Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Information wars

The priorities of Western journalists can blind them to other issues, including by making them insensitive to the realities of Egypt and the Middle East region, writes Tewfick Aclimandos


The main idea governing this series of articles is quite simple: the huge bias of the Western media against the Egyptian authorities does not constitute a well-thought-out plot against the country. 

However, foreign journalists are also wrong when they claim that their reporting on Egypt is accurate and “objective”. The Western media is much freer than the medias in other parts of the world, since there is no censorship, and it does not deliberately fabricate fake news. However, even so the Western media is definitely not reliable. 

I have already said that the problems run deep. The reigning ideology of the Western elites wants to protect victims and combat authoritarian regimes. Western journalists focus on human-rights issues, seeing this as their job. However, their hatred for human-rights violations in other parts of the world blinds them to other issues.

The Western elites also hate nationalism, even in its mildest forms. One former French president once said in a speech that “nationalism is war,” for example. This is as preposterous as saying that “religion leads to civil war,” as was pointed out by my friend and colleague the French academic Gil Delannoi, who published a brilliant book summing up 35 years of research and deep insight entitled “Nationalism against the Nation”. 

Many Egyptian nationalist writers are too often prone to hate speech, and they are very quick to smell treason and thus to consider dissenting human-rights reports as a form of high treason. Some pro-regime commentators in Egypt, with their ugly discourse and paranoid worldview, are also one of the weak points of the Egyptian authorities.

However, the current Western worldview does not help. The US press, for example, did not see why the “Brotherhoodisation” of the state under former Muslim Brotherhood rule, meaning the appointment of Muslim Brothers to almost all key posts, was problematic. It looked like the familiar American spoils system, and the huge differences between the two countries were overlooked.

The Western press is rightly proud of its refusal to publish fake news, seeing it as a tool of authoritarian states, especially Russia. The problem is that some of its own sources in the Arab world are unscrupulous. 

When I started my own professional career in the French Press Agency, a well-known left-wing friend of my father used to call me systematically, providing me with “information” and “scoops” on what was going on in Egypt. My bosses told me to avoid publishing these scoops without prior checking. To my surprise, all the so-called scoops were fake. Today, the Islamist camp also often fabricates news, and it seems that the Western media’s cross-checking is not as thorough as it used to be.

I said in my article in Al-Ahram Weekly last week that a good news article should provide the reader with “background” that enables him to understand the significance of the piece. This background can be illuminating, but it can also be seriously misleading. In any case, the selection of useful information that can help the reader is a difficult job, though not an impossible one.

Yet, the background provided by many reports is deeply biased. For instance, many Western news reports claim that former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was “democratically elected”. This is true, but the reports do not add that serious violations and fraud occurred in the elections. 

The background also often describes the toppling of Morsi on 3 July 2013, but it seldom adds that this happened after the 30 June demonstrations, the most impressive that Egypt has ever witnessed. The existence of the Muslim Brotherhood militias is never mentioned. 

I remember one New York Times piece saying that claims by the secular opposition of their existence were “implausible”. Today’s Western coverage of the Sinai issue almost never mentions key elements. Of course, these are just examples, but the list is very long.

Mistaken analyses or false interpretations are also astonishingly common in the Western media. One respected Western scholar seriously evoked a scenario in which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi could launch an attack against Ethiopia to distract people disheartened by what he called the “sham elections” in Egypt.

Why should this scenario be examined? We were told that the issue was vital for Egypt (although in other paragraphs of his article he seemed to have forgotten it), and President Al-Sisi’s record was described as “worrying”.

I presumed at the time that this was supposed to be a reference to Sinai. But the whole difference between a terrorist group and a sovereign state seemed to have been lost. I think I know the president’s record: he has not sent Egyptian troops to Yemen or Syria or Libya. But the Brotherhood’s adventurism in foreign policy (especially on Syria) was a key factor in its downfall. 

No military officer in the world likes war: he knows the suffering and the risks involved, and he knows how easily things can go wrong. The president is a cautious player. I could go on.

The edition of the newspaper concerned was published before the president’s re-election. Many pundits in Cairo told me three weeks before the day that I was wrong, that the participation would be much higher than expected, and their explanations were convincing. Nobody in Egypt considered any of the would-be candidates to be a possible winner.

The Western media sometimes claims that Egypt’s purchases of weapons are the result of presidential whim. One newspaper even once claimed that the French Rafale fighters recently bought by Egypt would be “used against Egypt’s population”. Many Western commentators seem to be oblivious of the fact that Egypt is at war and that it has long coasts and frontiers to protect. Enemies surround the country, and various state and non-state actors seriously threaten Egypt’s national security.

Turkey is pursuing hostile policies in Libya, the Mediterranean and elsewhere. There are problems with jihadists in Sinai, Gaza and Libya. Iran or Turkey cannot be allowed to gain control of the Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandab straits. The partial retreat by the US from the region creates new responsibilities. None of this can be put down to “presidential whim”.

More generally, when an event, or the regime’s action, is difficult to explain, many Western reports prefer the most unfavourable explanation. This is the case even if the opposite is true, though sometimes the journalists are right.

Any journalist has a duty to report human-rights violations and the right to dislike the Egyptian regime and to criticise it in the harshest terms. However, this is one thing. To rely on biased reports and analyses that trot out naïve stereotypes is quite another.

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

add comment

  • follow us on