Egypt Pulse

Can Egypt Win the War For Public Opinion?

Article Summary
While Western media persist in calling the Egyptian crisis a military coup, there are ways that Egypt can restore its public image in the world's eyes.

Throughout the past two months, Egyptians have felt that there is an international conspiracy against them. While such a feeling is not new to Arabs in general, what is new is that Egyptians and many Arabs were shocked at the Western media, which has long been thought of as being neutral and impervious to governments’ influence. The question has become: Why have Western media outlets taken this desperate position in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the extent of reversing the facts and taking things out of context? They have even lied about images, and some Western media outlets broadcast footage of the anti-Morsi demonstrations in front of the presidential palace, claiming they were pro-Morsi demonstrations in Rabia al-Adawiya!

At the end of the day, media institutions — even though being independent and privately owned, are a part of the economic, political and intellectual structure of the state in which they operate. The interests and profits of these outlets are affected by and fluctuate according to the interests of the state. Therefore, these outlets often take their clues from subtle signals embedded in the administration’s official position. At the end of the day, journalists are people who belong — both emotionally and pragmatically — to the same set of interests. It is vital for them to be close to decision-makers, because the latter are important news sources.

June 30 revealed that the US administration and Western media had very hard time accepting the idea of removing former President Mohammed Morsi and ending Muslim Brotherhood rule through popular demonstrations. The logic was, if the opposition could mobilize millions in demonstrations, why could it not do the same in elections, obtain a majority in parliament, form a government and force Morsi to change the Constitution in a few months’ time?  And despite that the June 30 demonstrations were the largest in the history of Egypt — and perhaps the largest in the history of the world — media coverage for these demonstrations was limited. Some foreign journalists could not contain themselves and personally recorded the magnitude of the crowds on their personal accounts on Twitter.

Aside from the conspiracy theory, it is important to understand why Egypt and the revolutionaries failed to gain the sympathy of world public opinion during this wave of the revolution. In general, the Western public does not like the army to interfere in politics, and is not used to the "crowd democracy" model for change, which prevailed in Egypt following the January 2011 Revolution, and possibly earlier.

For more than eight months since the start of the outbreak of the crisis in Egypt following Morsi's "unconstitutional" declaration, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had warned politicians — both those in power and in the opposition — about the consequences of not reaching political solutions. He also persistently rejected calls for army’s intervention since November 2012, despite the demands of many, including a number of revolutionary youth. He had warned on later occasions that the continuation of the conflict, without reaching political solutions, could lead to the collapse of the state (something the armed forces would not allow).

The media does not remember — or does not mention — these warnings in a clear manner. The media doesn't mention that Morsi turned against the transitional constitutional framework on Aug. 12, 2012, when he stripped the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of the task entrusted to it by the people to oversee the remaining stages of the transitional period in a neutral manner. This step was in violation of the constitutional framework Morsi had sworn to protect on June 30, 2012, exactly one year before the outbreak of the revolution against him. Thus, the absence of a neutral caretaker of the transition process led to the Brotherhood monopolizing the drafting of the constitution which lacked consensus and divided Egyptians. Furthermore, the Brotherhood amended electoral laws and electoral districts in a way that served their interests alone. This dwarfed the political influence of opposing blocs — Christians, for example — as the Brotherhood merged districts where Christians had significant influence with larger districts.

The Western media has classified what happened on July 3 as a coup. Egyptians did not understand why the world embraced the January 2011 revolution as a revolution, despite that it ended in military rule of the SCAF, while they have labeled the events of July 3 as a coup, even though leadership of the country was temporarily given to head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, according to Egyptian constitutional tradition. Of course, the difference is that — in the West's view — Morsi was an elected president. The West didn't realize that the people nearly equally opposed the two candidates who made it to the final round of the presidential elections.

This is because the two represented the same choices of the past: the Mubarak regime or Brotherhood rule. And while the West has always blamed Arabs for relying on conspiracy theories to explain both large and small events, the West has fallen into the same position in trying to explain the June 30 revolution. Many columnists published sensational stories about meetings between revolutionary youth and Tamarod leaders and generals from the army and Egyptian intelligence. These journalists chose to omit that the army has convened with all of these activists and politicians — first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists — since SCAF took power following Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. They also forget to mention that revolutionaries and Egyptians at large hold army generals directly responsible for handing over power to the Brotherhood, since they allowed the latter to tailor the transition road map to its advantage, allowing it to grab all powers. Did the army leaders put the Brotherhood to a practical test, to determine whether the group was capable of developing its thinking style and evolve from an underground organization into a responsible ruling party, its leaders evolving from just being followers of the Morshed [Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie] to trustworthy statesmen, extending their hands to opponents, building consensus and uniting Egyptians around the task of rebuilding the country?

The Brotherhood strategy relied on maximizing casualties and deaths of their supporters at the hands of the army in particular — and the security services in general — as the best way to win sympathy of the West and break the popular support for the army and interim government. Thus, from the beginning, they planned actions on the ground in ways to support their victim PR and media strategy. This involved pushing their crowds toward military facilities and occupying vital roads, such as the main road to Cairo International Airport and the Oct. 6 Bridge, building sand barricades and concrete fortifications on major roads to paralyze the country and provoke the security services and the state to strike back.

At the same time, they acquired a patch of land that was constantly expanding, eating away at the capital, where they could later establish a parallel statelet. As a result, many victims died and were injured in clashes at the Republican Guard Club and at al-Manasa, and during clashes with residents of the neighborhoods which the Brotherhood's marches passed through. The largest number of victims came the day that the Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda encampments were dispersed. The Brotherhood and their allies used these victims to call for foreign intervention. From the beginning, the Brotherhood has used the term "coup" to describe what happened on July 3, but following the fall of these victims, they started to use the term "bloody coup".

The United States has confronted terrorism for many years, especially after Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps the United States has reached the conclusion that it is impossible to achieve a military or security victory over this kind of radical ideology, which is associated with a personal willingness to sacrifice one’s life for some cause. As a result of this experience, the US administration could have truly feared what the Brotherhood — or their allies from more violent organizations — would do to Egypt. Alternatively, the United States could have reached some sort of an agreement or an understanding, whether explicit or implicit — that would allow the Islamists to ascend to power in the Middle East in exchange for the Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and their allies abandoning their war against the United States, a war which was costing the United States dearly in places where it had committed troops — such as Afghanistan and Iraq — or inside the United States itself.

Suddenly came the June 30 Revolution to upset these plans and disrupt those agreements — assuming they existed — with all the risks of potential retaliation from these fanatic groups against Western interests inflicting damage upon the United States itself. The FBI had spent thousands of hours investigating links of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States, and discovered some dangerous plans drafted in very scary documents outlining the Brotherhood strategy in the United States. The Brotherhood strategy was to gradually take control of the United States through a large network of organizations manipulated by the group. While none of these organizations carried the Brotherhood's name, they were all linked to it and to Hamas on an ideological basis and cooperated strategically, logistically and financially from behind the curtains.

Perhaps all of these experiences are what made US Sen. John McCain conclude that Egypt cannot eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Millions of well-intentioned Muslims in the United States — including students and ordinary citizens — unknowingly support Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations. According to FBI investigations, such organizations include the Muslim Student Association (MSA), the Islamic Society for North America (ISNA), the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) — or any other of the thousands of small organizations that arise in parallel to mosques in America, many of which are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and used by the group to advance its influence in the United States, directly or indirectly.

Often, most members of these organizations and congregations are unaware of these links. So the US administration’s behavior is not necessarily the result of an evil plot to undermine Egypt, but could simply be that the United States estimated that the Brotherhood was a force that neither Egypt nor the United States itself could take on. Millions of Muslims pray in mosques controlled by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, and can as a result be influenced to support the group’s agenda, often without realizing it themselves. And with the backing of this sprawling army which can in turn influence domestic politics in the United States and Europe — as well as in Egypt, Arab States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, etc. — the Brotherhood has become too influential to beat. And as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

I have several friends who serve as foreign correspondents in Egypt. At least two of them have told me in confidence that they were not satisfied with the way their media organizations had covered the events in Egypt, which they deemed biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood. To my surprise, some of them were suddenly transferred from Cairo to faraway locations after many years of service in Egypt. They have been replaced by others who were new to the region and who naturally formed their frame of reference according to the brief given to them by their media organizations, thus covering the events from a preset perspective.

Volkhard Windfuhr, chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo, and a senior correspondent for Der Spiegel, issued a statement to his colleagues expressing his disappointment in the biased coverage of the events, whereby the war which the (pro-Morsi) “protesters” fight against the state of our host country only scarcely finds an adequate, due coverage. He warned his colleagues that correspondents are fired at on purpose, not by police or army officers, but by the self-proclaimed “peaceful demonstrators.” He was quoted as saying, “It is outrageous what these aggressive "protesters" commit. They attack people at random, attack their own state, attack public buildings and an ever-increasing number of churches and houses and shops of Christians. … I feel forced by my conscience and professional [ethics] to express my strong disappointment that the war which the 'protesters' fight against the state of our host country only scarcely finds an adequate, due coverage. But it is never too late.” When this revealing statement did not receive any significant coverage in the Western media, some of the most conservative Egyptians — and those who usually dismiss conspiracy theories — realized that there was a fire under this thick smoke, and some people even wrote about the need to reinstate credibility to conspiracy theory!

With all of this in mind, I still wish to give my two cents on how to improve Egypt's image before the world’s public eye. Before worrying about the image, we should consider improving the reality, which means that the government needs to go to extra lengths to avoid bloodshed. The government must consider unconventional strategies to deal with militants with minimum collateral damage.

It may be hard to convince the police to exercise restraint when they hear stories such as the one related to the attack on Kerdasa police station in Giza where militants killed and mutilated everyone inside, cutting off their limbs and disfiguring their bodies. But the state should not allow terrorists to dictate the war agenda through the militants’ gruesome violence. These militants are now holed up in barricades with heavy weapons, terrorizing the residents of Kerdasa. Security must exercise caution to neutralize then while minimizing human casualties and collateral damage. It is also necessary to open a political path to accommodate non-violent Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the earliest possible opportunity. The government cannot rely on the security solutions alone in dealing with a political problem of this kind. There is also a need to deal with media relations professionally, including regular updates to the media with accurate information, breaking news and expressive and inspiring stories, not just tragic ones. The authorities must also respond to all rumors and Brotherhood allegations circulating in traditional and social media.

It is also important to communicate with Egyptians and Arabs abroad. Some families, for example, have been surprised that their children who are studying in the United States have a distorted picture of what is happening in Egypt. This is only normal, since they obtain their information from US news networks as well as preachers in mosques they pray at, many of which are run by the Muslim Brotherhood, their affiliates and/or their allies in the diaspora. Clarifying the facts and the narrative to them from an Egyptian point of view, they will see the other side of the story and can disseminate information and explain things to people in their circles as well.

It is time that the Egyptian media ends its obsession with demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood and starts talking about the democratic process, holding serious dialogue about the constitution and encouraging initiatives that will help include hundreds of thousands of non-violent Islamists in the political process. These outlets must focus on efforts at achieving transitional justice and strategies to improve social justice. In short, we cannot expect the image broadcast in media abroad to improve until things on the ground start to move forward. With violent confrontations becoming fewer and farther in between, pointing to a near end to the wave of violence, easing the curfew hours and lifting the state of emergency and other exceptional measures, the army gradually disappearing from the streets hopefully soon, with the police being able to enforce law and order on its own; a return to normalcy will help send a different picture to the outside world.

There are other things that are undesirably contributing to this negative image. For example, news of Mubarak's release and the resurrection reformation of the State Security Investigations Services (SSI) gave fertile material to the media to demonstrate that what happened on June 30 is nothing but a counter-revolution to turn back the clock and revive a police state. These things could have been done in a different way and at a different timing. At the same time, there was little focus on that Mubarak's acquittal verdict was indeed issued under Morsi, or that the new government has placed him under house arrest using emergency law. Moreover, there was no focus on the restructuring of the National Council for Human Rights to include a group of revolutionaries and renowned human rights activists.

Doubts about resurrecting a police state ignore the huge change in the awareness of the Egyptian people and their proven ability to impose their collective will on any government. Egyptians are self-confident that they have irreversibly changed the power relationship between people and authority forever, and know that if necessary they can again change governments and presidents. At the same time, Egyptians want a firm state which can impose law and order. They will not tolerate any tendencies that could drag the country into chaos again, under any misguided claims.

In the end, there must be a balance between Egypt’s efforts to improve its public image before the world, and the tireless efforts to achieve success in curbing terrorism and bringing an end to violence and bloodshed, with a clear path of progress in an inclusive political process, leading to free and fair elections marking a successful democratic transformation. 

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of  the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara

Found in: military coup, military, egypt

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara


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