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How not to write about Egypt

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Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

By Hussein Ibish, Now News

The upheaval in Egypt inevitably produced a torrent of American commentary, a great deal of which was cliched, glib or simply banal. But four articles stand out as particularly instructive examples of how not to write or think about change in Egypt and the broader Arab world.

The most insidious was a commentary in the New York Times by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre. Behind a veneer of reasonably arguing (as all sane commentators do) that a crucial challenge is how to reincorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into the emerging new Egyptian political order, the article essentially reads like a Brotherhood press release.

Hamid studiously avoids any mention of the context in which the entirety of organised social and political life came together to reject the continued legitimacy of Brotherhood governance, or any mention of the party’s misrule whatsoever. Instead, he sets up a false binary: Either the government of President Mohamed Morsi had to be allowed to continue in a manner unacceptable to an extraordinary unanimity of other Egyptian actors, or actions taken to end his misrule would invite, and almost demand, a violent reaction.

Hamid writes that Islamists will have “good reason” to question “whether democracy still has anything to offer them,” as if the Brotherhood ever had any real commitment to democracy other than as a tool for gaining power. Hamid loads his apologia with repeated grim references to al-Qaeda, and two of the most extreme Egyptian Islamists of all time: Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The logic is clear: Egyptians must either tolerate arbitrary rule and bullying by the Brotherhood or they are inviting, provoking, and even justifying al-Qaeda-style responses. It’s no surprise that Brotherhood spokespersons in Egypt have been increasingly saying exactly the same thing, often in the same language.

Mercifully, New York Times readers were provided in the same edition with excellent reportage by David Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard that illustrated the wide range of reactions among regional Islamists, including many who noted the grave failings of the Brotherhood, and the need to learn lessons about governance from their errors, not reflexively retreat into a violent response. It’s a crucial corrective.

The New York Timesall-purpose pundit, David Brooks, also most unwisely dipped his toe into the Egyptian maelstrom, only to demonstrate he knows nothing about the subject. He claims that “incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam,” very dubiously citing Iran as an example. These are deep waters that Brooks does not have the apparatus to navigate.

After a series of cliches and howlers, Brooks concludes Egypt “seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients” for democracy. Yet he clearly doesn’t know much, if anything, about the country and ignores the extraordinary risks millions of Egyptians have been willing to take time-and-again in pursuit of exactly that ideal. It’s a ridiculous and overtly insulting conclusion, but one that mainly makes Brooks, not Egyptians, actually look inferior.

Noah Feldman misreads the situation at least as badly. He has convinced himself that the Tunisian Ennahda party and the Brotherhood “accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims,” and “seek the gradual, voluntary Islamisation of society.” He not only downplays, he clearly doesn’t understand the actual mentality of the Islamist right in the Arab world.

Feldman has chugged the Kool-Aid of Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi for some time, and even ludicrously declares him “the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela.” This is simply delusional.

No serious observer can doubt Ennahda and Ghannouchi’s fundamental radicalism. Last year, he showed his true colours when he pleaded with Tunisian Salafis to give Ennahda time to consolidate control of the army and police to prevent any “return of the secularists.” His track record of ideological and political extremism is far too extensive to catalogue here, but is beyond any real, honest and informed doubt.

Against this, Feldman cites Ennahda’s supposed “willingness to share power” and compromise. What he doesn’t tell his readers is that this is enforced by the fact that Ennahda does not have a parliamentary majority and perforce must govern by coalition. It had no option to behave like the Egyptian Brotherhood. This was less political maturity than an enforced reality.

“Tunisia’s constitutional process is working,” Feldman observes, as if this were attributable to Ennahda’s reasonableness. It might just as easily be in spite, rather than because of the group’s obvious continued deep ideological adherence to religious radicalism.

Feldman’s commitment to the Ennahda line is so thorough that he even bemoans the biggest concession it made to its governing partners: the need for a powerful president. Instead, he writes: “a purely parliamentary system would be better,” which is exactly what Ennahda wants. This is because they know they can be the largest party, but not a majority, in Parliament. But they rightly doubt they could win a presidential election based on a single Islamist versus a non-Islamist in Tunisia.

But the Wall Street Journal managed to outdo everyone by concluding an otherwise reasonable unsigned editorial urging the U.S. not to cut off aid to Egypt (good advice), with this jaw-dropping assertion: “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turned out to be in the mould of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet…”

The Journal probably has in mind Pinochet’s enforcement of its beloved economic neo-liberalism. But it is either suffering from selective amnesia or just doesn’t care about his hideous legacy.

Pinochet’s rule in Chile was marked by the rounding up of dissidents in stadiums, the torture, murder and disappearance of untold thousands, a reign of terror against all political opponents, and the complete elimination of political life in the country for decades. He was also responsible for a brutal act of terrorism in the United States; the car bomb assassination of a political opponent in Washington, D.C.’s Sheridan Circle. What a perfect model!

Were Egypt’s “ruling generals” to accept this advice and mimic Pinochet, this would undoubtedly ensure the worst-case scenario in Egypt: a replay of the dreadful civil war in Algeria of the 1990s. While everyone else is desperately trying to find a way of avoiding such an outcome, the Journal managed to identify a sure-fire means of guaranteeing it.

Events in Egypt are dangerous and frightening. But even more disturbing is the looking-glass world of Washington punditry in which Egyptians are simply incapable of democracy or must choose between Morsi and al-Qaeda; a gruesome fantasyland in which Ghannouchi psychedelically morphs into Mandela and the blood-soaked mass murderer Pinochet is celebrated as a model of governance.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

This article was originally published on Now News.

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  • Ibrahim Ben Nemsi

    It is all fine and well to criticise the American media, article after article, but maybe it would be worth taking a critical look at the Egyptian media too.

    Where are the journalistic ethics, when an Al Jazeera correspondent is kicked out of an army press conference – and not even by the military, but by his own colleagues ?

    And where are they, when 50 people die in a massacre, and Egyptian journalists just accept the army’s point of view, without asking any critical questions ?

    This especially given the recent history of army massacres in places like Mohamed Mahmoud, Maspero and Abbassiya, and the cover-ups that followed. This alone should be reason enough for any decent journalist not to believe everything they say …

    • sam enslow

      You will never see an article in the Egyptian press on what Egypt did wrong. It is always “the other” who is responsible. No one has addressed the sectarian hatreds that were played on by The Brothers and inflamed by them. I have seen no artcles (not that they do not exist) discussing the social/economic ills of Egypt and different paths to fix them. Several time I have mentioned a 1 Trillion USD source of investment funding, some of which Egypt could capture. No one even asked where it is.

    • Linda S. Heard

      Of course they were kicked out. Don’t you know that over 20 of AJ Misr journalists quit because of instructions to be biased in the MB’s favor? Don’t you know that AJ hijacked broadcast vans from Egyptian media that were driven inside Rabaa Adawiya? Don’t you know that the host of AJ’s Without Borders Ahmed Mansour was raving to MB supporters yesterday evening and advising them how to manipulate media coverage? Don’t you realise that AJ Misr is spewing propaganda continuously and giving airtime to MB heads inciting violence without broadcasting hardly a single opinion from the other side?

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  • sam enslow

    The author fails to realize that he is complaining that US journalists have differing opinions, often seen printed in the same paper. Also they do not represent official government positions. I have heard the same about “think tanks” which represent a wide range of basic world views. They also do not appear to know the difference between editorials and news reporting.
    What I do not understand is why all the attention is paid to what is said in the US press or EU press in any case. Egyptians react with hostility to any news that says something other than, “The great, wonderful Egyptian people”. It is a shame they appear never to read how US journalists cover events and personalities in the US when writing about US internal matters. They will complain about what US journalists say about Egypt, but think nothing, perhaps even feel compelled, to constantly write “bad” articles about the US and its foreign and domestic policies. I have never read an article favorable to the US – on anything. They seem not to realize that what they write affects US opinions on Egypt, both politically and privately.
    Egyptians also forget their own press and their own opinions. They forget the Fairmont Agreement which helped shape US opinion of The Brothers. “They trust Morsy, maybe we should.” They forget that a few months ago Erdogan was their hero and they wanted the Turkish model in Egypt. It seems Egyptians are allowed to change their positions as their situation changes, but not the US. They forget that prior to Morsy’s election they said the US supported Shafiq. Even today both the revolutionaries and revolutionaries calim the US supports the other side.

  • MaximusBoomaye

    I love all these articles that try to explain what happened in Egypt lately in light of what happen in other parts of the world, Reuters yesterday had a piece by some Ian Bremmer who said the best Egypt can hope for is becoming Pakistan.. it left me completely dumbfounded, the fact this article find it’s way to a respectable news Outlet, this guy must have gotten his training at Ahram online.
    I must excuse all these political pundits for one fact, the latest events were so unique, so swift and the results were perhaps opposite to what most analysts in the west saw as the future map of the entire middle east and were preparing to deal with ( a powerful Islamist “moderate” force that allies itself with the west, a la Turkey) that they are racing to predict the outcome for Egypt and get their 15 minutes of online fame, and in the process they sound utterly uninformed or pro Islamist, and might I say lack knowledge and insight on the nature of the Egyptian society. I believe that secretly they are elated that things turned out the way it is now and this may be the new reality for the rest of the Islamist.

  • Linda S. Heard

    Here’s what I posted on AJI FB page just now:
    For over ten years, my columns have reflected my support for Al Jazeera Arabic and AJ International. I was disgusted when your network was described as “terrorist” by certain US administration members and I’ve written in support of your employees who were detained and against the bombing of your offices in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But now I am absolute…ly horrified at your coverage of Egypt. 24/7 pro-MB propaganda spewing from AJ Misr Mubashar. Over 20 of your employees resigned citing editorial bias on instructions from Doha. Your theft of broadcast vehicles from Egyptian TV after you were taken off air. But what capped it all was the sight of the host of “Without Borders” Ahmed MANSOUR ranting in Rabaa Adawiya, inflaming the MB following, advising on how to frame media coverage – and insisting that June 30th numbers had been Photo-shopped when Google Earth doesn’t lie.

    After this, how can you possibly be viewed as a credible news outlet? How can you be trusted when you have breached all journalistic ethics by taking sides so utterly and completely. There are good people in your organisation; I know I have been there and met them. But, sadly, those good journalists and editors who understand the ethics of journalism are being shamed.


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