Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt deserves better

Western media coverage of Egypt over the past six years has left a lot to be desired, writes Amina Khairy

Egypt deserves better media coverage. Those who know the country are either politicised, or ideologised, or simply sitting at the other end of the world. And those who don’t know it are hitting their keyboards like crazy. They share, invent, analyse, like and share recycled opinions rather than facts. Egypt definitely deserves much better, more knowledgeable, and more insightful media coverage.

The coverage of what happened recently on the Oases Road in the Western Desert approximately 150 km south of Cairo is only an example of the problems. Over the past six years, Egypt has been recurrently misrepresented in the international media, and alas sometimes in the domestic media as well. 

Ever since the Arab Spring hit Egypt in January 2011, the international media has developed an acute interest in Egyptian politics. This has been reflected either by consulting the book of Political Science terms and definitions in explaining to the world what has been happening (which does not always suffice in understanding why people behave the way they do in certain major upheavals), or by clinging to the new ally of Political Islam in the Middle East, what one might call the “Moderate Political Islam Syndrome.”

This Syndrome drove the European Union to defend Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, considering him to be the country’s first “civilian” and “democratically elected president” while ignoring the fact that Political Islam is a theocratic and not a civil form of rule.

 Likewise, former US president Barack Obama and his administration heartily defended the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the will of the majority of Egyptians themselves. This was highlighted in US senator John McCain’s famous “duck” when he insisted that the Egyptians’ mass revolt against the Brotherhood was a “military coup,” saying “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

But ducks come in all shapes and sizes. And objective, neutral, non-partisan Western media coverage was broken with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Defending political Islamists such as the Muslim Brothers and other Salafi groups, whose doctrines do not differ drastically from those of the Islamic State (IS) group (only in terms of different degrees of jihad and its timing), was reflected in simply getting Egypt wrong in Western media coverage. 

From Middle East experts appearing on American, British, French, Spanish and German TV news channels to analyse events, to Political Islamists and Western-educated members and sympathisers providing articles to Western newspapers, to the Al-Jazeera network’s addressing the West using its own professional terminology (while defending the Muslim Brothers), to the large investments made by different countries in “moderate” Political Islam groups – all this has shaped how the West and its media has covered and is covering Egypt.

How the West covered the Bahareya events sheds light on how the Western media has got Egypt wrong. With all due respect to editorial guidelines, specifically when reporting terrorism, if terrorism walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is terrorism. It is not insurgency, or freedom-fighting, or guerrilla warfare, or even Islamist jihad. It is terrorism.

According to BBC guidelines, “terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones, and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements. We try to avoid the use of the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution. The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as ‘bomber,’ ‘attacker,’ ‘gunman,’ ‘kidnapper,’ ‘insurgent’ and ‘militant’. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.” 

It will not come as a surprise, then, that the same BBC ran an article in August 2015 under the headline “Enduring Repression and Insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai,” in which the writer said that “these disturbing developments [in North Sinai] come after more than 18 months of extremely brutal but ineffective counterinsurgency activities by the military in North Sinai.”

The writer, an Egyptian professor residing in the UK (who also happened to be a regular Al-Jazeera commentator), saw the military campaigns in North Sinai as “collective punishment for the families of suspects” and said that “the only open discussion that occurred regarding Sinai was in the brief transition period between February 2011 and June 2013, and it did not yield any executive policy and died out quickly following the takeover by the military in July 2013.”

Is this supposed to be a non-partisan and objective analysis?

This shows what is wrong with Western news coverage of Egypt. The celebrations emanating from the major Western news outlets with the “end of IS in Kirkuk,” Raqqa, Mosul and Deir Al-Zor, etc., do not look beyond the buses carrying the IS fighters away from these cities in Iraq and Syria. Their next stop is not of great concern to the West, as long as they are not Western cities. As for the actual physical presence of IS fighters, the “where next” question is not on their editorial guidelines. 

The same editorial guidelines view the release of Ibrahim Halawa, the Muslim Brotherhood activist and brother of three sisters Somaya, Fatma and Omaima who proudly call themselves “Rabawiyat” (belonging to the Rabaa sit-in in Cairo in 2013) where they defended the rule of Morsi, has been described as the end of the “ordeal of an innocent Irish student” in the Western media with no mention of other affiliations. 

“He and his sisters [he has an Irish passport] travelled to Egypt to visit their extended family, but decided to join a peaceful demonstration calling for democracy and defending Egypt’s first civilian president Mohamed Morsi,” according to Irish newspapers. 

The Western media only saw the “innocent” Halawa family defending “democracy” and Morsi in Egypt. They also saw the end of IS in several Iraqi and Syrian cities. But while IS may be coming to an end there, it is coming to a beginning elsewhere. But such beginnings will not be seen in the Western media unless there is a security alert in New York or London or Madrid or Paris or Berlin. Such beginnings are also overridden when writers and TV commentators are allowed to explain that what the Egyptian security services are doing in North Sinai is “a brutal punishment of the locals” or a “unplanned show of force against innocent civilians in Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid” without being refuted or questioned.  

From North Sinai to the Western Desert and the Bahareya Oasis, events are left to be described in terms of the “lack of Egyptian security preparedness” or as “who sows violence reaps storms.” In the meantime, reputable universities such as Georgetown University in the US have been opening panels to Muslim Brothers in order that they may continue to deceive the world. A few days ago, Brotherhood member Amr Darrag spoke of the group as “a reformist, gradualist movement working for social change”. This is music to the ears of many Western academics, activists and journalists. The vicious circle refuses to break.

But circles do not become vicious on their own, and part of this viciousness is the result of our own mistakes. The Egyptian media has not been able to address the West. Speaking English is not the issue, and translating our news into English, French or German only aggravates the lack of understanding. Facts, numbers, logical explanations, prompt coverage and a mindset capable of dealing with breaking news are simply not there. 

When headlines such as “scores of casualties” or “at least 53 police officers killed” hit the Western media, it means that we are not doing our job properly. Egypt deserves better media coverage in the West and better media knowledge with less damage in Cairo.

The writer is a journalist at  Al-Hayat newspaper.

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