By Vivienne Matthies-Boon……… No one would deny that the recent images coming out of Egypt are profoundly disturbing. People are being killed and injured across Egypt. Blood and gore everywhere. Machine guns, tanks, machetes and roadblocks. Gunshots, helicopters and bulldozers. Churches and Christian institutes ransacked, burnt and looted. Curfews and a state of emergency imposed. This, it would appear, is violent chaos unlike anything Egyptians have experienced before.
What is also particularly disturbing in this context is the lack of adequate coverage in the national and international media regarding the events taking place in Egypt. Particularly worrying is the lack of analytical depth, balanced coverage and careful use of words and sources. Whilst the most of the mainstream international news sources appear to predominantly (and perhaps rather blindly) take the formal democratic angle, Egyptian media is politicised to the extent that it dehumanises its political opponent. This not only potentially leads to a lack of understanding about the current situation in Egypt in the international context, but also to a further escalation of violence in the Egyptian context.
Scrolling through the different international channels one appears to hear the same mantra: this is a military coup against a democratically elected (and thus legitimate) government and Western powers urge the Egyptian government to return to democracy. This version – black and white, plain and simple – is largely repeated on CNN, Al Jazeera English, BBC, New York Times and NBC, just to name a few outlets.
The problem is this narrative brushes over the more complex and ambiguous political reality. It presupposes that there was a democratic process to begin with (hence the insistence on return). It thereby overlooks the fact that not only the election results – which saw Mursi elected and the Islamists rise to power – are disputed, but that many Egyptians believed that Mursi had lost all legitimacy due to his authoritarian, divisive and repressive politics.
Mursi, we should recall, passed a presidential decree that – in a typical authoritarian fashion – conferred to him exponential political powers. He also handpicked a prosecutor general in attempt to ‘reform’ or ‘neutralise’ the judiciary. People critical of his regime were arrested on charges of ‘insulting the president’. Oppositional parties and groups were excluded from decision making and other key deliberative moments – such as Egypt’s controversial and partisan constitution. The country became increasingly polarised as oppositional voices as well as minorities were labelled as thugs or a ‘part of foreign forces’[i]. Armed groups were unleashed onto the streets when the police went on strike (allegedly in protest against orders to crack down on protestors). These same armed gangs have tortured, abused and molested people in makeshift torture chambers across Cairo[ii]. Citizens were given the powers to arrest[iii] by Morsi which – together with Islamist hate speech – contributed to an atmosphere of lawlessness that saw a number of people (including Shias) lynched by mobs[iv]. In addition, the economy was in tatters and life for ordinary Egyptians became unsustainable.
Hence, not exactly a good record for a man many international media pundits claim to be a democrat? It was also precisely this dreadful record that motivated the Tamarrod campaign and the mass demonstrations on 30 June 2013. Given this record, they claimed, Mursi had lost all legitimacy, as he was not a president for Egypt but only for his own group: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The military saw this as an opportune moment to bring the Egyptian house back into order and intervene. It issued Mursi with an ultimatum to solve the political crisis. When Mursi did not budge, the army deposed (and imprisoned) him and many other leading Muslim Brotherhood members for the incitement of violence. They installed an interim technocratic government headed by Adli Mansour (the Head of the Constitutional Court), Nobel peace prize winner Mohamed Al Baradei, economist Hazem al-Beblawi, and legal specialist Zaid Bahaa El-Din. Their transitional roadmap also included the suspension of the constitution and early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Happy to be relieved of Mursi’s rule, a pro-army sentiment took hold of many Egyptians who had taken to the streets. A sense of euphoria prevailed, fuelled by cleverly manufactured pro-army propaganda – which ranged from the all too familiar slogans (such as the army and the people are one) to hearts being drawn in the sky. Many of these Egyptians felt that Mursi’s departure was their doing. They had taken to the streets when they were fed up, and overthrew a dictatorial and authoritarian ruler once again. They had done it before, and now they did it again.
One can understand the sense of frustration amongst vast sways of people when they saw their mass efforts being depicted in the international media as nothing but a dictatorial (and thus illegitimate) coup of a democratically elected (and thus legitimate) government. They were already enraged with the efforts of US ambassador Anne Patterson to consolidate a deal that would see Mursi hanging onto power for a while longer. All this resonated with a perceived lack of critical voices emanating from international media and Western policymakers about the authoritarian nature of Mursi’s rule. Not only that, it also bore parallels to the international and Western support for Mubarak during the last days of his rule. And it certainly did not recognise the vast abuses of power Egyptians had suffered under Mursi’s government.
Hence, many Egyptians critical of Mursi, went to great lengths to prove to the world that this was not a coup and launched a variety of on- and offline campaigns to express this view. They often not only insisted that the military intervention was a mass revolution, they also argued that the army had learnt its lessons during the earlier transitional days when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces governed. When SCAF governed, it notoriously committed many grave abuses of power – including the virginity tests of female protestors, random arrests and torture of political opponents as well as mass military trials. Nevertheless, many believed that the fox had really changed its spots, and pointed to the role of the civilian political forces in the transitional roadmap. Furthermore, General Al Sisi himself sought to reassure the Egyptian populace time and again that the transitional process would be inclusive and reconciliatory.
For those more critical of the army, however, the first signs that not all was as well as it seemed was with the arrests and imprisonment of key Muslim Brotherhood members, the closing down of Islamist television channels and the expulsion of Syrian refugees. Further worrying signs were that – playing on popular and deep-seated resentment towards the Muslim Brotherhood after their disastrous rule – Al Sisi called for a nationwide protests on Friday 26 July to give the army a mandate to confront ‘terrorism and violence’. This call was answered by millions of Egyptians, and followed by a violent disposal of the pro-Mursi sit-ins that saw hundreds of people killed. As violence flared, curfews were imposed, a national state of emergency declared and sit-ins were forbidden. Thus, those critical of the army now fear the return (or lack of disappearance) of the securitised state, which tramples all individual rights in the name of national security[v].
The Muslim Brotherhood has been quick to play on this role of victimisation not only through its own rallies in Ennahda Square and Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square but also through its spokespersons on the international media. Portraying themselves as innocent peaceful democratic demonstrators that were not only victims of an illegal coup but now also of a massacre has won them sympathy with TV-audiences worldwide. Of course the reality is ever more complex, but difficult to capture in two-minute reel slots aimed at people unfamiliar with Egyptian politics.
For, in addition to Mursi’s not so democratic history, the reality is also that Amnesty International has documented severe cases of torture inside the Muslim Brotherhood sit ins. There have been strong allegations of weapons and ammunition being carried inside these camps and in the rural areas, and their speeches have been anything but reconciliatory – rousing their supporters even to martyrdom to reinstate President Mohamed Mursi. They have also dehumanised oppositional forces by insisting they are spies to foreign forces, kufar (unbelievers) and traitors, and insisted violent struggle is part of the available political tools. And they, so far, appear to be primarily responsible for the ransacking, burning and looting of a large number of Christian churches across the country.
However, at the same time, Muslim Brotherhood supporters are also being dehumanised by the Egyptian television channels and media, which labels the current crisis as a fight against terrorism. According to this narrative, the Muslim Brotherhood – largely supported by foreign forces – is seeking to spread chaos in Egypt by dropping Egypt in a civil war. Not only that, it seeks to impose Saudi versions of Islam and culture onto Egypt, which the Egyptian people have to refuse if they want to maintain their own sense of cultural identity. Given the recent traumatic encounters with the Muslim Brotherhood rule, this form of anti-Ikhwan propaganda is fuelling an already existing anti-Brotherhood sentiment, which – one fears – might lead Egyptians being ever more closed in by the tentacles of the security state.
It thus seems that, as Islamists and the security forces are fighting and killing each other on the streets of Egypt, it is ordinary Egyptians that are the real victims in this game. The sad thing is that as people are being played out against each other in this search for power, hatred and venom seems to grow at the cost of empathy and – I would add – dignity. It is this precisely this that could see Egypt lose itself in a civil war.