clearly a huge number of anti-Mursi protesters on the streets.

Other turnout figures (one of which “seemed implausibly high,” according to Reuters) that are disseminated unquestioningly come from the military - a source that, given its central role in Mursi’s ouster, cannot be considered impartial. While verification is all but impossible under the circumstances, everyone seems sure of the number of protesters.

The plethora of videos showing abuses by one side or the other are often difficult to verify, but at times hard to refute. Nonetheless, many people only trust those that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. The Middle East Monitor initially said a video of a Mursi supporter throwing two children from a building was a “hoax,” but later withdrew that claim. However, I have seen more references on social media sites to the initial allegation than the retraction.

Another video, entitled “Ali Ahmed: the 12-year-old boy who put Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to shame,” has been widely publicized, probably because it offers the ‘awww’ factor of a child speaking like an informed adult. However, it is clearly edited numerous times, just before the boy answers a question or makes a statement. This indicates that what he is saying was scripted and rehearsed.

I hear with increasing frequency from people who think that only they know the ‘truth’ about what is happening in Egypt because they live there. If that was true, there would be no divisions in the country. Since this is evidently not the case, both camps should stop being so foolish or arrogant as to believe that they have a monopoly on the ‘truth.’

This has led to a situation whereby “two Egypts now exist,” in the words of BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. He was hit in the head and leg by army fire while covering a pro-Mursi protest, against which the military “used live rounds long before they used tear gas.”

One such purveyor of the ‘truth’ told me with total conviction that fuel shortages in Egypt had ended since the shutting down of the tunnels to the Gaza Strip. So 1.6 million besieged, impoverished Palestinians had been using up the energy requirements of 83 million Egyptians! Conspiracy theories are finding willing audiences.

Dehumanization

The effect of this propaganda war is the dehumanization by Egyptians of their compatriots with whom they disagree - not just excusing violence against each other, but wishing for more. The level of vitriol expressed on social media sites is akin to that over Syria.

Some of my Egyptian friends (including one I have known almost all my life) have blocked and ‘unfriended’ me on Facebook simply for expressing concern at developments, despite my public criticisms of Mursi throughout his time in office. Such is the level of polarization that those of us who think that his presidency was a disaster, but are nonetheless worried at how events are unfolding, have been angrily and swiftly pigeon-holed as his sympathizers.

My urgings of caution on Facebook following his ouster were met with responses such as “don’t burst our bubble,” I “should not ruin the party,” and “we the Egyptians just want to let the euphoria take over.” Following my condemnation of army abuses, I was told that “it’s all bull! Change your channels plz.” That person had no idea which channels I was watching, but of course they must be the wrong ones.

One of those who ‘unfriended’ me wrote on Facebook: “As for those MB [Muslim Brotherhood], please army and police put these stray dogs back in their cages. I will never sympathize with any of them ever no matter how many have been killed, they brought this amongst themselves and the result was self defense in all the cases and incidents that took place.”

She added: “I actually feel the army and police are not doing enough and are being too lenient towards the MB and are too concerned with what everyone else will think if they show any violence.” As such, her conclusion that “we should all be one and united” sounded truly absurd. It is ironic that many people who just last year were decrying military rule in Egypt are now acting as de facto army spokespeople.

A family friend refused to join me in condemning violence in Egypt regardless of perpetrator or victim, and acknowledging that abuses are taking place on both sides. The Brotherhood “are killing their own supporters to gain sympathy for their ‘cause’,” he wrote. This argument reminds me of the tired, illogical and baseless Israeli accusations that Hamas and Hezbollah use their own people as ‘human shields’ in combat.

“Any violence on the streets of Egypt right now is Incited, Instigated, Sponsored by the MB for their own political gains,” he said, adding that “you reap what you sow.” Such cold, unwavering absolutism is also expressed by Mursi’s Islamist supporters. The propaganda war has spawned a mob mentality that is prevailing in Egypt - as long as this is the case, the country and its people will be unable to move forward.

 

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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