Western media and the Middle East: Fourth generation wars II

Tewfick Aclimandos
Saturday 7 Apr 2018

Ingrained preconceptions in part explain the Western media’s failure to understand the Middle East

I started working for the French Press Agency in September 1980. I had never studied journalism, so the staff oversaw my training.

I quickly learnt four rules, including that an article’s lead is the most important thing. The “five w’s” are crucial, and the writer must quickly explain “who, when, where, why and what” if he wants to deliver a clear piece.

A journalist should be neutral, avoid taking sides, and expose the crucial players’ different views. He should provide as many elements of the background as possible. In theory, these rules guarantee reliable coverage and help to specify the crucial differences between serious journalism, biased journalism and fake news. In practice, however, things can be different.

First, ideas of “neutrality” have become less important in practice. It was always possible to cheat and to take sides: for instance, you could have used the word “pretend” to show you did not believe one actor and “underline” to indicate that another one was right.

I can recall fierce battles between pro-Arab and pro-Israeli journalists during the war in Lebanon, for example, when changing just one word could make a huge difference.

Things went further in the 1980s and 1990s, when many journalists witnessed atrocities in Lebanon or Bosnia. The reasoning went like this: neutrality means being unfair to the victims and to the weak.

A journalist has a duty to inform the public when something wrong is happening.

During the 1990s, I often discussed journalistic ethics with young Europeans who were studying journalism. Many considered this career as a way of fighting to protect the disadvantaged. They saw themselves as the “lawyers of the weak.”

This mindset spread, and it played a key role in competitions for the status of victim: in order to make it to the headlines, people needed to become victims. This idea reached ridiculous proportions. The backlash has yet to come.

In Egypt, we know that the Muslim Brothers were and remain the masters of the “victim narrative”. They have never done anything wrong, they say. They have been the victims of tyranny, and they have suffered for their religious beliefs.

It is interesting to note that some of those who have criticised them have avoided studying their views and have instead preferred to focus on another argument: that the Brotherhood has systematically allied itself with authoritarians against democrats and has then complained that it has been betrayed by its allies.

A deeper factor also plays a role. For many centuries, people thought there were many political regimes and the question of “which one was best” was a legitimate one. The answer could be universal or local, categorical or nuanced.

However, today, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the question has become illegitimate.

The best regime, everywhere and at any time, is democracy, it is now believed. Democracy is not only a political regime, but it is also a new type of society and above all a perpetual movement towards more rights, more gains and less and less authority. Of course, there are many conceptions of democracy and heated debates about multiculturalism.

However, two key elements are “free elections” and “public liberties.” On both counts, the Muslim Brothers have won the battle for the foreign media: the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt saw serious competition, so they were considered fair, and nobody paid attention to the serious violations that then occurred.

In addition, it is claimed that the condition of liberties in Egypt during Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi’s time in office was better than it is today.

Nobody pays attention to the Brothers’ numerous misdeeds: the use of a mixture of the mob and militias to intimidate others, the violent threats and actions against the judicial authorities, the media, women, the opposition and the Copts, their very dangerous foreign policies, and their nightmarish economic ones.

Nobody abroad seems to realise what the Egyptian people realised at the time: that the Brothers were a potentially lethal threat to almost everybody, to most “ways of life” encountered in Egypt, and to the many achievements of two centuries of modernisation.

This self-inflicted blindness is not evidence that a kind of war is ongoing. It is the result of the West’s struggle with and around its own history. Many people in the West, especially on the left, have been convinced by the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said’s charges against orientalism, imperialism and Western culture in general. The West has scorned other cultures, including the Islamic one, these say.

Today, many in the West are eager to avoid repeating the same mistakes, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to capitalise on this. Being against them meant you scorned Islam. It meant you were “Islamophobic”.

The argument uses another of Said’s leitmotifs: that the West has created local elites that share its worldview, making any local opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood either too westernised to be relevant or too extreme. In addition, it says, Islam is the religion of the poor, of the “dominated,” and of those who struggle for dignity.

Such views have had a tremendously negative effect on Western press coverage.

First, journalists focus on public liberties and repression.

Second, many Western Cairo-based journalists are young and feel great sympathy for those they see as young revolutionaries or radical intellectuals.

They do not like the systematic use by some pro-regime supporters of the accusation that anyone in the radical opposition is a foreign agent.

The problem is not this stance, however. We all understand that public liberties are a weak point. The problem is that this stance has had a negative impact on the coverage of other issues, including security, the economy, foreign policy, gender, inequality and so on.

The latter is an important issue.

Egypt is a society that has deep inequalities and devastating poverty, and these things are shocking for a westerner, especially as many segments of the Egyptian population are very rich.

Moreover, the discourse used by some members of the elite about the poor is unacceptable. It scorns the poor, and it wants to destroy the social ladder that enables some in the elite to be where they are.

This issue is an old one. However, the regimes of former presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak bear considerable responsibility for such attitudes as their policies favoured the richer segments of society.

Those who consider President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s policies to mean the “restoration of the old order” may be tempted to say that the inequality issue is his fault. This, of course, is preposterous.

There is also the issue of “sources.” Any journalist relies on sources and carefully selects them, and here the anti-authoritarian reflex has the consequence that the official version is never believed.

The authoritarians never tell the truth, except possibly on economic issues. Their narrative does not deserve serious examination, the journalist may be tempted to think, and as a result he prefers opposition sources.

Moreover, the narrative of the Muslim Brothers is supposed to be “authentic,” in some sense. It is supposed to be true and to reflect popular opinion. It seems nobody in the West has discovered the problems with their discourse and their propaganda.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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