by Mohamad Elmasry
Noam Chomsky’s Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda argues that effectively crafted and controlled media messages can turn otherwise rational people into “hysterical” warmongers. Chomsky’s analysis focuses on how western governments and elite-led media in democratic societies have successfully employed propaganda campaigns to achieve political aims. Egypt has experienced its own propaganda program in recent months. What is perhaps unique about Egypt’s propaganda campaign is that it is an anti-government campaign initiated by a diverse group of oppositional forces.
In post-revolution Egypt–which is, perhaps, not actually as “post” revolution as many think–Hosni Mubarak-era media owners, Mubarak regime loyalists, and key members of Egypt’s liberal and secular opposition have teamed up to create arguably one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in recent political history. In a matter of months, these forces have managed to demonize Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, to the extent that many Egyptians openly call for the overthrow of the democratically elected government and the imprisonment of Brotherhood members. Brotherhood members have also been the victims of systematic violence–which has included the live burning of Muslim Brotherhood youth, the killings of Brotherhood members, and the arsons of Muslim Brotherhood buses and offices across Egypt. Government buildings have also been vandalized, and the presidential palace and other government buildings were set ablaze by firebomb-hurling youth in December.
Since inheriting Egypt’s mess of an economy and myriad environmental, health, transportation, education, and energy crises, Morsi and the Brotherhood have made some progress on several political fronts. They have also made mistakes, which have included releasing reckless statements about women, failing to share enough political decision making with liberals, and mishandling political crises surrounding the Ethiopian Dam project, Morsi’s controversial November decree, and the appointment of a hardline Islamist as governor of Luxor, among other things. I would argue, however, that none of their mistakes warrant systematic demonization, terrorism, or overthrow. There is a massive disconnect between the Brotherhood’s mishandlings and the reaction that they instigated, thanks to the propaganda that the Brotherhood’s challengers have spread.
As someone who has studied discourse for eleven years, the anti-Brotherhood, anti-Morsi propaganda is unlike anything I have ever seen, primarily because news reporters and organizations–rather than political figures–seem to spearhead the propaganda efforts. The lack of objectivity in Egyptian news is perhaps unsurprising, given the reality that many Egyptian journalists perceive themselves more as political activists than as watchdogs, and other research suggesting that Egyptian journalism suffers from an overall lack of professionalism. The opposition’s propaganda machine–aided by a plethora of private television networks and newspapers owned by Mubarak-friendly businessmen like Ahmad Bahgat, Salah Diab, and Mohamed al-Amin–has successfully manufactured discourses designed to designate the Brotherhood and Morsi as lacking in basic integrity and unworthy of political participation. To be sure, Islamist media, having begun in recent years to discuss politics on otherwise exclusively religious satellite television channels, dish out their own fair share of propaganda. Their political impact, however, pales in comparison with independent news outlets that are devoted to political news reportage, have greater reach, can boast well known commentators, and that proclaim the goal of covering political affairs in an objective manner.
Relatively greater levels of professionalism at some news outlets (and by a handful of television news personalities) notwithstanding, the anti-Brotherhood bias in independent Egyptian news media is obvious and overwhelming. As part of a pre-reading of Egyptian news broadcasts designed to develop a coding scheme for an upcoming research project, I watched the 25 March 2013 episode of OnTv’s From Anew. The program featured nine consecutive anti-Islamist guests over a period of about seventy-five minutes. Such blatant imbalance is not uncommon. Frequently, talk shows–such as OnTv’s Respectable People and From Anew, and CBC’s From the Capital and As Clear as the Sun–invite multiple guests, all of the same anti-Islamist persuasion, for lengthy discussions of political events. Other programs, such as Wael Al-Ibrashi’sThe 10 p.m. Show on the Dream Network and Ibrahim Isa’s From Cairo on the al-Qahira wa-al-Nas network, I would argue, have blatantly one-sided slants, as evidenced by their story ideation, guest selection, and interview questioning processes. One of the few independent news stations in Egypt that consistently tries to provide some balance and debate is Al Jazeera Live Egypt. Because the channel usually features the Brotherhood perspective alongside that of the opposition, critics often call it “Al Jazeera Muslim Brotherhood.”
One consistent discourse that has emerged in recent months in Egypt defines the Muslim Brotherhood as un-Egyptian, and caring more about their own narrow agenda than the country’s national interests. For example, reports routinely claim that Morsi is not a president for all Egyptians, but rather only for his Islamist comrades. Other reports discuss the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with Hamas, and their desire to sell off parts of Egypt to foreign countries. A 30 May 2013 article in online newspaper: 24 summarized novelist and political commentator Gamal al-Ghitani’s views on Brotherhood politics in its headline, which read: “Gamal al-Ghitani: The Brotherhood are a foreign organization and their rule of Egypt constitutes a foreign occupation.” On 21 June 2013 al-Ghitani appeared on the OnTv program The Complete Picture boasting that he began writing about the “occupation” thesis last summer, immediately after Morsi’s election. For weeks in early 2013, President Morsi’s office and the Qatari government were forced to fend off baseless rumors–given major attention on television news and in newspapers–that deals were in place for Egypt to lease the Pyramids and sell the Suez Canal to Qatar.
This discourse—that the Brotherhood are not true Egyptians and do not have Egypt’s best interests at heart—is used to justify sub-discourses about the Muslim Brotherhood. Those include discourses that the Brotherhood is occupying all state institutions, produced a catastrophically bad constitution that suits only its own interests, and intimidates and kills the opposition with its “militias.” The next few sections will examine these discursive sub-constructions contributing to the anti-Brotherhood, anti-Morsi fervor in Egypt.
The “Brotherhoodization” of the State
A dominant theme in Egyptian media and political discourse argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is bent on occupying all state institutions and hoarding power. This “brotherhoodization” (“akhwana,” in Arabic) thesis dovetails nicely with other discourses about the Brotherhood’s alleged desire to sell off Egypt and its disloyalty to the nation.
The akhwana (brotherhoodization) thesis is the most damning, and oft repeated, of all anti-Brotherhood discourses. It has become so hegemonic that many Egyptians take it as a given. It is difficult to find an independent talk show that does not regularly obsess over the Brotherhood’s takeover, a topic which opposition figures often use as a political battle cry. Some western news outlets have also reported uncritically about the alleged Brotherhood takeover. I would argue that the “brotherhoodization” thesis holds very little weight, if any at all.
Opposition forces in Egypt claim that, having secured the presidency, the Brotherhood has moved to take over various government ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, and other aspects of Egyptian society and culture. The opposition points to Morsi’s administrative appointments and the domination of the constitutional assembly.
Lost on those who advance the “brotherhoodization” thesis is the fact that the Brotherhood has won multiple free and fair elections and thus has the political and democratic right to control at least part of the government until their term expires. Also lost on people is the fact that the new Egypt will experience regular elections, as stipulated by the constitution, and whoever wins elections after the Brotherhood will have the similar chance to hold sway. This is how democratic politics works: groups who win elections have the right to govern for a few years, implementing their political program along the way. In the United States, it is hardly controversial that the two major parties vie to control both the executive and legislative branches of government. In fact, it is seen as an admirable goal for any given party that believes its program is the most suited to serve the country’s well being. Interestingly, a 2000 Wall Street Journal survey of political science, law, and history professors concluded that–according to respondents–many of the most productive presidents in US history had control of both the executive and legislative branches of government for the entirety of their terms in office.
The United States and arguments about the relative merits of divided versus unified control of government aside, it remains that the Brotherhood does not have, and will not have, a stronghold on the Egyptian state. First, the Brotherhood does not control the army, and it would be impossible for them to do so in the foreseeable future. For starters, it would be unconstitutional and illegal for the president or anyone else to install Muslim Brotherhood members as high-ranking army officers. Even in Egypt, such appointments can only occur naturally and with requisite qualifications and years of experience. Not surprisingly, there has been no indication that anyone inside the presidency or the Brotherhood is attempting to commit such a gross violation.
The situation is similar with respect to the judiciary, which is also subject to a formal system of appointment that depends on qualifications and experience. Brotherhood opponents have, however, criticized the Islamist-dominated Shura Council’s proposal to reduce the retirement age for judges from seventy to sixty. Critics say the judicial authority bill could give the Brotherhood a chance at padding the judiciary with its loyalists, while Shura Council members say that the bill is necessary to purge the judiciary of judges loyal to Mubarak. The deposed president had gradually increased the retirement age from sixty to seventy in order keep judges loyal to him active. In any case, the argument that the Brotherhood could use the law as a means to “Brotherhoodize” the judiciary is unconvincing for two reasons. First, the Brotherhood does not have a community of potential loyal judges who are ready for promotion. Second, the new age limit would apply equally to all judges and not favor Islamists over liberals.
The intimation that the Brotherhood controls the interior ministry is similarly out of place. If it was not initially clear that the interior ministry was, and is, controlled by most of the same faces that controlled it during the Mubarak era, it should be now. There is fervent anti-Brotherhood sentiment within the police and security forces, who in recent months have protested against the Brotherhood, organized strikes against Morsi, and–in spite of repeated anti-Brotherhood arsons–have refused to protect the Brotherhood headquarters from angry protesters. Morsi and the Brotherhood can be criticized for not doing more to purge the ministry now–indeed, the merits of a gradualist strategy are debatable–but the Brotherhood’s more gradual approach to purging the ministry cannot also be the subject of a “brotherhoodization” argument.
In government, even after recent Morsi appointments, only ten out of a total twenty-seven governors and eleven of thirty-five cabinet members hail from the Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition is up in arms at these ratios, but it is both logical and fair for an elected president faced with repeated attempts to remove him from power to rely on governors and cabinet members who are loyal to him. And, at any rate, thirty-five percent representation is hardly excessive for a ruling party. Moreover, and importantly, Morsi has offered numerous government positions to opposition politicians, but they have declined for various reasons. Some simply have not wanted to affiliate themselves with a Brotherhood government. Others have declined because of fears that it would be difficult to engage in substantive work given the extreme anti-Brotherhood program ongoing in Egypt. Vice President of the liberal Ghad al-Thawra Party, Mohamed Mohie El-Din, confirmed to me in a 23 June telephone interview that Ayman Nour, who heads the Ghad al-Thawra Party, has been offered the position of Prime Minister on several different occasions since the start of the Morsi presidency. Also, April 6 Movement founder Ahmed Maher was offered the position of presidential advisor, and declined. On 4 July 2012, just days after Morsi took over as president, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi acknowledged on Mahmoud Saad’s talk show Akher al-Nahar that Morsi offered him the position of Vice President. Sabbahi, too, declined. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, who is not himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamist party, has said on multiple occasions, including most recently in a televised interview on 21 June 2013, that he has offered numerous ministerial posts to opposition figures. Most have declined, with some indicating they might accept a post when “things calm down.” Morsi’s 26 June 2013 national address also mentioned that non-Brotherhood ministers from the previous government had been given the chance to stay on the job, but declined. Given that non-Brotherhood politicians have regularly rejected participation in government, it is anything but surprising that President Morsi has found little choice but to tap Brotherhood members for government posts.
The “brotherhoodization” argument picked up steam in mid-November 2012, when liberal members of the constituent assembly withdrew from the assembly citing what they called the Muslim Brotherhood’s inordinate influence on the constitution drafting process. Those who complain that the Brotherhood dominated the drafting of the new constitution overlook the fact that Egypt’s constituent assembly was formed by a democratically elected parliament, and that twenty-two Egyptian parties—which formed the near entirety of Egypt’s political spectrum (at that time)—signed off on the basic composition of the constituent assembly in June 2012. Interestingly, current hardline opposition and al-Wafd Party leader al-Sayed al-Badawi led the press conference announcing the agreement on the breakdown of the assembly. The agreement dictated that the assembly would give thirty-nine out of one hundred total assembly seats to members of parliament, with these seats being divided up according to parliamentary proportions. The remaining sixty-one seats would be divided amongst scholars of constitutional law, al-Azhar University and Church representatives, and various labor and social groups. Because some of the sixty-one non-parliamentary seats could go to individuals affiliated with political parties and movements, the agreement further outlined the ways in which these seats would be divided up, according to Mohie El-Din, who was a member of the assembly. He said it was agreed that the final one hundred-member assembly was to include thirty-two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, eighteen members of al-Nour Party, eighteen representatives of “the state,” and thirty-two liberal party members. This specific breakdown was designed to give fifty seats to Islamists and fifty seats to non-Islamists, Mohie El-Din told me. However, since some of the eighteen “state” representatives (for example al-Azhar University scholars) could reasonably be considered “Islamists” (depending on how the term is defined), the agreement dictated, in practical terms, that more than fifty percent of committee members would be of “Islamist” persuasion, Mohie El-Din said. In other words, Islamist currents may have enjoyed a majority inside the Constituent Assembly and its committees, but the important point is that all of this was specified, understood, and agreed to by all twenty-two parties, despite what the opposition now claims.
It is plausible that many of the liberal parties viewed these proportions as relatively favorable, since it is likely that a national referendum would have yielded a much higher number of Brotherhood members. The Brotherhood-led coalition had, after all, won forty-seven percent of parliamentary seats in Egypt’s first post-revolution democratic elections, with an additional twenty-five percent of seats going to the more conservative Salafist coalition. It is not ideal for popular parties to have significant representational advantages in constitution drafting assemblies, and scholars such as Linz and Stepan have argued that majoritarian rules are unhealthy for constitution building, while also acknowledging that the practice has been prevalent (p. 83). As scholars Patrick Fafard and Darrel Robert Reid note in their Constituent Assemblies: A Comparative Survey, constituent assemblies are usually governed by the rules of “partisan politics.” The researchers posit: “It has generally been assumed and accepted that the political and economic elites who dominate the political process will exercise a similar dominance in the process of drafting or amending the constitution” (p. 22). Discussing the example of the United States, Fafard and Reid note that, “proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention itself were characterized by a remarkable federalist consensus throughout” (p. 26).
The fact that some non-Islamists withdrew from the Egyptian constituent assembly is undeniably problematic. Some of the liberal members of the assembly undoubtedly had legitimate concerns about some of the document’s articles. However, they withdrew before exhausting discussion, and refused to return to the assembly after repeated official invitations to come back for discussion of contentious articles. More damning, perhaps, for non-Islamist claims of an unfair constitution building process, is that many of the assembly’s liberals seemed to abandon the process early on, and well before it was exhausted. For instance, according to Mohie El-Din, some members of the assembly seemed bent on withdrawing from the outset. “We had [non-Islamist] people who withdrew upon entering the assembly. [Their attitude seemed to be,] ‘Good morning, we withdraw,’” said Mohie El-Din, in a 20 December debate held on the campus of the American University in Cairo. Mohie El-Din also claimed that many of the non-Islamists who withdrew were systematically absent from assembly sessions throughout the process of drafting the document. He said that he was sometimes the only non-Islamist representative in attendance. During other sessions, liberal assembly members would only show up for “ten minutes” before exiting. “Can you, given these circumstances, say that you have had an influence? Of course not,” Mohie El-Din said.
Also, some of the complaints of inordinate Islamist influence over the document’s content are ill conceived. For example, liberals have criticized Article 4, which gives Al-Azhar oversight on matters pertaining to Islamic law. What many overlook, though, is that this article was a liberal suggestion. The thinking of liberals inside the assembly may have been that al-Azhar would be a safeguard against the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafists. Islamists in the Constituent Assembly agreed to Article 4, and other proposals submitted by non-Islamist representatives. For example, an article about religious freedoms specifically requested by the assembly’s four Church representatives was included as is, word for word, said Mohie El-Din at the AUC debate. The article was not removed, and no one suggested it be removed or edited, even after the Church representatives withdrew from the assembly, he said.
An overwhelming majority of voters (sixty-four percent) approved Egypt’s new constitution despite hysterical propaganda against the assembly and the document, which included the distribution of fake constitutional drafts. Importantly, a national dialogue held in January announced that Morsi had agreed to form a pluralistic committee to revise controversial articles in the constitution. Many key members of Egypt’s liberal opposition have rejected dialogue and Morsi’s proposal to revise the constitution, however, and have instead insisted on pursuing their ongoing “rebel” campaign, which aims to remove Morsi from power, select a new constituent assembly, and draft a new constitution. The National Salvation Front, the largest and most organized opposition bloc, has refused any dialogue with the president until all of their preconditions – the sacking of the Prosecutor General, an independent committee to revise the constitution, and a national unity government – are met.
The Muslim Brotherhood “Militias”
The Mubarak regime consistently propagated talk of “Muslim Brotherhood militias.” Such claims have increased since Morsi took power, as newspaper headlines and television news talk shows have casually and matter-of-factly discussed the “Brotherhood militias.”
When, in isolated instances, individual Brotherhood members have responded in kind to anti-Brotherhood violence (in ways that the Brotherhood has later condemned in official statements), the violence has been immediately attributed to the “Brotherhood militias.” The claim that the Muslim Brotherhood maintains so-called militias, however, is unconvincing. For one, if the Brotherhood really had militias, why did it not deploy them during Mubarak’s rule, or during the violent stages of the 2011 eighteen-day uprising? Why has the Brotherhood not relied on these “militias” to prevent the burning of thirty of its offices in late 2012?
The events of the past year indicate that the Brotherhood has often been the victim, rather than the instigator, of violence. In all, thirty Muslim Brotherhood offices have been set ablaze or destroyed, and some members of the Brotherhood have been killed or burned alive. Graphic images of anti-Brotherhood violence, and evidence of what has transpired in recent months, has prompted even some liberals to acknowledge, finally, that the Brotherhood “militias” do not exist. Liberal activist and writer Mahmoud Salem, known as Sandmonkey in the social media world, was one of the first liberals to publicly acknowledge this reality in a 26 March 2013 Daily News Egypt article. He wrote the following about what he called the “myth” of Muslim Brotherhood militias: “From everything we have seen in every major clash with the MB and its members, this myth is also simply false. The MB is organized and can mobilize its members, but its members are mostly educated middle class and are not trained in militant warfare.”
It is worth nothing that Salem’s “myth” article came in the aftermath of violent 22 March protests organized outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in al-Muqattam. During these clashes, the Brotherhood, again, suffered major casualties–one hundred seventy six injuries, twenty six of them serious, and one fatality–as they attempted to protect their headquarters, after police appeared unable or unwilling to do so. Playing a key role in the al-Muqattam protests was political activist Ahmed Douma, who said on multiple occasions prior to the 22 March clashes that burning down Muslim Brotherhood offices is a “revolutionary act.”
What is arguably most troubling about the anti-Brotherhood violence is the callousness with which at least some supporters of the opposition discuss these events, sometimes suggesting that Brotherhood members deserve violent treatment. I recall a widely circulated photo of a Muslim Brotherhood activist set ablaze, his upper body completely on fire. Many Egyptians praised and joked about the incident in the comment field below the photo on Facebook, and some circulated a “Muslim Brotherhood: before and after” photo mocking the burned activist. It is important to note that the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime was, with some rare exceptions, overwhelmingly nonviolent. After Mubarak’s ouster, both liberal and Islamist revolutionaries credited the peaceful nature of the protesters as one mark of the revolution’s greatness. In a short period of time, some in Egypt have become convinced that violence against an elected president and ruling political group is legitimate.
Anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda may be the result of a concerted effort by media tycoons unfriendly to the Brotherhood, a consequence of decades of anti-Brotherhood fear mongering, or both. The general lack of professionalism that plagues much of Egyptian journalism–something which I discussed at length in my dissertation research in 2009, and which helps create a systematically imbalanced discussion–almost certainly plays a key role.
In any case, what becomes clear from any serious reading of Egyptian politics is that there are groups in Egypt–Mubarak regime remnants, media figures, and members of the opposition–that refuse to let the Brotherhood rule the country. It is true that anti-Brotherhood sentiment has increased in recent months, and that Morsi’s politics have turned off many Egyptians. It is also true, however, that Morsi’s mistakes have been exaggerated and, importantly, that there were many Egyptians not prepared–from the start–to accept a democratic Egypt ruled by Islamists. Here, it is important to note that the first arsons of Brotherhood offices occurred well before Morsi’s controversial 22 November decree, which lasted all of eighteen days and has been exaggerated by the opposition. It is also worth noting that calls for a new “revolution” began last August, just two months after Morsi took power and when his approval rating was higher than seventy percent; and that members of Egypt’s opposition, including 2012 presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, have been calling for an early end to Morsi’s term since last summer–just after they lost the presidential race. Indeed, it seems some in Egypt’s opposition were ready to move away from Brotherhood rule almost as soon as it began.
At best, the Muslim Brotherhood is struggling to solve Egypt’s myriad problems, simultaneously battling thugs in the street, a seditious opposition, corruption in the judiciary, and a state that is in shambles at many levels. At worst, they are incompetent rulers. Even if the incompetence theory proves true, the Brotherhood does not deserve violence or overthrow, despite what the propaganda war against them may suggest.