Over the course of Mohamed Morsi's year-long presidency, Egypt became increasingly polarised between supporters and opponents of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
A survey of some of the main Egyptian newspapers shows how this polarisation was expressed in – and reinforced by – the press coverage of events.
During Morsi's tenure, there was a considerable margin of freedom for independent and partisan press and broadcast media, in comparison to previous eras. This meant that state outlets, which tended to support the government line, were rivaled by a strong opposition narrative.
Freedom was not absolute, however, and crackdowns on journalists still took place under Morsi. Still, the media was allowed to disseminate their respective narratives, which, at the risk of over-simplification, fell into pro-Morsi versus anti-Morsi.
The initial 18-days of Egypt’s 2011 revolution against the Hosni Mubarak regime had highlighted the vast disparities between the official rhetoric of Egypt’s state-owned and controlled media on the one hand and the more critical discourses in privately-owned press and in new media platforms on the other.
Following the uprising that ousted Mubarak, Egypt saw previously unparalleled levels of political polarisation in the country — with Egyptians of varying political and ideological orientations battling for power while striving to leave their respective imprints on Egypt’s sociopolitical future. This polarisation has played out most visibly in the dynamic local media environment.
During Morsi's presidency, I conducted a study on the ways in which political actors and events were framed in Al-Ahram, Al-Wafd, the Freedom and Justice Party paper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Al-Shorouk. These five major dailies represent the three categories of ownership prevalent in Egyptian media – government-owned, partisan, and independent (or privately-owned) papers. The study used quantitative research methodology to analyse a sample of 290 articles from the first nine months of Morsi's tenure.
The results showed that government-run Al-Ahram and the ruling party's Freedom and Justice paper employed frames that favoured the president and the ruling regime. Al-Wafd, which represents the liberal party of the same name, took a decidedly anti-Morsi tone, while independent papers Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm exhibited more ambivalent coverage.
To put these findings into context, we must consider the history of press censorship and restrictions in Egypt.
Under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, strict censorship and legal measures were used to control the media, independent voices were alienated and the media became an instrument of propaganda and national mobilisation.
Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat had a more ambivalent attitude towards freedom of the press and was initially tolerant of political debate, although during his decade-long rule there were frequent crackdowns on dissident voices.
During Hosni Mubarak's era, the development of new media technologies and emergence of a strong independent press challenged the state's stranglehold on the media. Despite the myriad of laws used to exercise control over the media, including the emergency law, licensing laws and the penal code, independent newspapers and a host of privately-owned satellite television outlets emerged, and the rise of social media platforms also helped pave the way for dissident voices to make themselves heard via alternative spaces of expression.
In response to questions about the comparative freedom of Egypt's media after the 2011 revolution, we can safely say that journalists were freer under Morsi's rule than they had been under previous presidents.
While former president Mubarak, his government, his family or the armed forces were taboos in pre-2011 press, after the revolution, some newspapers felt free to boldly attack Morsi, ridicule his policies, and portray the government negatively.
Yet this constant state of struggle and resistance and rebellious evolution of both medium and message has resulted in contemporary Egyptian media's state of disarray. Newspapers in Egypt are as a result producing competing narratives and showing polarisation in coverage and representation of political actors and events. This kind of coverage raises questions about objectivity, balance, and neutrality.
Generally, the five newspapers studied mirrored their respective affiliations and ownership in their news coverage. The government-owned and controlled Al-Ahram and the ruling party affiliated Freedom and Justice Party’s paper were most likely to associate a political strategy of the president/government with universally supported goals or values such as "economic development," "safety," and "democracy."
Al-Wafd articles were by and large opposed to the government, and were most likely to associate a political strategy by the president/government with concepts such as "dictatorship" and "bankruptcy." Independent newspapers Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk were less partisan in their reporting, at times ridiculing the president, at others offering favourable coverage.
The same patterns were evinced in the framing of Morsi; favourable labels and attitudes like "hero" and "trying his best" were most frequently used by Al-Ahram and the Freedom and Justice Party paper, while Al-Wafd articles featured negative character impressions and keywords almost exclusively.
Again, Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk articles were more balanced, attributing a mix of positive and negative keywords and identities with the president.
The dynamic, heavily politicised media landscape in Egypt has rendered citizens more engaged in current affairs than ever. In light of this, it is crucial that the ways in which the media creates prisms through which citizens familiarise themselves with current affairs is monitored.
It is clear that the media in post-Mubarak Egypt is freer; it is less subject to overt censorship and repression (although neither of these aspects are absent) and most notably, certain kinds of media outlets are no longer self-censoring in their coverage of the president and his policies.
But – as ongoing coverage of Egypt's current political transition shows – this freedom has come at a cost. Media outlets can become tools for the expression of the views of their backers, whether political groups or wealthy financiers. Complex political transitions require balance, objectivity and clarity in media coverage. It is not clear that, despite a new level of freedom, the Egyptian press is managing to provide this.
This article was adapted from a Master's thesis by the author completed at the American University in Cairo. To read the full document click here