After the 25 January Revolution and Mubarak’s departure, US President Barack Obama declared there are rare moments in our lives when we can watch history in the making. The Egyptian revolution is one of these moments, he said. The British newspaper The Guardian wrote at the time that the Egyptian revolution is the greatest in the history of humanity — even surpassing the French and American revolutions.
But the truth that Obama and The Guardian spoke was retracted after the 30 June Revolution when Obama said he was deeply concerned that the armed forces deposed Mohamed Morsi, suspending the delivery of weapons to Egypt that were needed to fight terrorism. The New York Times claimed the army toppled President Morsi in a full-fledged military coup.
Although it was the people who created both revolutions and the army supported their choice by deposing two presidents to prevent civil war, those who paint Egypt’s image in the US and other ally countries had a different view. That is nothing new, since many official circles and media outlets hide or monopolise or distort information to channel public opinion in the direction that serves their goals and policies. The purpose of singing the praises of the 25 January Revolution was to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in return for fracturing and bringing Egypt to its knees. Hostility towards the 30 June Revolution was a reaction to a lost bet and attempts to reinstate the same plan.
Academic curricula in the US were a main source of negative perceptions of Arabs for Americans, and are hard to change. The US movie industry was built on a distorted image of Arabs and their just causes. The 9/11 attacks gave the US media an opportunity to promote the standard negative stereotype, connecting Islam with terrorism, but the media has an even more critical role in forming the mental image of peoples and regimes since it is a vital source of information in foreign countries. This impact multiplied with the information technology and communication revolutions.
The media is a window of knowledge and information on specific situations, especially if the audience has no direct experience of them, and it promotes and spreads perceptions and stereotypes. Directing information via media outlets is one of the effective ways to form an image of one nation to another. The image is greatly changed by those in control of media outlets who choose scattered information based on their political inclinations. Media outlets create mental images of regimes or countries by focusing on biased viewpoints that promote specific characteristics targeting a country, culture, or entire people according to specific whims and interests, and prior generalisations and ideas that do not reflect the true picture in its entirety.
A mental image is the final product of personal impressions formed by individuals or groups about a certain person, regime or people. The media could distort this image and influence eventual political behaviour. A stereotype or acceptable image is the permanent mental image and is a composite of ingrained beliefs in people’s minds. The national image is the mental image of one people about another people. Mental images can be negative or positive, depending on political factors. Countries that are political and economic rivals are assigned negative connotations and ally countries or ones that are not a threat are given positive connotations. Media outlets play a role in directing public opinion, forming foreign policy, decision-making, and deciding the agenda of the elite and public and their positions.
It is important to study the image of a country overseas because this is linked to its national interests. A negative image adversely affects mutual relations and the worse the image the more likely relations would be at loggerheads. Creating a positive national image with others is very important because it serves mutual relations. Based on the importance of image, all countries seek to improve their image overseas to achieve their goals in international relations and boost their security. Each country seeks to improve its image in world public opinion to bolster its influence through a good reputation and trust by others.
In fact, Taiwan launched a private commercial channel to improve its image, brandishing the slogan, "Taiwan is a great people on a small island." China tried to portray a positive image of itself overseas. Amid public and Islamic hostility towards US policies, the US formed a committee to study and improve its image in the Muslim world. The Egyptian media report, which I was honoured to oversee when I served for one year as director of the Egypt State Information Service (SIS), was compiled by excellent and hardworking staff. It was a scientific approach to forming a targeted media message to correct Egypt’s image in the world; correct the world’s image in Egypt; and correct Egypt’s image at home to serve Egypt’s national interests.
The report monitored Egypt’s image around the world through the lens of articles published about Egypt in the media of major world powers during an entire year, to come up with an annual targeted practical endeavour. The countries chosen were ones whose official and media policies impact Egypt, and players that are important in Egypt’s foreign policies.
The report included permanent Security Council members, G8 countries, key Nile Basin countries, important neighbours, and major Arab and Islamic countries. The newspapers with the highest circulation and most influential opinion publications were chosen for their impact on the elite in these countries and shaping public opinion. Analysing Egypt’s image in the newspapers of these countries, it became apparent there was a focus on bilateral relations, foreign policy, political system, economy, culture, civilisation, society and women. Unfortunately, this media report was scrapped like other projects aiming to revive and develop the role of the SIS.