The news from Egypt sounds delusional these days. Military coup, massacres, church burnings, mass arrests, curfews and vigilante checkpoints, attacks on police stations, shuttered television channels, an inflated pro-military patriotism among journalists, and, to cap the most bizarre of twists, Mubarak’s release from prison.
State and private television have been parroting baseless claims in favor of the coup with banners and somber music warning the new government is fighting an existential war on domestic terror. Ikhwan Web, the official news portal of the Muslim Brotherhood, acts as if Morsi’s one-year rule was a prophetic revelation, while Mubashir Misr, the Al Jazeera service devoted to Egypt, has shamelessly turned into an MB headquarters relaying only one side of the story.
This kind of impulsive, Fox-ified journalism would be disastrous anywhere, but it has proven catastrophic in a country where 90 percent of the population get their news from television.
So what exactly happened in the course of Morsi’s brief rule to turn the news narrative in Egypt from progressive uprisings to crippled revolution, from the hopes of free civilian rule to military rule, and from the fears of the deep state to the war on terror? Many have warned against Morsi’s aggressive power-grab policies and the Muslim Brotherhood’s meager support for more inclusive politics. But how did Egypt move from a political stalemate to a popular coup and a brutal crackdown with little public outcry? (Sixty-seven percent of Egyptians support recent military intervention.)The answer is simple and troubling. The media in Egypt today are vengeful and when revenge drives reporting, facts become secondary. If you ever wondered about the perils of Fox News’ opinionated and polarizing reporting, Egyptian media offer us a disturbing window into a society literally destroying itself. They are revealing to all of us just how deadly a concoction of fact-free journalism, dogged ideology and populism can be.
It is impossible to know the facts in the midst of a rhetorical war where television hosts sing patriotic songs, cry on the air and deliberately distort the news to score cheap political points. The partisanship is so nauseating that even the release of former dictator Mubarak from prison was barely a news event. State television and newspapers have recently circulated a series of rumors and foreign plots so fantastical that Glenn Beck’s wacko theories of a global Islamist takeover might seem too flat. In fact, private channel ONTV even aired subtitled segments of Fox News as irrefutable evidence President Obama supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and last week, a state-run newspaper published an article claiming the Egyptian military had foiled a plot by the MB, Hamas and the United States to create an independent northern Egypt.
Egyptian television today awfully resembles American television after 9/11. Overly patriotic journalists and television presenters rehash trite conspiracies of disloyal foreign elements in their midst and of terrorist MB members hellbent on destabilizing the country to set up a Shariah-based Muslim caliphate. Their editorials speak of the collective "we," that all Egyptians are fighting the scourge of terrorism. Television screens are adorned with Egyptian flags as if the channels themselves have gone to war.
This highly emotive and slanted coverage may suit a large number of Egyptians today, but it only sets up a preferred frame for more military crackdown and support for the use of brute force to quell pro-Morsi protests. Egyptians must be careful what they wish for and remember that Americans too were overwhelmingly supportive of a patriotic press that privileged an American point of view, only to be dragged into two deadly and expensive wars, a serious encroachment on civil liberties, and an anemic economy still reeling from a severe recession. Every sign today points to a dreadful and calculated return to the Mubarak era, all in the name of a “free Egypt” and a “beloved military” that safeguards the spirit of the Jan. 25 revolution from the power vultures that is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Here in the U.S., Morsi’s Egypt dropped from the news as dreary politics took over from the excitement of Arab street protests and power defiance. But if you followed Egyptian media in the past year, the venomous polarization the country is witnessing now might seem sadly unsurprising. Since Morsi’s inauguration as president in June 2012, Egyptian media became fractured along ideological lines. Morsi’s hunger for power and his crackdown on press freedom didn’t help and quickly turned secular media against his government and the MB leadership.
Pro-Morsi media, which included mostly religious television channels, now shut down since the coup, instantly morphed into a propagandist political pulpit with wacky punditry perpetually gloating over the ascension of an Islamist president to power. Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood were readily dismissed as infidels, mercenaries activated by the old regime, or even vampires seeking the blood of revolutionaries. As the chorus of criticism of Morsi grew louder, some MB leaders and supporters intensified their religious rhetoric and started to sound dangerously defensive calling for Shariah rule and equating Morsi with divine providence.
Nobody could verbalize the disenchantment with Morsi’s rule better than popular television satirist Bassem Youssef, who creatively made his weekly show "Al Bernameg" the epicenter for MB and Morsi mockery. EveryFriday, 30 million Egyptians tuned in to watch him lampoon journalists, politicians and what he called “merchants of religion.” Youssef’s skits exposed Morsi’s clumsy statesmanship and mocked his lack of charisma, his subservience to the MB spiritual leaders and his supporters’ obsession with Shariah. The jokes were so popular that they easily echoed in the streets, making a buffoon of Morsi and of his policies.
Youssef has indeed pioneered a new genre of daring television satire and managed to change the lexicon of cultural and political critique in Egypt. His witty jokes provided his viewers with a different lens to process difficult information at a time of painful and unpredictable transition in Egyptian society. But given the dearth of independent media, Youssef’s satire only deepened the ideological chasm between Egyptians and served as a dangerous spectacle of democracy. It is as if all mainstream news media in Egypt have turned into battlefields using rumor and reckless editorializing as armor against an inflated enemy.
There was high hope for the news media in a post-Mubarak Egypt, but Morsi was not interested in media reform as much as he was engulfed by a paranoid desire to amass more power. As a presidential candidate, Morsi promised, “No one will touch media freedoms. There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era.”
In fact, Morsi’s government constantly complained about blasphemous secular media, blacklisting more than 50 journalists and media personalities, and delegating press regulation to a media council made up exclusively of MB members. Shorty after the start of his presidency, a court order shut down a television channel over reports the Brotherhood mishandled a militant Islamist uprising in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. And according to human rights groups, there were four times more lawsuits for “insulting the president” in the first six months of Morsi’s term that during the 30-year rule of Mubarak.
But despite Morsi’s poor record on freedom of expression, nothing can justify the absurd political unraveling in Egypt over the last few weeks. The silence or cheerleading role of the national media as the massacre of Rabaa was underway must be one of the most demoralizing tales of the young history of post-Mubarak Egypt. Early in 2013, Liliane Daoud, a broadcast journalist with ONTV, told USA Today that despite Morsi’s press crackdown, there can be no return to the old Egypt. "What I'm seeing from friends, journalists, people around me – people are not scared," she said. "It's going to be a relatively long battle, but we are not going back.” It is hard to give Daoud the last word on this. I believe Egypt has gone back and maybe even to a darker place as ideology and vengeance continue to numb its media in the face of despicable violence and farcical prevarications.