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Media spotlight: What does the Egyptian press have to say about Qatar?

For months prior to June 5, 2017, the day four Arab countries, including Egypt, officially cut political and economic ties with Qatar, accusations against the Gulf state brimmed over Egyptian media outlets. In the two months that followed, the accusations became more frequent, appearing in online and print media almost daily, with columnists taking on a confident air as a result of their alignment with the state’s official narrative.

While it is important to take note of media coverage that plays a role in shaping an understanding of the ongoing crisis for many Egyptians, navigating the various elements of the conflict has become arduous, particularly as it is entwined with historical tension and the pursuit of regional dominance, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side, and Qatar on the other.

To understand why the media has taken certain positions, many of which feed into the state’s enduring belief in a wider conspiracy orchestrated by “external forces,” one must also consider the current Egyptian context of an ongoing “fight against terrorism,” which many staunch state supporters are keen to justify. Those aligned with the state’s narrative concerning Qatar have been quick to frame the decision to blockade as a “success,” to pronounce Qatar “cancerous,” depict Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani as a powerless ruler who is “hiding behind” his allies and label the television network Al Jazeera as the source of all evil.

On June 6, the foremost state-owned Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram published six op-eds on the rift with Qatar, and another state-owned newspaper ran a front-page op-ed titled: “The fall of Tamim,” in reference to Bin Hamad’s perceived weakness. Next to Al Jazeera, the Qatari ruler was preyed on extensively by the media in the weeks that followed.

Qatar’s ties to oppositional and extremist groups in the region are at the center of this ongoing crisis, at a time when Egypt’s Armed Forces continue to fight a nationwide insurgency.

In a June 14 opinion article in the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper, titled “The Gulf siege and the triumphs of Egyptian politics,” Mohamed Salah al-Badry argued Egypt had “significant influence” on Gulf countries in their spat with Doha, as Egypt’s relationship with Qatar has been “strained since the rule of former President Anwar al-Sadat.” Hence, he reasoned, Egypt emerged on top in the recent conflict. His sentiments were reiterated later by Ahmed Hawary, who wrote in Al-Ahram that the decision to impose an blockade on Qatar signifies a win in and of itself, since the move has brought neighboring Gulf states, all allies of the Egyptian state, together to “present explicit demands to Qatar to [pressure it to] stop supporting and funding terrorism,” arguing that the success of the boycott should not be tied to a change in Qatar’s leadership.

On August 7, the head of the state-aligned Supreme Media Regulatory Council and Egypt’s former Journalists Syndicate head, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, dedicated his column in Al-Ahram to stressing that Egypt is not trailing behind its allies, but is a strong participant in the blockade against Qatar by “four Arab Muslim countries.” The goal of the blockade, he wrote, “is to force Qatar to change its current policies,” which he says “ruined Syria and Libya and are aimed at hurting the Egyptian people without any logical justification, and on destabilizing parts of Saudi Arabia.”

In earlier issues, the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper published “The emir of blood … on the edge of the abyss” and a two-page feature that reproduced an inflammatory photograph of Bin Hamad with vampire teeth and drops of blood near his lower lip.

Writing for the privately owned Youm7 newspaper, which has also used sensationalist language in its coverage of Egypt-Qatar relations, Youssef Ayoub predicted that Bin Hamad’s days in power were numbered, urging the Qatari people to break out of the “tight security grip” imposed by his regime.

The hosts of several of Egypt’s primetime television stations also expressed sympathy for the people of Qatar, placing the blame for the crisis solely on those governing them. Both Lamis al-Hadidy — who hosts Hona al-Asema (Here’s The Capital) on the privately owned CBC network, and is renowned for her tendency to lend airtime to opinions from across the spectrum, instead of depending solely on pre-scripted monologues, and ONTv’s Amr Adib — a loud, argumentative personality, who built a solid viewership over more than two decades as Orbit’s leading host, have strongly supported the Egyptian government’s position on Qatar. In gestures toward Arab unity, Adib stressed that Qataris “have done nothing to deserve this,” and Hadidy assured her viewers that “nobody wants to insult or hurt the Qataris. Nobody wants [to instigate] conflict between the Qataris and other Arabs. We are all one. We are all brothers.”

In early coverage of the crisis, several Egyptian newspapers referenced a document they said was released by WikiLeaks, which allegedly suggests Qatar attempted to conspire with Israel against Egypt. Al-Wafd newspaper, which is published by the liberal Wafd Party, also linked the Gulf state to Israel two weeks ago, with the headline, “Israel ignited [Jerusalem] crisis to ease siege on Qatar,” following deadly confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Jerusalem after tension erupted over new metal detectors that were installed at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper’s editor Emad Eddin Hussein, a compliant but prominent voice, who said Qatar’s response to the Al-Aqsa clashes was “all talk and no action,” as opposed to other Arab countries who “made tremendous efforts to convince Washington and Tel Aviv to stop their escalation in Jerusalem.”

Qatar has continued to be blamed for a variety of issues during the past two months, including the somewhat odd accusation that the country was involved in assassination attempts against Arab leaders decades ago. Amr Adib, who doesn’t generally beat around the bush, told viewers “Qatar was involved in an assassination attempt on the late Saudi King Abdullah and [the ousted] Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia,” citing reports by Egyptian and Saudi Arabian outlets that associate Qatar with a longer history of terrorism in the region.

Hadidy and state loyalist Ahmed Moussa joined Adib in framing Qatar as the main orchestrator behind the most prominent Islamic State claimed attack in Rafah since 2015 in July, reasoning that the Gulf state bankrolled the attackers in retaliation for Egypt’s ongoing criticism of its affairs. Although Hamas was also blamed for having a hand in the attack, Hadidy noted that “there have been five attacks in Saudi Arabia, three in Bahrain, and, right here, we have seen four attacks in four days” since the start of the blockade. Adib opted for posing seemingly rhetorical questions to his viewers: “Who is financing them [the militants]? Where is the money coming from? Qatar, Iran?”

Television hosts and opinion columnists have repeatedly vilified Al Jazeera in their coverage of the saga with Qatar, accusing the network of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs by publishing fabricated news. These are claims that date back to 2013, when the network’s coverage was sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead up to, and after the ouster of, former President Mohamed Morsi.

Television hosts and opinion columnists have repeatedly vilified Al Jazeera in their coverage of the saga with Qatar

Last month, in its coverage of the aftermath of clashes on Warraq Island, Youm7 called Al Jazeera “sly” and accused it of spreading “rumors and lies” that the state is seeking to displace people and demolish their homes. The newspaper claimed residents of Warraq are members of Egypt’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, as the channel is perceived by some in Egypt to be a mouthpiece for the Islamist group. Amr al-Shobaky, a political science professor who served briefly as an MP, criticized the government for “using power [against Warraq residents] that should have been a last resort in case all other civil means fail.” In less academic prose, Sahar al-Gaara, a columnist for Al-Masry Al-Youm, who often reverts to conspiracy theories to prove a point, said residents of Warraq are “not poor,” adding that they have “established their own economy” and “created their own laws, which have allowed them to trade in all kinds of banned goods, like shampoo and Molotov cocktails.”

“Al Jazeera deliberately stirs up sedition” was the line most repeated by Egyptian commentators, whose examples included the network’s claims that Germans are targets in Egypt two days before an attack that killed two tourists and injured four others in Hurghada. Meanwhile, Youm7’s Dandarawy al-Hawary, a devoted state supporter, said the television network encouraged Zamalek White Knights to stir up trouble, accusing the hardcore football fans of being “a cancer that is harming politics and sports.”

Online access to Al Jazeera’s website has been blocked for more than two months in Egypt, since a high-level security source announced that access to a number of websites (Mada Masr among them) — the content of which it claims “supports terrorism and extremism” — was banned via local internet service providers. Media analyst Yasser Abdel Aziz defended calls to block the network’s airwaves as “moral,” rightful” and well intended, in line with the state’s official narrative and what was, at the time, one of 13 demands outlined by the four countries as a prerequisite for easing the blockade. Abdel Aziz opined that the closure of the network would end the “spreading of hatred, incitement of violence and support of terrorism,” which he believes are perpetrated by the channel. He reminded readers that, when Qatar shut down the Egypt-focused Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, officials did not claim the channel was “an embodiment of national sovereignty and sign of freedom of opinion and expression.” In subsequent opinion pieces, the question of whether shutting down Al Jazeera constitutes a breach of freedom of expression was not raised.

Qatar’s ties to oppositional and extremist groups in the region are at the center of this ongoing crisis, at a time when Egypt’s Armed Forces continue to fight a nationwide insurgency. Both this and a recent call by a number of Egyptians, including Hafez Abou Saeda in a July 27 opinion article in Al-Watan, demanding that Qatar pay compensation for “victims of terrorism,” has boosted a state narrative that blames “external forces” for the rise in militant attacks in Egypt, overlooking the notion that religious extremism is equally rooted in policies of discrimination and social marginalization, both of which are internally bred.

This is one in a series of three opinion pieces that seek to explore some of the aspects of the ongoing Gulf crisis.
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Heba El-Sherif