Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Egypt: riots, poets, crap media

I made the mistake of watching the tea-time news with the in-laws today. It was on Australia’s Channel 9, which is Murdoch-owned, but I didn’t know that at the time or I should have known it’d be bobbins.

I should also have gotten suspicious when they announced their Europe correspondent was covering the current uprising in Egypt. Errr… I know the media is under-resourced at the moment (well, bits of it are, but given News International’s profits you’da thunk Channel 9 could have afforded maybe even a ‘Middle East’ correspondent).

So, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when the pasty muppet of a ‘Europe correspondent’ (in Cairo) called Mohammed El-Baradei the ‘head of the Muslim Brotherhood.’ El-Baradei, for the record, is the pretty secular, liberal former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. He’s been leading a campaign for political change in Egypt since about spring last year. As I understand the situation, the Muslim Brotherhood are one of a plethora of (pretty establishment) Egyptian organisations which have endorsed El-Baradei’s leadership of a loose opposition coalition, and he is very far from ‘leading’ them. I can’t imagine the Muslim Brotherhood are huge fans of some of the things that El-Baradei has to say, but since he looks to many people like the most likely candidate for replacing Mubarak, I guess they want to have a foot in the door. There are various useful bits of analysis of el-Baradei’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood here:

‘ElBaradei: No reverse in Egypt’, Al-Jazeera English, January 2011
‘Opposition Leader ElBaradei: Threat of Muslim Brotherhood Is A ‘Myth’ Lacking ‘One Iota Of Reality’’, ThinkProgress, January 2011
‘ElBaradei, Muslim Brotherhood Offer Political Path Out of Egyptian Confrontation’, UrukNet, January 2011
‘Muslim Brotherhood snubs ElBaradei, will run in parliament elections’, Palestine Note, October 2010
‘Muslim Brotherhood says it will back ElBaradei campaign’, BBC, June 2010
‘Conflict arises in Egypt opposition over ElBaradei’s leadership, Muslim Brotherhood’, Bikya Masr, March 2010

It’s not just the poor fact-checking implied in the Channel 9 slip which is significant. It needs to be put in the context of the knee-jerk reaction that many Westerners – including, I imagine, a lot of Channel 9 viewers – have when they hear the word ‘Muslim,’ especially in connection with the governance of Middle Eastern countries. I can imagine foaming reactions amongst the readership of certain lunatic Aussie websites which shall remain nameless, who will probably get it into their heads that Egypt is about to become a Wahhabi theocracy or Al-Qaeda in state form under El-Baradei’s command. Once upon a time, when the media made such boobs it was in nice printed format and you could write in with corrections, which got printed in an erratum section (or in the Guardian’s case, an errata section). I guess Channel 9 won’t be issuing corrections on tomorrow’s 5pm news slot.

In the meantime, Marcia Lynx Qualey, writing on ArabLit, has as usual some sane and interesting things to say about the relationship between literature and the political situation in Egypt and the wider Middle East.

One comment on “Egypt: riots, poets, crap media

  1. Anonymous
    January 31, 2011

    Army will craft a post-Mubarak era

    Bassma Kodmani

    Published: January 30 2011 20:31 | Last updated: January 30 2011 20:31

    All indications are that Egypt has started a revolutionary process. Violent street protests are not new in Cairo. Egyptians have taken to the streets every decade or so, to protest against cuts to subsidies or poor salaries. The last major revolt saw the rank and file security forces demonstrate against the extension of military service in 1986. But this new intifada is different. The riots are the trigger that Egyptian society has long awaited.

    Editorial Comment: End Arab exception – Jan-30
    Emile Nakhleh: US must look beyond regime – Jan-30
    Roula Khalaf: Certainty of army domination – Jan-30
    Global Insight: Tipping point for masses – Jan-30
    Reaction exposes gulf between leaders & people – Jan-29
    Army remains crucial to survival of regime – Jan-28

    The attitude of the security forces is changing the equation. The Egyptian state, over which President Hosni Mubarak presides, is large and powerful. Its continuity in current form has seemed unquestionable, while Egyptians saw it as all pervasive. Everything flowed from the state, and everything returned to it. The spine of this structure was its security apparatus; a more sophisticated securitocracy than Tunisia, but a securitocracy nevertheless. Other bodies have been hollowed out, but not the institutions on which Mr Mubarak depends.

    Until recent days the numerous agents deployed for even minor demonstrations projected an image of regime invincibility. Yet the larger they have grown, the more fragile their composition has become. There are now no fewer than eight different agencies – including the army, but not the groups of thugs deployed for dirty tricks. But their sudden disappearance from the streets in the face of demonstrators was baffling to the population and remains inexplicable.

    The army fought its last war in 1973. Since then it, along with the rest of the sector, has been devoted to one mission: watching the population. Indeed, the army quelled social rebellions three times in the past 50 years. Its importance in maintaining order suggests two important questions. What price did the generals extract from Mr Mubarak, after he called on them to intervene last Friday? And are they still standing by him?

    Egypt’s army has an intricate economic portfolio, and thus a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. However it also sees itself as the guardian of the interests of the Egyptian state. It may now be developing a new vision of how the state’s interests ought to be preserved – one that need not include Mr Mubarak.

    The reform movement, meanwhile, knows that the regime has had every chance of engaging in a process of gradual reform. Most Egyptians, including these activists, have been keen to preserve social stability while hoping that change would come with the consent of its leaders. But the government has revealed that it is neither in control, nor willing to cede power. This has created a power vacuum, partially filled on the streets.

    Now the handling of the situation by the army is what matters. So far, a small group of four or five security chiefs form an inner circle around the president. Formally they come under his command, but in the past few years of his illness and absences they have been increasingly in charge. It is clear now that Mr Mubarak is not in a position to prevail over them.

    The riots changed the rules of the game. They signalled to these members of the “deep state” that putting the regime’s house in order can no longer wait. These men’s own credibility depends on an orderly transition. But when rage on the streets raises questions about Egypt’s direction, their eyes turned to the US to read the signals.

    Growing signs that Washington is edging away from Mr Mubarak, therefore, will have been watched carefully. Egypt’s elite and public resent Washington’s traditional heavy hand in their affairs, and deny that Washington influences their decisions. But the rioters will also note with satisfaction that statements from the US have legitimised their political demands.

    Protesters, however, are not an alternative. One might come from a constellation of groups co-ordinating with followers of Nobel laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei. Many believe Mr ElBaradei has been too cautious so far, but through his public interventions he has become a catalyst of change. He could yet emerge as the man of the moment.

    First, however, the elite must make its move. On Friday Mr Mubarak conjured up obscure forces bent on destabilising the country. Only his regime, he claimed, could protect Egypt from the fearsome combination of the lumpenproletariat of Cairo’s slums, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Leaders in Cairo and Washington worry about Islamists taking over. Yet it seems the Brotherhood was as surprised by the uprising as the government and opposition, while its leadership has been slow to read the new politics of Egypt. They have been reluctant to fall in behind the social movements that have mushroomed across the country, and are now divided over strategy. Their younger members are also frustrated with the movement’s ageing leaders – a picture that replicates exactly the structure of the regime they seek to overturn. A weakened, fractured Brotherhood should present no mortal threat to Egypt’s future.

    Egyptians now expect the announcement of a democratic transition process that will put an end to their political conundrum of having to put up with military rule to prevent the advent of the Muslim Brothers. They have yet to find out whether the voice of the “street” is strong enough to prevent the establishment from successfully concocting a managed scenario. But they will know one thing for certain: the post-Mubarak era has now begun.

    The writer is executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative

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