Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Fourth-generation wars

What best explains the Western media’s consistently biased view of Egypt, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

The pro-regime television channels in Egypt regularly invite experts who claim that the country is the victim of a new kind of fourth-generation war used by foreign plotters and devilishly nasty in intent.

Many people believe this to be the case, though many others also mock it. Foreign experts think the whole idea of Egypt being the victim of such a war is a gross manipulation by local propaganda experts, though they commonly express their dismay that such manipulation seems to work.

However, there have been some exceptions to this view. If my memory serves me right, some years ago the international NGO the International Crisis Group published a study saying that these local experts, and many other people in the regime, believed what they said. Their idea that the country was the victim of a fourth-generation war was not simply a propaganda tool, the study said. It was the genuine view of those who had argued for it.

Foreign experts consider the local discourse on this kind of war as proof that something is deeply flawed in the regime. It is either cynical, aiming at creating national unity through xenophobic paranoia, or it is portraying the opposition as traitors or paid agents, or it is accusing foreigners of responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the country, they say. 

Whatever the case may be, the results are the same: a simplistic, xenophobic and suspicious worldview that has dire effects, many of them unexpected. Egypt needs foreign help, but regime propaganda portrays foreigners as enemies, spies or voracious exploiters. Ungrounded accusations are made at a preoccupying rate. Opportunities are missed because officials smell a rat where in fact none exists. 

Egyptian experts can easily underline the appalling number of deeply flawed analyses of the country that appear in the foreign media and in the literature of foreign think tanks. I myself have devoted some time to this kind of discourse. Many Egyptians also do not understand why Westerners complain about Russia’s use of information as a weapon. After all, they say, these Westerners are simply receiving a dose of their own medicine.

I have never believed that the flawed Western analyses that circulate on Egypt are tools in a war launched by Western leaders in an attempt to weaken the country. There are simply too many unbridgeable differences of perception, different kinds of intelligence, and too much rank stupidity in both camps. We can consider such foreign discourse to be a plague, and in fact it often is one. However, we can also learn many things from it about the West, about ourselves, and about the sometimes subtle dialectics between self and other.

I recently read a fascinating paper on the website of the US magazine the American Interest devoted to Russia’s use of disinformation. This piece might be a very good introduction to the notion of a fourth-generation war. It says that Russia is inferior to the Western countries in its military, technology and economy, and it says that Russia knows it. However, Russia considers itself to be superior in another way, which is that it considers its society to be more cohesive. Its authoritarian system and its control of the media allows it to be “immune” to any information war. 

Democracy thrives on internal divisions. It even assumes that these divisions exist, and it says that it is better to manage them through the regulated tolerance of conflict and the organised rotation of elites than to let them fester unregarded. However, from the Russian point of view it would be better for it to launch a war against the West where it is strong and where its weaknesses are not relevant. An information war could deepen divisions in western society and even manipulate them, the American Interest article said.

As a result, Russia’s state-controlled media invents “fake news”, overstates the relevance of other pieces of news, and constantly repeats lies or half-truths to spread disinformation in the West. While this strategy often works, it is in fact a double-edged sword. Tactics have to be changed on a regular basis because they become inefficient if used too often. New tactics tend to be more extreme than older ones. Inexorably, the aggressor moves to a threshold where his lies are no longer tolerated or are no longer plausible, and he has to face the kind of major crises he always wanted to avoid. Another danger, not mentioned by the article, is that the liar could even start to believe his own lies.

Those who think there is a fourth-generation war targeting Egypt and the Arab world transpose this scheme to the Middle East. There they see what they consider to be consistently negative coverage by the Western media. This was most obvious and most unfair during the first months after the 30 June Revolution, when huge popular demonstrations in Egypt led to the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood rule. 

They assume that such blatantly biased coverage must be “coordinated” by someone in power. The supposed aim is to strengthen Israel on a more sustainable basis than its current technological, military, and economic superiority can warrant. The means used are to destroy the Arab armies, or at least to keep them busy by dividing countries into smaller ones, pushing internal actors into civil war, using religious and ethnic differences to spread divisions, and even creating new ones where necessary. 

I once heard one expert explaining the shifts on the Syrian crisis by the former Obama administration in the US by saying that it had seen in the Syrian uprising an opportunity to weaken the Syrian army. As soon as Syria’s chemical arsenal, a serious threat to Israel’s security, had been dismantled, it stopped paying attention to the conflict, he claimed. 

Another narrative goes like this: the US decided to empower the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in the Arab world for its own devilish purposes, ignoring the suffering that this would entail. One of these supposed devilish motives was that the jihadists that were then fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world would return home to the Arab world, alleviating the pressure on American troops in the Southwest Asian region. The Islamists would also be busy enforcing their rule over the Arab populations, thus further fragmenting the Arab world. And so the conspiracy story goes on.  

The minimalist version of this story says that the US has been using its discourse on human rights as a tool to weaken the positions of the Arab regimes during the negotiations on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in order to extract more concessions from them.

These ideas have certain things in common: they assume that the Western powers have a deep knowledge of the Arab world, that they know what they are doing, and that they are able to predict the consequences of their acts. The Western media is “professional” in its coverage of other regions of the world, those who hold these views say, so its appalling errors in the Arab world are proof of its bad intentions. Many people who hold such views also dismiss claims of the Western media’s independence, at least in the realm of foreign policy. The Western media relies on sources in government, they say, and these can manipulate a media that in any case already adheres to government policy.

My own view is that media ethics have changed, that academic knowledge is not perfect, that Western leaders do not necessarily know what they are doing, and that any consistency in their discourse is due to shared ideology, not to coordination by a hidden conspiracy. However, this is the subject of another article.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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