On Egypt, the truth is the greatest victim
July 12, 2013
One could have written “in Egypt,” the truth is the greatest victim: but in truth, the level of misinformation with regards to coverage on Egypt, be it written in Egypt or abroad, is incredible. Over the last week, it has become clear that time-honored analysts on Egyptian affairs could spend their entire day simply issuing clarifications on misleading, or simply wrong, media. Such misinformation is not coming from simply one source, or from one “side” of the political divide — but all sides, for various reasons, and with magnificent intensity. What is striking is that the clarifications would not necessitate much in the way of research — it would only require a limited amount of familiarity with Egypt over the past three years. Instead, overnight, it seems that commentators and analysts who wrote and published virtually nothing on Egypt in the past year (let alone the past three) have become noted authorities — with more often than not, abysmal results. In the process, truth itself, on Egypt is the greatest victim.
As noted, there is no “one” side in this discussion that escapes unscathed. The pro-Mohamed Morsi camp, whether in Egypt or abroad, is pushing a narrative of the past year which is truly bizarre — at its best, it promotes Morsi as a model democrat, who did nothing to deserve the animosity that so many in Egypt feel against him, even after having backed him and the Muslim Brotherhood in presidential and parliamentary elections. His failings, if any, are limited to incompetency, aggravated by his opponents’ willingness to see him fail, and perhaps some rashness. The extra-legal decree, suspending judicial review; the constitutional writing process and referendum; nepotism; the crackdown on media personalities and activists who were opposed to him; the toleration of and acquiescence to sectarian and violent incitement; all of that is somehow swept under the rug, as though it was unimportant to the “larger” democratic project. After all, he won at the ballot box, so the rest is at best collateral damage, and at worst, didn’t happen. Quite.
On the flip side are much, if not all, of the anti-Morsi camp, who do not fail to remind us all of the above. That’s all well and good, but when it comes to pointing out the structural issues that Morsi would have had to face down, they minimize it entirely. Indeed, for the past year, the narrative in much of this camp has been that the “deep state” of Hosni Mubarak collapsed then, and that Egypt was essentially a clean slate. That, of course, is a fallacy — the “deep state” and former Mubarak networks did not collapse. They simply took a beating, which is why they failed to mobilize around parliamentary elections properly; but by the time presidential elections came around, they had regrouped, and struck back, leading to such a split decision between Morsi and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. To underestimate their power is foolhardy — but, alas, it seems that even the Muslim Brotherhood itself did that.
The narrative over the June 30 protests is equally polarized. For the pro-Morsi camp, the protests were essentially engineered, the numbers did not reach very substantial proportions, Morsi had at least as much support from the population to remain in office, and no matter what he had done, his forceful overthrow was assured. For his opponents, the mobilization was entirely organic, the numbers exceeded 33 million, and Morsi rebuffed every single attempt to compromise. In reality, parts of both narratives actually reveal the truth. The protest movement plugged into an existing swell of anti-Morsi sentiment, due to popular dissatisfaction with his performance — and then the movement was aided and assisted by many different parts of society which gave it amplification in the media, as well as providing financial assistance. But amplification did not mean it was not already there — Egyptians at large were unhappy with Morsi’s rule. They almost definitely did not reach 33 million on the streets — but we are talking millions, and probably over 15 million did. Pro-Morsi protesters could not claim to have brought out even half that amount. Finally, Morsi did have the chance — actually, several chances — to defuse the situation, right up until the end, and even stay in office. It was still in his hands — and he refused to do so, thinking that he would be able to hold on, regardless of popular pressure, as well as the organized forces against him.
The same can be said about the last week. Pro-Morsi campaigners insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-violent and has no weaponry, and they focus all attention on the killings that took place at the pro-Morsi sit-in in front of the Republican Guard, at the hands of state forces. On the other side, anti-Morsi commentators argue that the Brotherhood is essentially a militia; that the sit-in was armed; and that the Brotherhood tries to redirect attention to the deaths that have taken place elsewhere at the hands of pro-Morsi activists. The media in Egypt is primarily imbued with the latter, with little nuance — the international media and pro-Morsi outlets in the region are generally concerned only with the first narrative.
Again, reality lies in between, and with elements of both. The Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly has weaponry — such was evident when the headquarters was attacked during the uprising. However, there is really no evidence that heavy weaponry was at the sit-in — at best, according to eye-witnesses and civil rights groups, the weaponry was mediocre and much of it homemade. Certainly, it would be difficult for anyone to justify the break up of a sit-in, resulting in dozens of casualties, with the level of firepower used by the army. One suspects that privately the state agrees, and that this was a mistake arising from a tense situation and probably Morsi-supporters resisting arrest — but we will probably never hear that line in any state broadcast. At the same time, the reality is that on top of this tragedy, many civilians have been attacked, and killed, by pro-Morsi forces around the country in the past week — and the killings are often sectarian.
Of course, recognizing the truth of both narratives, at the moment, is unthinkable. Sins of omission, as well as commission, are rife — either due to unfamiliarity with Egypt altogether, or clearly partisan agendas. Objective media is, unfortunately, rare indeed.
The importance of that kind of coverage and analysis cannot be overestimated at such a crucial time — not simply because good information is rare to come by, but because so much poor disinformation is so utterly common. On Egypt, right now, truth really is the greatest victim. It is a victim worth rescuing, and right now, it seems that the best source of information is going to be direct access to eyewitnesses of particular controversies, as well as civil rights and human rights organizations.
That small, but imperative, community of advocates has never been more important than it is now: civil rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch in Egypt, with the untiring efforts of the likes of Heba Morayef, as do the likes of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, headed by Hossam Bahgat, remain critical. They will probably be smeared as “un-Egyptian” — but what could be more patriotic than calling your rulers to account, according to the law, especially considering these organizations have done similarly under Mubarak, Tantawi, and Morsi? Their reporting of abuses never stopped — and it is not likely to now. These advocates will be lone voices, for a time: but in the future, Egypt is likely to regard them as having saved a not so insignificant part of the Egyptian truth.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on July 12, 2013. Read it here.