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The West’s crush on Egypt

On returning to England for a brief break last September, I was struck by many people’s exaggerated perception of Egypt’s condition. “It’s like open war in the streets isn’t it?” asked one mildly dim-witted acquaintance. “Egypt looks like complete hell,” said another.

July and August in Cairo were horribly brutal months by any measure, but equating Egypt’s unrest with Syria’s implosion, as a number of friends did, obviously represented a gross overstatement of the seriousness of the situation.

From where they stood, however, it wasn’t necessarily a wild conclusion to have reached.

Conspiracy theory-happy Egyptian media analysts have been absurdly wide of the mark much of the time, but they’re correct in insisting Egypt attracts a disproportionate volume of Western media coverage.

The New York Times website logged 5,960 news mentions of Egypt between June 30 2013 and the end of January this year. Iraq, within the same timeframe, tallied roughly a quarter of that number, while Syria, which saw its civil war escalate dramatically as the year progressed, received about 20 percent fewer mentions.

The BBC’s statistics aren’t quite as skewed, but by according Egypt the same amount of attention as its war-torn Middle Eastern neighbors, they too have lent credence to many Egyptians’ view that their country has drawn an outsized international spotlight.

Quite why or how this has happened is a source of some contention.

Some Cairenes will have you believe this is all part of a Western plot to torpedo Egypt’s fledgling economy by scaring off tourists and deterring much-needed foreign investment with relayed images of death and destruction. Implicit in the suspicion many Western reporters encounter on the street is the sense that we’re somehow working to undermine the country from within.

Unsurprisingly, I believe there to be a much less nefarious, and infinitely more flattering explanation for this flurry of press coverage.

We, the West, are simply fascinated by Egypt.

We’re reared on tales of the ‘Boy King’ Tutankhamen and exposed to pictures of the Great Pyramids at Giza from a young age. Many of us are smitten by the temples of Karnak and intent on cruising the storied Nile ourselves.

If you want evidence of our crush on Egypt, just look at the footfall at the big European and American museums.

The Ancient Egyptian wings at London’s British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art consistently rank as the most-visited of their collections. 6.7 million people swarmed through British Museum last year, and most of them, to judge from a recent visit, career straight toward the sarcophagus-laden Middle and Old Kingdom halls.

Institutions without permanent collections are only too willing to shell out big money to host temporary exhibitions. A travelling display of dozens of Egyptian Museum artifacts reeled in over US$100 million dollars during a seven-city tour of Europe and the US prior to the 2011 revolution.

Egyptomania has even inveigled its way into government. Cairo is home to one of the United States Library of Congress’ six foreign field offices, while the city’s smarter districts are littered with various international institutions devoted to Egyptology.

Egypt’s tourism authorities have done a terrific job in exploiting the West’s enchantment with their country, with London’s Underground and the Parisian Metro routinely plastered with alluring pictures of the Pyramids. But there’s an unfortunate flip side to this fascination.

The same interest that propels millions of foreigners to part with thousands of dollars on flights and hotel fares to visit Egypt, also keeps them glued to their TV screens when turmoil flares up on those same streets.

There’s nothing quite like bombs going off in the shadow of the Pyramids or clashes on the Egyptian Museum’s doorstep to excite Western interest.

Other countries exert much less of a pull on our collective imagination. The US army in Iraq inadvertently built a base on the ruins of ancient Babylon, and there wasn’t much of a murmur from the Western press. It’s shocking perhaps, but how many Americans or Europeans patronize museums with the express intent on seeing the Mesopotamian or Assyrian treasures?

When Egypt explodes, Egyptophile Westerners just want to know all about it.

None of this is to say that Western news outlets haven’t sometimes been guilty of failing to contextualize Egypt’s instability. There might be teargas in Tahrir, but relative tranquility 200 metres away, and all too often we might fail to mention that.

This, however, is a media failure not unique to Egypt. If one watched coverage of the riots that raged across England in the summer of 2011 one might have thought the entire country was on fire, as opposed to just relatively small urban pockets.

‘Big picture’ views have an unfortunate habit of tumbling by the wayside when scrambling to meet deadlines and cover a story’s most engaging components.

But as if tourist dependent businesses didn’t have enough to worry about, Egyptian authorities have exhibited a near-unparalleled propensity to shoot themselves in the foot.

Tales of Israeli ‘spy ducks,’ children detained for having a ‘Rabea ruler’, and the release of amateur videos of professional journalists being led away to prison to the sound of menacing movie music are like manna from heaven for a press pack always on the lookout for irresistible article ideas.

There’s no Western journalistic plot to scupper their host country’s recovery. Egypt is really just a victim of it’s own beauty and history.

When times were good, it profited from the attention its ancient ancestors kindled, but when the country hits a rough patch, it can ill-afford the additional notice its pyramids, temples and scenery bring.

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Peter Schwartzstein