Resurgent nationalism

“God is Great! Long live Egypt!” Amr Adib, an anchor on Al-Qahera al-Youm (Cairo Today) talk show, shouted as he waved the country’s tricolor flag minutes after the commander of the Armed Forces announced the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power on July 3.

“The Egyptian people are great … Egypt is the greatest state in the world, the whole world is watching you, and watching the Egyptian flag!” Spreading the flag across his shoulders, Adib proudly declared that this was the Egyptian flag and “not the flag of the group,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the ousted president hails from.

In the run-up to the June 30 protests and after Morsi’s ouster, talk shows run by presenters like Adib that air on privately owned satellite channels have been fraught with nationalistic rhetoric. This rhetoric has been mostly used to criticize the deposed president and his group.

Sometimes subtly and other times blatantly, most privately owned satellite channels have been highlighting the superiority of the Egyptian nation and its people, the valorization of the state and its institutions — specifically the army and the police — and the demonization of an enemy, namely Muslim Brotherhood members, threatening the nation state.

Shadia’s “Egypt, My Love” (ya habibti ya masr) has been played on air repeatedly and the Egyptian flag has been omnipresent on screens, either as banners or in the backgrounds of studios. Nationalistic expression by the Egyptian media is not particularly new, especially as during the protests against former President Hosni Mubarak, television stations both supporting and opposing the revolt adopted a nationalistic rhetoric that emphasized “love” for Egypt. Echoing the streets, TV shows still maintain, as they did when Mubarak was ousted, that the Egyptian people did what they did — overthrow Morsi ​— because they are a great nation. Such media discourses are in fact a reflection of sentiments already prevalent on the ground, best captured in the chant “Keep your head up high! You are Egyptian!”, which has echoed in Tahrir Square and across Egypt since February 11 2011, the day Mubarak left.

But the way these talk shows are using nationalist discourse at this historical and political juncture is different. The enemy this time is not Mubarak’s men or feloul ​— a derogatory term referring to a diverse group of people whose interests are linked to the Mubarak regime — but the Ikhwan (the Arabic name for the Brotherhood), and this time, the state institutions that are most resistant to revolution — the army and the police — are on the side of the protesters.

Although long-time critics of the Interior Ministry’s repressive practices, in the days leading to June 30 talk shows airing on ONTv, for example, commended the “national role” of police officers in planning to secure the upcoming protests, and implied that loving the homeland, Egypt, entails having respect for the police. This is not to say that all police officers have been involved in abusive practices against citizens, but the point is that the station has clearly played up praise for the police and armed forces, whose members are also suspected of involvement in attacks on protesters during their eighteen months in power after Mubarak’s removal.

In a similar vein, Ahmed Moussa, a presenter on Tahrir TV, dedicated a significant amount of airtime to beseeching Egyptians to pay allegiance to the institutions of the Egyptian state. “Leave your homes and become martyrs for the sake of this nation,” he pleaded in a shrieking voice on 5 July, “… to support your army and the police … We have to stand against the Muslim Brotherhood … the killers … and America.”

Speaking on ONTv, Hamada al-Masry, identified as a political activist, called on Egyptians to take to the street to “liberate your country from the Brotherhood/American occupation.” It seems that this attempt at linking the Brotherhood to America was meant to vilify them before the Egyptian audience, who intensely resent any hint of interference by the American administration or any foreign government or group in their national affairs. This image of the American-backed Islamists was contrasted with that of the Egyptian army, a savior whose sole interest lies in safeguarding the nation, thus deserving Egyptian citizens’ support and respect.

Alongside the military, whose intervention to pass on interim leadership to the head of the supreme Constitutional Court Adly Mansour was key in ending Morsi’s term, the opposition are portrayed as being patriotic (wataneyyeen), while the Muslim Brotherhood are treacherous (khawana), betraying the nation in the interests of their group, whose primary loyalty is to other group members throughout the world. In an attempt to disparage the Brotherhood and Morsi, Adib of Al-Qahera Al-Youm sought to portray them as a group apart from the Egyptian people. Commenting on a video showing a purported Brotherhood supporter throwing a supposedly anti-Morsi protester off a rooftop tower, he presented his view as such: “there is the people, us, and there is an Umma (Islamic nation), the Brotherhood.” Commentators often cited former Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Mahdi Akef as saying “Tozz fi Masr,” which roughly translates as “To hell with Egypt.”

Even though this nationalist rhetoric in the Egyptian media is nothing novel, especially at times of political crisis, its resurgence in media coverage of Morsi’s ouster is particularly alarming since it entails calls — made by TV hosts themselves either directly or subtly — for unquestioned allegiance to repressive state institutions, the very ones that have been at the core of protester rage since January 25 2011. It has also indirectly led to a form of xenophobia that targets non-Egyptian communities, such as the Syrians and Palestinians living in Egypt, because of their purported association with the Brotherhood. Talk show hosts and prominent public figures interviewed on their programs have made repeated, unsubstantiated allegations that Hamas fighters either trained the so-called Muslim Brotherhood militias or were directly reinforcing their ranks. Syrians in Egypt, they claimed, were among Morsi’s supporters at the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in.

Even though talk shows speak to millions of Egyptians who may truly have genuine love for their country, such a discourse, especially when adopted by state institutions, may have grave implications. This rhetoric could be used to discredit anyone criticizing the state as unpatriotic or as being an agent of a foreign entity, as was the case during the January 25 uprising. Non-Egyptian communities in Egypt or even Egyptians who are perceived as different, such as the Nubians or Sinai Bedouins, may have to bear the brunt of growing xenophobia or discrimination. Others may feel alienated and cut off from Egypt’s political community and thus reject participation in the political process altogether. And as the country starts on a transitional phase all these developments are troubling because they are incompatible with the mode of governance based on freedom, openness, and multiplicity that was envisioned by many who took part in the ouster of Morsi and of Mubarak before him.


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