Egypt, orientalism and media simplicity

Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

Consider this.

The Greek government has finally decided to clamp down on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, following the murder of a left-wing rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, by a member of the party.

To date, four of Golden Dawn’s MPs have been arrested and face charges of murder, assault and money-laundering. Also arrested are the party’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and his deputy, Christos Pappas, both of whom face charges of criminal activity.

Golden Dawn has 18 MPs in Greece’s 300-member parliament, and is reputed to have one million supporters.

Yet, there has not been a murmur from Western governments or Western media. No calls for the release of the people’s democratically elected representatives. No allegations that the move against Golden Dawn had been instigated by foreign powers, or that the Greek government was acting on behalf of foreign creditors – perhaps Germany – who have secretly made the castration of the neo-Nazi party a precondition for further bailout funds. No allusions that Greece was sliding back to the bad old days of the colonels. In short, no conspiracy theories of any kind, from the right or the left.

On the other hand, just two months ago Egypt faced a far more serious threat than that posed by the activities of Golden Dawn in Greece. The Muslim Brotherhood – a religious supremacist cult, a kind of hybrid between neo-Nazis and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party in the United States – had been mounting a creeping coup for a whole year, Islamizing the state, licensing its own militia to murder opponents and marginalizing everyone who did not subscribe to its version of religious charlatanism, from liberals to Shi’i Muslims and Christian Copts.

However, in contrast to the silence that greeted the belated Greek move to cleanse the country of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, when the Brotherhood’s President Morsi was ousted at the instigation of millions of ordinary Egyptians, Western governments and media convulsed into hysteria with allegations of a coup and worse.

A one-size-fits-all paradigm

So, it is hardly surprising that many people in Egypt believe that the Western media are biased in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, as Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says, “they are right, but for the wrong reasons”.

It is not because of a sinister Western conspiracy to empower the Muslim Brothers, as Egyptian media never tire of telling their public. The reasons are simpler and perhaps more depressing. Some are related to how the media operate, while others have to do with occidental perceptions of Egyptian society.

As far as the media are concerned, the problem, Abdelhadi says, is not so much individual journalists but “the dominant news paradigm, which determines how news stories should be told”.

This model favours simplicity, stark black and white narratives with clearly defined heroes and villains. If it has to deal with complex or ambiguous developments, it will iron them out to fit them into its straitjacket…

According to this paradigm the story of a “coup” is a lot simpler and sexier than, say, “another uprising backed by the army” (which sounds like a déjà vu, given what happened in February 2011). The coup narrative envisages a dramatic development, a counter-revolution, that is hard news, tangible leap into the unknown. You can already hear the potential for suspense…

Once you have superimposed the “coup template”, many details fall into place; the story almost tells itself, because it follows a well-trodden path: an elected president against an unelected general. And Egypt has seen it all before, all the more reason to invoke yet another trope “history repeats itself” and the story is so easy to sell and explain. Once you have inserted the complex reality into this needle’s eye of a template, the drama unfolds effortlessly.

Orientalist myopia

The narrow, lazy paradigm underlying the media’s misperception and misreporting of Egypt does not, however, exist in a vacuum but is born out of what Abdelhadi describes as the “cultural prism through which Egypt is seen by Western eyes”. As he says,

Many have made the assumption that because most Egyptians are religious and socially conservative, then the Muslim Brotherhood must be truly representative of the majority. The MB itself has worked tirelessly for decades to convince Western journalists and think tanks to buy into this self-serving myth…

Most Egyptians are religious, but unlike the MB, they have always found a way to combine fun with faith. Wearing hijab has never stopped Egyptian girls from trying to look elegant and attractive. In fact, Egypt has turned the headscarf into an Islamic fashion item that comes in all shapes and  colours.

Cult of millionaires

Another myth peddled by Western media and some politicians and academics is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the voice of the downtrodden masses. But, as Abdelhadi says,

The MB are not poor, but prey on the poor. They are in every bit as capitalist as capitalism can be. Remember too, these are the men who joined hands with Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s to defeat communism. The MB are a global network backed up by a multimillion-dollar business empire whose exact finances are known only to the few. The poor were the human shields and cannon fodder in the bloody confrontation with the security forces while the Muslim Brothers’ “aristocracy” were in hiding.

Political taboos and vested interests

This is not all. According to Abdelhadi,

The Muslim Brothers have also benefited from a political taboo prevalent mainly among the left in Europe and America. Left-leaning journalists don’t like to be seen criticizing or exposing Islamism for what it is – a supremacist ideology prone to violence – out of fear of being seen as Islamophobes, a charge they prefer to hurl at their political enemies of the far right in Western Europe and the neo-cons in America. In this context, siding with the Muslim Brothers appears progressive, a way of burnishing your leftist credentials and  asserting your place in the ideological battle raging back home, which has little or nothing to do with Egypt.

And then there are those in the West who had a vested interest in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, only to see them crumble like a house of sand. Thus, the downfall of Morsi and his cult was a slap in the face

for Western professors who built their careers on the study of the Muslim Brothers and worked hard to sell them to policy makers in Washington and London as an effective antidote to the militancy of Al-Qaeda. They were suddenly made redundant by the Egyptians rising up and rejecting political Islam. Those quarrelsome, garrulous natives –  how dare they!

Yes, they have dared because they have tasted the poison of Islamist charlatanism and, thankfully, vomited it straight into the faces of the charlatans.

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