Egypt: growing anger with western opinion

Selective reporting by the western media, and expert opinion predicting Egypt's future based on the familiar pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street, are producing strong anti-western sentiment, says Mariz Tadros.

Mariz Tadros
22 July 2013

Whichever camp you talk to in Egypt right now, the pro or anti 30th of June revolution, there is a very strong anti - western sentiment being expressed. The supporters of former President Morsi feel betrayed by the west, who did not insist on reinstating the “democratically elected” leader, and for not sufficiently defending the idea of electoral legitimacy. On Sunday pro-Morsi protestors organized marches to the US, German and other western embassies to denounce the “shameful role of their countries facing the military coup”.  The supporters of the uprising against Morsi believe that the reference to the uprisings that led to the ousting of President Morsi on July 3 as a 'coup' is an insult to the Egyptian people who rose in their millions. There is now a campaign to press for the removal of Ann Patterson, the American ambassador to Egypt.

The initial response of policy-makers, the media and analysts, to the events in Egypt and their aftermath, has galvanized large sections of the population to take a strong stance against those who work in policy influencing spaces in the west.  During the past two weeks, I have been receiving commiserations from people around me in the UK regarding the state of my country, Egypt. And no wonder, western policy makers have us believe that the country is on the brink of a civil war, the media tell us that there is a backlash against democracy, and academics insist that this is déjà vu: coups ousting democratically elected governments are bound to produce the most virulent strands of dictatorships.  

That the initial American response to the ousting of President Morsi was to use all measures to try and reinstate the status quo is no secret.  According to El Watan newspaper a meeting was held between Ann Patterson, the US ambassador in Cairo, and some Salafi groups, shortly after the uprisings of June 30, 2013. According to the article, Anne Patterson asked the Salafis to obstruct the moves towards forming a new government until the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned to negotiate, assuring them that in a matter of days Morsi would be reinstated. The Watan article also mentioned a conversation between Ann Patterson and Abdul Fattah el Sissi, Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, in which she asked him to hold negotiation talks with the Brothers. He objected and told her that she was just an ambassador, and neither she nor her country had any right to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. Patterson answered that “this puts us closer to the Syrian scenario”.

Egypt on the brink of a civil war has been one of the main messages conveyed by the western media.  The country is portrayed as divided into the pro and anti factions, as if they have roughly equal followers and are of the same political weight.  However, this is a distortion of the situation on the ground. The fact that is that the spatial quarters in which the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers protested (Rab’a el Adaweya and Midan el Nahda) can at best hold no more than a few hundred thousand people. 

This cannot be compared to the millions who took to the streets on 30th June. This should not be a numbers game, because its outcome can only be a majoritarian mentality, and democracy should be inclusive of all political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, one must be cautious not to exaggerate the political weight or constituency of a political force in order to justify why a civil war is likely.

The signals from western policy makers have not only been threatening, but punitive as well. The EU has decided this week to cancel a number of grants and loans to Egypt of more than five billion euros because of its current political scene. 

The selective reporting by the western media on human rights violations in Egypt amounts to a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth. There has been a popular backlash on some of the streets of Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood which has sometimes been quite violent. The murder of 51 protestors at the Presidential Guards has been condemned by human rights organizations as being a case of security use of excessive force.  The shooting of three Muslim Brothers female protestors in Mansoura by so-called thugs is a horrendous crime that has received widespread condemnation. It is also true that the security clampdowns have been sometimes ruthless and this is categorically unacceptable.

However, what the media has chosen to leave out of the equation are the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers since June 30. There have been frequent assaults by militant groups on army barricades in Sinai-which have left several soldiers dead. While some may argue that this has nothing to do with the Brothers, it may be too much of a coincidence that Mohamed el Beltagui is recorded on television as saying that “what is happening in Sinai is a response to the military coup and will stop the minute that the...President’s powers are reinstated”

Moreover, while the western media regularly reports on the assaults on the Brothers, there has been minimal coverage of the reprisals by pro-Morsi constituencies against the youth revolutionaries and the Copts. While sectarian violence against religious minorities increased under Mubarak and had reached new levels under Morsi, part of the targeted violence after the 30th of June was a reprisal from Muslim Brotherhood sympathsizers.  In Minya on the night of July 3 after the military had declared the ousting of President Morsi, guns were fired in the city centre of Minya by members of radical groups chanting “Oh what shame, the Copts have become revolutionaries” (ya lel ‘ar, al aqbat ba’ou thouwar). This was in reference to the role that the Copts had played as Egyptian citizens in joining in the protests calling for President Morsi’s ousting. A few days later, their properties in downtown Minya were also marked with a special sign - and threats were made that any protests in favour of the new government would  be met with attacks on the Copts.

The skewed representation of what is going on is a political act of omission. Mohamed Salmawy, one of Egypt’s most prolific writers and renowned member of the country’s intelligentsia, recently wrote in his column that he was approached by a writer for the New York Times who suggested he contribute a story with a human face about the uprising. When she received his article, she turned it down: his story of the death of a member of Tamarod did not meet the newspaper’s criteria for objectivity - yet the stories of the Brothers’ fear of persecution met the criteria.

And in the UK, it is not much better. The Guardian published a stream of articles sympathetic to the argument that with the ousting of the Brothers, the country no longer has a future. In the first two weeks, there was but one single article written from the perspective of Egyptians who have endorsed the uprising.

The same bias has been reflected in western academic and expert opinion analysis. The argument goes that “political scientists are familiar with a pattern: when elected institutions with some support on the ground are removed by force, the outcome is almost never friendly to democracy. Outright military dictatorship, military domination of politics, civil war or a mix of all are all possibilities.”

Certainly one cannot rule out the possibility of all kinds of non-democratic scenarios unfolding in Egypt, but to predict that there is only a doomsday scenario awaiting the country is to fall into the trap of teleological pathways of change that political scientists seem so often to get wrong.   The construction of this thesis implicitly implies equating elections with democracy. Historically this has not consistently been so, and neither has the world’s response been consistently to adopt such a stance.

The insistence on the overthrow of a democracy in Egypt omits one small fact: the same features of authoritarianism characterizing the Mubarak regime were very much reproduced during the reign of Morsi. In November 2012, President Morsi issued a presidential decree which essentially monopolized executive, legislative, judiciary powers in his hands -  which even his predecessor Mubarak had not dared issue. Even President Morsi expressed his regrets for the impact this declaration had, in his interview with the Guardian on June 29, 2013.  It is true he later revoked some of its articles, but only after he had managed to force through a constitution that has the support of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but which was rejected by almost every single other political force in the country. 

Morsi’s year in office does not exactly boast of a respect for the basic tenets of democratic rule: press and media freedoms were constrained, women’s rights severely restricted, the country’s religious minorities saw the worst assaults on them ever, and there were highly disturbing encroachments on the independence of the judiciary. The same precursors to the January 2011 revolution could be identified in the period up to June 2013.

Further, the “overthrow of the people’s will” argument is also difficult to swallow if one does basic arithmetic. According to official estimates, 13.2 million voted for Morsi, representing 51.73% of the total number of voters (though there have been serious questioning of the extent to which the elections were free and fair.). This hardly amounts to a sweeping majority vote. While there is no agreed figure regarding the number of people who went out on the streets on 30th June, the fact is that the squares were packed with people across the country and not only in Cairo, suggesting perhaps that the numbers may have surpassed those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections of 2012. 

Another problem with the experts' prediction that Egypt is inevitably headed for a gloomy political predicament, has to do with the discipline of political science’s ability to make futuristic projections. Political scientists have not always got it right, in fact, many a time in history, they have got it categorically wrong. Let’s take the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Conventional political science told us for many years that the political culture in Egypt had become so depoliticized by the forces of authoritarian rule that there was no way for us to expect people to rise against the regime, and then the January 25 uprising happened. This should have been sufficient to humble the entire discipline into rethinking its methods of capturing the pulse of the citizens - yet instead we are back again to the same pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street.

The anger with the west’s media, policy-makers, and some scholars (in particular towards those associated with the US, the UK and other European countries and Turkey) may seem irrational to some, but ultimately, it raises alarm bells as to the deep rifts that are created when people practice democracy in a way incommensurate with a western transition blueprint, and are then told they are in the wrong. In this globalized world, they can hear you. 

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