On Friday morning, and as Egypt’s resurgent revolution was preparing to lock horns yet again with forces bent on its destruction, I received (an exceedingly) long distance call from an Australian broadcast journalist. They wanted a phone interview with me on the confrontation between “the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Mubarak forces,” explained the female voice on the other side of the line. Utterly baffled by the bizarre question, it took me a while to reply. Finally, with admittedly a nasty chuckle, I said it seemed that by the time Egypt’s news gets half way across the globe to reach down under, it tends to be rather distorted.
My Australian colleague took my unpleasantness in stride, and genially asked if they could phone me a little later for the interview. Yet, and despite my having agreed reluctantly to the interview, I was so disgusted with what I felt was the Western media’s almost obdurate unwillingness to understand, or even see what was going on in our country, I decided not to take it after all. Repeated rings of my mobile phone went unanswered.
Distance, in fact, had nothing to do with it. Egypt was once again making world history; millions of Egyptians across the country were engaged in open popular revolt against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, almost literally the mother of all modern political Islamist movements, not least the dread Al-Qaeda, which had occupied the centre stage of global politics – and Western media attention – for close on three decades.
So remarkable was this new wave of the Egyptian revolution, its reach extended from the heartland of Brotherhood-support in Upper Egypt to Mediterranean Alexandria, which in turn had appeared to have thoroughly renounced its rich cosmopolitan heritage to become the distasteful playground of grim Taliban-like Salafists.
It was, moreover, the first ever popular uprising against a ruling Islamist movement, much wider in scope, intensity and social composition than any of the revolts we’d seen hitherto against the Ayatollahs’ rule in Iran.
And yet, the Western media seemed unmoved and uninterested. “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see.”
So pronounced has been the Western media’s neglect and disinclination to even see with a bare minimum of clarity the epochal transformation taking place in Egypt that over the past week my Facebook page has been regaled with postings of: PETITION: The Egyptian Revolution 2.0 Needs International Coverage.
Though the petition was strongly reflective of the above, I did not sign it – for two reasons. As a journalist I am constitutionally averse to any kind of pressure on media professionals, whether it takes the shape of government censorship, attacks by fascist hooligans of the sort we’ve been witnessing Brotherhood and Salafist thugs making on Cairo’s Media City, or even the benign form of a Facebook petition.
Secondly, it’s futile. You have neither the clout, power of intimidation, blackmail nor means of tangible punishment that the pro-Israel lobby has been deploying most effectively against the Western media for decades (and which, it so happens, our own MB has been aping on a considerably more local scale through its e-militias, truncheon-wielding militias, no less than its take-over bid of the state owned media, and its “constitutional” bid to muzzle all media.)
Nor should you. And pleading is embarrassing, let alone ineffectual.
Why then this obdurate blindness that seems suddenly to have struck the Western media vis-à-vis Egypt?
I would suggest two basic reasons, one deep-seated, almost visceral, while the other is conscious, interest-bound and utilitarian.
The default setting of the Western media’s perspective on Egypt, as on Muslim-majority nations in general, is derivative – a function of “Western Man’s” very sense of identity. The great Edward Said has shown just how fundamental has been the “Orient”, particularly the Muslim “Orient”, to the formation of the identity of modern Europe, later redefined as “The West”.
And while the “West” may not particularly love Islam and Muslims, it simply adores their “difference”, just as a miserably married couple will revel in the misfortune of their divorced neighbours. It makes them feel good about themselves.
It was thus that modern Europe denied the great Muslim/Arab tradition of rationalism and humanism, even as it appropriated it. Al-Farabi (Latinized, Alpharabius), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) had not given this tradition over to a Europe just emerging from its “Dark Ages”, but were mere postmen of history, delivering the message from Europe’s ostensible infancy in Ancient Greek. And thus too, the West’s “rationalism” came to be contrasted with the Muslim Orient’s “mysticism” and supposedly unquestioning adherence to religious dogma, the West’s attachment to freedom versus the Muslim attachment to despotism, individualism versus tribalism, etc.
During the past thirty years or so, and in conjunction with the rise of political Islam, such Orientalist nonsense was revived, dusted-off, polished and updated with extraordinary zeal. Not surprisingly, the Islamists willingly and enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Practically overnight, the myth of fundamentally Islamic peoples who had been ruled by “Westernised elites” and were now coming into their own, became the conventional wisdom permeating all discourse on Muslim-majority, particularly Arab nations.
Arch-Zionist and one time British spook, Bernard Louis would tell us such things as: “To the modern Western observer,” Islamic behviour in the modern world may appear anomalous, anachronistic and absurd, but he would hasten to add, “it is neither anachronistic nor absurd in relation to Islam.” By 1990, well before the 9/ 11 atrocity, Louis would take his bizarre-Muslims theory a little bit further, giving us the Clash, “the perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Samuel Huntington would later “develop” it into one of the most ridiculous pieces of political theory ever (badly)-written, “The Clash of Civilizations”, first in essay, then in book form.
But clash, dialogue or love-fest, the real point is the dissimilarity. In contrast to the rest of the world, and specifically to the “West”, the behavior of Muslims, be it political, social, or cultural can only be understood “in relation to Islam”, and this an Islam divested of the greatest and most enlightened of its traditions, an Islam defined and delimited by modern day Islamists, conservative, literalist and regressive. Not only was the great tradition of Islamic rationalism to be denied, but every other feature of the richness and diversity of our inherited and contemporary culture. Everything from a Thousand and One Nights to Om Kalthoum would be thrown by the way side.
Mubarak, no less than Islamist forces in Egypt and outside were happy to subscribe to variations of such a reductive perspective. For the sitting dictator, it was proof positive that his vicious police state was the only bulwark standing between the world and an Islamist flood sweeping the country, beloved Israel, the Greater Middle East, crossing over into the European heartland, and exploding a nuclear device in some major American city.
For the dictators in waiting, it was proof positive that they were “the authentic” representatives of an overwhelmingly “authentic” population, (“90% of the people,” to quote Mr Morsi, who won the presidential election by a bare 51% of the vote) – all they need do is convince the “West” that, in power, they would make nice with Israel, keep the Greater Middle East safe for the World Bank, IMF and multi-national corporations, and that their often rabid civilization clashing was really confined to domestic “others”, including liberal ninnies, commie agitators, licentious riff-raff such as artists, writers and journalists, and, of course, local Christians, Shiites and Bahaais.
The Arab Spring, especially the Egyptian revolution, came to unseat the all pervasive, pernicious paradigm. And for a brief period the Western media seemed happy to discover that for Arabs and Muslims too, there was “something in the soul that cries out of freedom,” as Obama was to quote Martin Luther King Jr. in his salute to the Egyptian revolution on 12 February 2011.
Yet, even during those glorious 18 days of Jan-Feb of that year, I would constantly get Western journalists querying me about “the crucial” or “decisive” part Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, were playing in the revolution. Where they got such certitude I was at a loss to understand, seeing that there were millions on the streets, that you’d be hard pressed to find a single sign or chant in Cairo’s Tahrir or anywhere else in the country calling for the application of Sharia’a or “governance by what God has ordained,” that the revolutionary banner of: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice, had not an ounce of Islamism in it, that Christians and Muslims, women and men, fought together shoulder to shoulder, and that egalitarianism among all Egyptians had been the overriding ethic of the Egyptian revolution.
All too soon, the readiness of the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies coupled to the unpreparedness of the revolutionaries (due to 30 years of the eradication of politics under Mubarak) seemed to bear the deep-seated bias out. The extremely nuanced and complex reality of post revolutionary Egypt would be made to disappear, and the Western media’s coverage of the emergent political landscape in the country would regress into – what I’ve come to call – infantile Orientalism.
Deep-seated bias is only one part of the explanation, however. The second secret to the love affair is much more down to earth, essentially a function of realpolitik. For the US-led Western alliance, the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt proved to be the answer to a prayer.
Notwithstanding all the rhetoric about the liberation of “Islamic Palestine”, Egypt’s new rulers would swear themselves blue in the face that they would uphold the commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, collaborate with the “hated enemy” in fighting terrorists in Sinai, bring in American troops and sophisticated spying equipment into the troubled peninsula’s demilitarized Area C, all the while maintaining “strategic ties” with Washington.
It would take the US/Egypt brokered truce in Gaza, however, to have Western media and pundits drooling over Mr Morsi and his up-and-coming Muslim Brotherhood run and controlled regime. All of a sudden, they discovered that not only was the MB president as compliant as his predecessor on “Israeli security”, but that he was proving a much more effective partner in this respect.
Suddenly, the realization hit home: Here was a democratically elected president (albeit narrowly), backed by “authentic” Islamist Muslims, not only in Egypt but throughout the Greater Middle East, able not only to intimidate and pressure Hamas into “reasonableness”, as Mubarak’s Omar Suleiman was known to do, but to do so in his capacity as Big Brother to the errant Palestinian branch of his movement. A unique and previously unexpected prize of this order was simply too precious to squander, even for the sake of such niceties as basic liberties and human rights.
So precious indeed, that one Israeli political writer suggested only last week that Netanyahu’s Israel might be in the process of making a strategic shift in its attitude to Hamas. Translated from the Hebrew by Media-Clips-Isr, Alex Fishman, writing in Yedioth Aharonot, suggests that under Netanyahu’s leadership Israel was in the process of changing its policy on the Gaza Strip, and that “Instead of toppling Hamas, it wants to give the Hamas regime power so that it will ensure quiet and to push it toward the Sunni, anti-Iranian coalition of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.” Far-fetched, you might say. Possibly, I admit I haven’t been following Israeli politics as I should, what with domestic Egyptian developments overwhelming time and thought. Yet, very indicative, to say the least.
Rehabilitating Hamas with a view to “safeguarding Israeli security”, as defined by Netanyhau, no less than setting up a regional Sunni coalition against Iran are, it goes without saying, top agenda items in US/European policy in the Middle East.
But there is a more compelling reason for the Western alliance and its media’s love affair with Egypt’s Brotherhood – one of even greater strategic import. For some time now, the US and its allies had come to realize that the rickety, aged and corruption-ridden police states in the region, however servile, were very poor guardians of their vital interests. The Arab Spring seemed to have given rise to a new and ostensibly much more solid foundation on which to anchor these interests. And as predicted by nearly everyone for years, some form of political Islam seemed the only viable alternative at hand.
In Egypt, by far the biggest Arab state and home to Al-Azhar, the very fount-head of Sunni Islam, the Mother of all Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, had come to power and was ready and able to be the sort of loyal friend and guardian of “vital” Western interests as its predecessors had been, and to do so in a considerably more “legitimate” and effective manner.
Embroiled for the past decade in a seemingly endless and harrowing battle against “terrorism”, specifically against Islamist radicalism, and with Europe increasingly phobic about the “demographic nightmare” of the Muslim “enemy within”, the US and its allies now had a model of the kind of Islamism they could have only dreamed of. By its very existence, such an Egyptian model was bound to undercut the dread radicals and ameliorate the “Islamist threat”, all the way from the heart of Paris to the Qaeda infested hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This veritable treasure was as valuable to hold onto as its opposite, the collapse of such a model, was to be dreaded. Indubitably, such failure would provide a powerful boost to Islamist radicals everywhere, a further argument that Jihad rather than a “Western, Secularist-imported democracy” is the only way forward.
The love affair is thus explained, and as the popular saying goes “Love is blind.”
And yet, here at home, the souls of millions of Egyptians continue to cry out for freedom, come what may.