Scribblings: De-Press-ing in Egypt
Aug 30, 2011 | Tzvi Fleischer
With the departure of the Mubarak dictatorship, one thing it would be nice to hope for would be a freer and more responsible and professional press in Egypt. Traditionally, the Egyptian press has been government controlled, and used to both bolster the regime and spread anti-Israel hatred together with, very frequently, conspiracy theories. But achieving anything resembling genuine democracy in Egypt is going to require media independence and a freer, more responsible press.
Early signs are not promising. For instance, following the cross-border terrorist incident near Eilat on August 18, in which five Egyptian security officers were killed allegedly by Israeli fire, it is perhaps not surprising, that the Egyptian media played up the story, and especially the Egyptian deaths allegedly at Israel’s hand, big-time. After all, they do need to sell papers and/or attract viewers.
But what was particularly disappointing was that, reportedly, there was virtually no attempt to give the circumstances of the deaths or provide accurate factual information to readers. According to the Jerusalem Post,
The Egyptian state media pointedly ignored the fact that the policemen were shot in error. They also did not report that the Palestinian terrorists who carried out Thursday’s attacks disguised themselves in Egyptian police uniforms and snuck under an Egyptian watch tower to infiltrate Israel and murder Israelis.
This has allowed anti-Israel messages in the media to work their magic. The Egyptian media have fed local anger by running with the story that Israel “attacked” Egypt and gunned down members of its security forces.
Needless to say this is not even bad or biased journalism. It is not journalism at all – the facts do not matter, scoring propaganda points and whipping up outrage against an “enemy” is the only point of it. It is what the Egyptian media did before the Mubarak regime fell, and it is evidently still doing it.
A good example is the column by the editor of the Egyptian government daily al-Akhbar (Aug. 22), who wrote of the incident:
My head almost exploded with rage… How saddening [to think of] the blood of our five martyrs spilled by the Israeli bullets… The desire for revenge is raging in my breast, tearing it asunder. The blood of all the Zionist soldiers will not be [sufficient] compensation for even a single drop of the Egyptian blood that was shed.
Al-Akhbar and two other major papers, al-Ahram and al-Dustour, further indulged in conspiracy theories – insisting that what happened in Sinai must have been some sort of premeditated plot by Israel.
Al-Akhbar (Aug. 22) said the violence was part of an Israeli-American plan to take over part of northern Sinai “between Rafah and Al-‘Arish.” A columnist at al-Dustour (Aug. 20) wrote: “We cannot rule out that the attack in Eilat was carried out by Israel [itself], considering that it coincided with the escalation of protests within Israel against the current government.” Al-Ahram (Aug. 21)insisted, “He errs who thinks that the events in Sinai were not premeditated by Israel and by terror organisations that have been infiltrated by the Israeli security apparatuses.” Al-Ahram’s conclusion was that all Arabs should “remove all [manifestations] of normalisation [with Israel]… and end the pathetic farce called the peace process.”
The Egyptian state media was also involved in spreading bizarre anti-Israel conspiracy theories before this incident. Commenting on an Israeli named Ofir Harrari accused, in absentia, of being a spy, the official paper al-Ahram (Aug. 15) reported:
According to the public prosecutor’s office’s investigation, ‘Mossad agent Ofir Harrari’ instructed Jordanian Ibrahim abu-Zaid to set up a company in Egypt which would exclusively import an Israeli hair product, for both men and women, which causes infertility. This in order to completely destroy Egyptian reproduction abilities.
While the paper was cooperating with the prosecutors in reporting this, this is the kind of bizarre theory about supposed nefarious Israeli plans that is symptomatic of the worst and most irrational kind of propaganda associated with the Arab-Israel conflict. (It is interesting that anti-Israel conspiracy theories often have a sexual theme – Israel is often accused of distributing products which will cause infertility, or in other past cases, impotence or uncontrollable sexual urges. They almost never cause more mundane afflictions such as diabetes, or hair loss, or blindness.)
Of course, it is early days in Egypt’s transition, and in fact, as many commentators have noted, the same military rule which applied under Mubarak is in fact largely intact there. But in the lead-up to Egypt’s election, it is worth remembering that the Egyptian media is not yet free. And without an independent and reasonably professional media, free and fair democratic elections are not actually possible.
So those hoping for a democratic outcome in Egypt should be looking as much at the state of the media, as at the constitution, the political parties, the polling arrangements and the other trappings of democracy. And so far, the portents from the media do not look good.