Western media coverage of the massive waves of protests in Egypt over the past two days is revealing of a number of problems that plague knowledge production about the Arab world.
As crowds across the country were just warming up for the historic protests, around midday on June 30, reports from Cairo appearing on Western broadcast and online news outlets focused on projecting an image of “polarization.” Rallies opposing the Muslim Brotherhood were represented as being balanced out, and in some cases even outnumbered, by the demonstration in favor of President Mohamed Morsi. The likelihood of violent clashes were carefully embedded within the news as a main characteristic of the current political situation in Egypt.
As the day went by, the June 30 anti-Morsi demonstrations turned out to probably be the largest ever in Egyptian history, with Egyptians from all walks of life peacefully, yet audaciously, denouncing the Brotherhood’s rule. In time for the evening news cycle in Europe and morning newscasts in the US, editors of printed and online news outlets in the West started playing down their initial “polarization” message and began to recognize the size of dissidents as being truly unprecedented and in the millions.
Still, there was a clear conservatism when it came to projecting the threat of such show of force on Morsi’s own legitimacy. The June 30 demonstrations were depicted merely as a significant sign of social discontent that would bear few consequences on the Washington-sponsored ruling coalition between the military and the Brotherhood. In other words, media sent a message to Western audiences that whereas the historical protests might look noble and impressive, the only real political players in Egypt (and probably in the Arab world as whole) are military generals and Islamists.
This paradigm, forced through journalistic accounts, has been sponsored by so-called Middle East “experts.” Those experts mold the Western perceptions of the Middle East from the comfort of their heftily funded think tanks, and at times of trouble, like June 30, they embed themselves in London and Washington news studios, where they broadcast their representation of the Middle East. As the Egyptian army stepped up its game midday on Monday and checkmated Morsi by issuing a 48-hour ultimatum to respond to the people’s demands, these same media circuits started a concerted effort to bring the “coup d’état” discourse, sometimes forcefully, to the forefront of the discussion about events in Egypt.
The failure of Western media and pundits to both recognize and project the nuances of the current conflict in Egypt through their negligence of people’s agency in shaping the political outcomes is both pathetic and shameful. It is pathetic because it indicates the degree to which Western intellectual circles — especially those profiteering from Western policymaking bodies — remain willfully entrapped in an outdated and out-of-touch Orientalist worldview of the region.
It is both ironic and sad that while mediocre analysts, to say the least of their understanding of the changing Middle East, make frequent appearances in two-minute on-air interviews in newsrooms, the voices of other academics and experts with serious research backgrounds and true expertise of the region remain largely unheard. Serious analysts are not in demand, not only because they have long overcome this Orientalist paradigm in analyzing the politics of change in the Middle East, but also because they don’t have the talent of crafting those superficial, short, studio-made answers to questions of news anchors.
The attempt to contain the news discourse about the politics of change in the Middle East over the past two and a half years in general and the unfolding events of the past hours in Egypt specifically, within the ready-made paradigm of military-Islamist turf wars, is also very shameful.
The insistence on ignoring the possibility of there being other factors at play, quite frankly, conceals a deeply embedded fear by Western powers, especially the US and Britain, of the emergence of a true grassroots democratic alternative in the Arab world’s largest country. Such an alternative would most certainly challenge the US hegemony in the region, even if only by beginning to address different possibilities regarding the future of Egypt, its people and its regional state of affairs.
The US, Britain and many other counterparts have heavily invested in the empowerment of a tamed Islamist rule — spearheaded, of course, by the Muslim Brotherhood — to take over the Middle East from post-colonial populist regimes living long past their expiry dates. American and British ambassadors to the region have been carefully weaving this vision and reporting back home that this is simply the best formula for the protection of their interests in the region.
That such a formula would lend itself to the protraction of another cycle of vicious human rights abuses and continued economic injustices is, naturally, of little concern to them.
The major turn of events that a defiant Egyptian populace led over the past two days interrupts many plans, most especially the Western road map of the region. The Egyptian people’s defiance of Brotherhood rule is a serious popular challenge to the most significant strategic reordering of the region perhaps since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
This is precisely why Western audiences are not being allowed to sympathize with the demonstrations in Egypt demanding Morsi’s ouster in the way they did with protests against former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Amid this grave misrepresentation of the Egyptian revolution, the credibility and true independence of mainstream Western media is being seriously put to question.