While most Egyptians’ sights have been homed in on the future, after the election of Muhammad Morsi to the presidency, it was through the prism of the past that the Western press viewed this week’s news.
“Named Egypt’s Winner, Islamist Makes History” declared the headline in The New York Times. CNN described Morsi as “the first leader in Egypt’s history to win a democratic election.”.
The Guardian called it a “landmark for Egypt” while The USA’s leading Arab neoconservative Fouad Ajami even claimed in the Wall Street Journal that “Egyptian history can be said to have closed a circle.”, striking a note of Fukuyama-esque optimism, while The Independent’s Robert Fisk was left pining for the days of Saad Zaghloul.
In case you were unsure about all the different ways Egypt made history this week, Israel’s Ynet clarified all three of them. First: it noted that “the country’s government adheres to blatant religious-Islamist ideology.” Secondly, “the era of secular colonels who ruled Egypt since the 1950s has officially ended.” Then, it failed to give the third reason it mooted at the start of its analysis. Ynet’s analysis represented the most predictably puerile reaction to the historic news. This is an Egypt, where “the infidel” would be “a second-class citizen”. Naturally, “a heightened terror threat” is also cited.
Yet there has been a thankful divergence of opinion among the West’s anti-Islamist, Mubarak-backing neoconservatives. The aforementioned Ajami cautioned his fellow “Western observers not to consign Egyptians again to a despotic fate”, at least not before “a decent interval”. Interestingly, the latter category included the highest ranks of the Israeli government. “Israel plays down fears of an Islamist government”, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported, quoting Prime Minister Netanyahu as “expecting co-operation with The Brotherhood”. Anticipation over the future of the peace treaty with Israel looms as large in the Western press.
Across the Western press, the prominently displayed headline “Morsi vows to respect international treaties” was the coded evidence of their shiftiness on the subject. But in some quarters the Western viewfinder was in admirable alignment with actual Egyptians’ actual interests, moving beyond their preconceived, anti-Islamist standpoint to examine what the future may hold for Egyptian aspirations.
As The Guardian’s Ian Black noted that “expectations of change are now greater than before the great drama of Tahrir Square began last year.” But from this vantage point, there was much that did not bode well. Black goes on to describe “the soft coup anchored in a constitutional declaration that gives the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) unprecedented powers after a court ruling dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament.” The superficial smokescreen the new presidency creates is also laid bare. “It will be surprising if the generals do not retain their financial clout and privileges, and their powers to make war, conduct foreign policy and maintain internal security – the holy trinity of Egypt’s deep state”, says Black. “And it will suit them perfectly to blame the civilian president for the parlous state of the economy.”
Roula Khalaf inThe Financial Times outlined a similar state of affairs, concentrating on the stasis of Egypt’s institutions. “By assuming legislative powers following the constitutional court’s dissolution of the Islamist-dominated parliament, and grabbing some of the powers of the president, the generals might have already set Mr Morsi up for failure.”
As for the man himself, profiles were amusingly samey, assembled together from an identikit toolkit of vocabulary: “bearded”, “bespectacled”, “US-educated” and “university professor” were present in nigh every article. There were minor variations. The Telegraph noted his commitments to Copts and women, but failed to note The Brotherhood’s history of reneging on these commitments in the past.
There was a surprising tendency all-round to parrot Morsi’s spin without questioning the veracity of his vision for “an executive branch that represents the people’s true will and implements their public interests”, as he told CNN’s resident Middle East dunderhead, Christiane Amanpour. This, I suspect, had more to do with journalistic laziness than any bias.
There was, however, one interesting thought on the subject, from the blogosphere. An anonymous blogger noted the parallels between Qutb’s infamously influential educational stay in Colorado and Dr Morsi’s own in southern California, about which very little is known. Into this little-noted curiosity much future commentary – sound or unsound – is likely to be read, especially in the Western press. Sometimes the prism of the past can refract light onto the future more than reflect on it.