The Egyptian state’s online posturing regarding Sinai shows a failure to understand the mood of the public.
Militant groups in the peninsula have propagated a spectacle of exorbitant violence; the nation state has attempted to use this theater of terror to its own advantage.
The war of propaganda over who has the greater capacity for violence is being played out in a sort of online wank-off.
Two videos, published online ankithin hours of each other, illustrate this dynamic. The Onslaught of Ansar was posted on November 14 by the newly named “State of Sinai,” after former jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes was officially welcomed into the Islamic State (IS) — although the group has now reportedly split over this decision. The Egyptian military’s Message from Sinai, was posted a day later on the official YouTube channel of the Ministry of Defense.
Although a military source denied to Mada Masr that their Message from Sinai was a response to the jihadi video, the war of propaganda over who has the greater capacity for violence is being played out in a sort of online wank-off. In this world, projections of power, professionalism and legitimacy are somehow tied to those who manage to display the largest weapons and have the most explosive money shots and special effects.
There has been much speculation recently on the sophisticated social media tactics of the — self-proclaimed — Islamic State. This trend has been fuelled in part by a global obsession, as well as Western prejudices concerning Islamism, but has also been exacerbated by the lack of access to reporting on the ground, with IS operatives notorious for the kidnapping and murder of journalists.
Some media reports and academic analysis have focused on the techniques employed by Islamist militants, others have berated reputable media outlets for reproducing their images and videos without adequate contextualization. A striking feature that hasn’t much been addressed, however, is the mirroring between jihadi groups and the nation state, and the repurposing of material on both sides.
The “State of Sinai” presents a challenge to the nation state’s monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence, even at the basic level of the appropriation of “state” as an organizational description.
The hysteria over IS has been further exaggerated by governments with a stake in propagating images of violence in order to legitimize both the local and global “war on terror.” In this case, the bigger the spectacle, the greater the terror.
Aside from the shock at witnessing sheer brutality, however, this rhetoric only seems to find real resonance within society when the codes and signifiers used — language, music, imagery, and so on — are popularly recognizable and construct a believable narrative.
The battle for the Sinai
The Onslaught of Ansar (now removed from YouTube and Vimeo) is a 30-minute ode to the work of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in Sinai. The video has a propensity for special effects, with several explosions replayed, and stylized logos and text interspersed with music throughout. It is strikingly cinematic, obviously influenced by Western films and video games, such as Counter Strike, and at the same time projects a degree of power and professionalism.
It starts with a prayer and chants set to the drums of war, as it builds to show several explosions, ending with a monologue. There is a scene in which several militants pray on the road in the pitch black, lit purely by a large explosion in the background. A number of shots are taken from various angles, with Go Pros visible on the barrels of their guns, displaying advanced technology and capabilities.
The Egyptian military’s Message from Sinai attempts to project similarly convincing images of might and capability. Both videos contain heavy gunfire, large explosions, shots of spoils and weaponry, vehicles moving through towns and villages in convoy, and night vision capabilities. They also both show the shooting of civilians — presumably perceived militants on the part of the military — and the jihadi video depicts the killing of security forces. Both display graphic scenes of dead bodies.
Why does the state feel the need to compete in this online propaganda war?
They both contain narrative sections, in which justifications are given and motivations explained. At the end of the jihadi video, a man in black with his face blurred out speaks directly to the camera sat next to the spoils of war, while another blurry militant in an earlier section claims responsibility for the Karam al-Qawadees checkpoint attack, in which 33 military personnel died. In the military video, three soldiers give monologues to the camera, interspersed with shots of combat techniques.
(Screen shots from “The Onslaught of Ansar” (L) and Egyptian Military’s “Message from Sinai” (R) videos)
There are also stark contrasts in terms of the music used and references made, including rhetoric motivated by nationalism, security and religion.
Another notable difference is the depiction of individuals: the soldiers who speak can be identified, whereas the militants in the jihadi video are always blurred out or have their faces covered.
(Screen shots from “The Onslaught of Ansar” (L) and Egyptian Military’s “Message from Sinai” (R) videos)
Despite the mirroring in terms of imagery, the Egyptian military’s Message from Sinai appears almost comical in comparison, although such sardonicism is tempered by footage of young conscripts reciting supposedly scripted lines about not feeling fearful. The music, reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster, gives it an air of fiction and CBC-esque hyper-drama. Shots are reused, and the raids interspersed with the soldiers’ statements appear staged. At one point, a few large trees are targeted by military tanks.
Regardless of which video instills more fear or faith in the Egyptian populace, an interesting question is why the state feels the need to compete in this online propaganda war?
Online propaganda and the nation state
The Egyptian state doesn’t need to make recruitment videos, as the army is furnished with conscripts on mandatory military service. The short Message from Sinai clip appears borne out of a few key motivations — justifying the military presence in Sinai to the wider public, reiterating the need for the war on terror, and trying to instill confidence in the might and ability of the military.
The repurposing of footage from militant groups by the state, particularly since the internet has been used to more widely disseminate such material, appears to be an increasing trend.
In his book, The Magic of the State, Michael Taussig writes about the need of the state to perpetuate its authority and tell stories about itself through the theater of ecstasy. Sometimes it seems to get it right and manages to employ visual aesthetics and narratives that find resonance with the wider population. An example of this is the pro-military propaganda song, Tislam al-Ayadi (Bless Your Hands), which was hugely popular in Egypt.
This song managed to tap into the patriotism of the moment, but there is also something about its playfulness that allowed it to enter the popular imaginary and have broad-based appeal. Rather than employing a clear narrative arc, Tislam al-Ayadi ripped off a recognizable, catchy melody, featuring a number of famous musicians singing about how great the military is. Cartoonist and writer at Mada Masr Andeel suggests:
“Maybe an institution is whispering in our ears to say: ‘Don’t be afraid of me, I’m not that evil, I listen to the same music you listen to, we have similar taste in women, I’m as ugly as everything around you, go on, eat the pasta I made for you in the military production plants, let’s forget about when once, on the Corniche, I drove my big armored car over your wife, by mistake. Now you know what you ought to do’.”
Taussig claims it is in this — almost mythical — realm (such as with Tislam al-Ayadi) rather than that of more documentary-style film making (as with the military’s Message from Sinai), that one can often make more successful interventions, converting patriotism into ultra-nationalism.
The video production of state propaganda, particularly during wartime, is of course not new. But the repurposing of footage from militant groups by the state, particularly since the Internet has been used to more widely disseminate such material, appears to be an increasing trend.
The US State Department created a Facebook page, Twitter handle, YouTube channel, and Tumblr account, Think Again Turn Away, in December 2013 (there were also earlier attempts in Arabic and Urdu), featuring parodies of IS and Al-Shabaab recruitment videos and sarcastically doctored Tweets. Although its aim is supposedly to counter the appeal of such material through public condemnation, it seems to me that the result is distasteful and crass.
Sarcastic comments such as: “French man gets 7 years for joining #ISIS – unable to quit smoking, came home after 10 days,” or quips about cheap, one-way travel, pictures of babies and children with “future suicide candidate” slogans, or images of women whose apparent sole purpose in life is to make themselves sexually available to IS fighters, are tasteless and reminiscent of playground tit for tat, barely short of “yo mama” jokes.
Much was written about the online slagging match between the IDF and Al-Qassam Brigade during the recent Israeli assault on Gaza. The IDF even went so far as to commission a Foursquare-style game for their blog, rewarding return visitors, and hiring students with an understanding of new-media language to give the image of Israeli settlers a facelift.
There is an obviously disproportionate power ratio between the Egyptian military and militants in the Sinai, or Israeli occupation forces and armed groups in Gaza, or the United States government and IS. The motivation for wading into a rhetorical toss-off therefore doesn’t stem from the need for physical power. It reveals at once a certain anxiety and weakness on the part of the state in its attempts to appeal to and relate to people.
Although perhaps borne out of a, “they’re doing it, so we should too” mentality, the Egyptian state has developed its online presence over the last few years. The initial Facebook page of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces in 2011 evolved from issuing communiqué-like posts to presenting a more relatable spokesperson.
But, how much of the “magic of the state,” as Taussig termed it, is blatant manipulation, and how much is projection on the part of the audience or viewers?
The battle for moral authority
Emile Durkheim’s notion of moral authority wasn’t a description of authoritarianism, but of a state that implements the collective values of society, whatever they are assumed to be. Indeed, if the Egyptian government wants to fight terrorism purely militarily in Sinai, then there is no need for moral justifications, just repression and violence.
It doesn’t work when the state fails to understand the mood of the general public, and people feel manipulated and lied to by both sides.
In this propaganda war, in which the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking to reinforce the notion of a democratically elected power that understands and is reflective of the sentiments of society, there is a need to make citizens feel as though the state is defending their own values and implementing their own desires.
Taussig suggests it is a cyclical relationship. The state needs an understanding of the codes, signification and rhetoric of the general population and a way of tapping into it in a convincing manner. In turn, people buy into this discourse and propagate the myth of its message.
It doesn’t work, however, when the state fails to understand the mood of the general public, and people feel manipulated and lied to by both sides.
This video, posted independently on YouTube, is one of a number of parodies of another video, Identity Battel — featuring various individuals calling for an uprising of Muslim youth on November 28. It begins by mocking this call for an identity battle by the nation’s Islamists, who represented the state briefly, and ends by mocking pro-regime actors and actresses, who in another video supported the military’s fight against terrorism.
As this humorous clip shows, public tolerance for blatant propaganda and empty promises seems to be low. However, although the relationship of people to the state and vice versa is in flux, there is still a large element of society that has given the military the moral authority to fight terrorism in all its guises in Sinai and elsewhere across the country.