Foreign funding under fire

Naila Hamdy , Sunday 12 Feb 2012

Xenophobia and prejudice have thrived on the latest allegations of foreign conspiracies, parroted by a subservient media

I am still wondering why anyone should be surprised that the Egyptian government has decided to investigate, detain and try at least 44 American and Egyptian US-aid workers and civil society organisations, including members of an international journalism association, for supporting unrest in the country.

I can only speak for journalism training organisations, and thus I ask, do you really believe that they are truly innocent of advocacy?

I’ve been teaching journalism at the American University in Cairo for close to 15 years. I’ve also taught occasional journalism seminars to African journalists, Egyptian journalists and other Arab journalists mostly funded by Western donor agencies, international journalism associations, non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and others. The main objective of these seminars has always been to raise the professional standards of emerging and practicing journalists, which I may add cannot be seen as an action detached from the promotion of democratic practices.

On the other hand, these programmes are not a direct cause of the overturning of an authoritarian regime. If the conditions did not exist, training hundreds of journalists would not have brought on a revolution. Nor are they a cause of unrest. If Egypt’s ruling generals truly believe in democratic values, those upheld by the Egyptian revolution, then good journalism would not threaten their power. After all, Egypt’s journalists can and should play a pivotal role in helping this country make the transition to a functioning democracy.

The US has not been the only financer of such programmes but is always seen as the most "evil" in times of political crisis. Used as a method of domestic propaganda and to mobilise the masses by exploiting populist bias, Egypt has a long history of reverting to such policies.

The move initiated by Egypt’s minister of planning and international cooperation, Faiza Abul-Naga, has stoked the fire of war against foreign funding. It has also encouraged further dissemination of these accusations by members of the state media, which have in turn ignited a popular witch hunt that has mostly affected liberal groups, thus far.

As the justice ministry continues to pull out potentially incriminating evidence, it has become clear that charges against the defendants can be quite serious and may lead to prison sentences.

Once again these strategies can prove to be successful. Following a downward spiral in the relationship between revolutionaries and the military council, culminating in escalating violence on behalf of security forces against protestors during the last few months of 2011, as we have seen with the Maspero massacre, the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battle, and the killings during the Port Said football riots amongst other events, is when the real smear campaigns began.

In fact, it appears to be part of a series of moves that are connected, well orchestrated and aimed to diffuse support for the revolutionaries among the average persons, many of whom are responding to their inner feelings of xenophobia.

The latest of these tactics has been the attempt to discredit the students of the American University in Cairo on the official Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’s Facebook page, vilifying them for their call for civil disobedience. The accusation of being "tools" of the US administration was made against a student body that consists of Egyptian students. They are also one of 30 other universities that joined the call. It is truly insulting to single them out as unpatriotic.

Unfortunately, such discrediting does affect people’s perception of the young activists. Coming just a few days after the arrest of the “foreign perpetrators,” many members of the public see a correlation. Just as the youth began to lobby for a strike, their attempts were aborted by a massive state media drive aimed at depicting their efforts as fruitless. Most of the independent media did little to explain their perspectives either. According to an article published by Ahram Online Saturday morning, some headlines went as far as painting a picture of an American conspiracy to divide the country and allow Israel to re-seize the Sinai.

In fact, this type of opinion is not an unusual one but is shared amongst large numbers of people from various socio-economic backgrounds, reinforcing previous prejudices that are a legacy of our past. But we should resist these ideas. 

Training journalists to do a better job should not be viewed suspiciously and if you have an issue with foreign funding then I urge you, Egyptian institutions, private businesses and foundations, to invest in the future of the country by financing independent local associations and universities that are struggling to provide quality training to Egypt’s journalists and media professionals.

Egypt’s military council continues to promise to surrender power within a few months, making the need for good journalism even stronger.

The writer is assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo.

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