“How does the West see us?” is a question that anyone visiting Egypt often hears. “Egypt is seen in the West as an authoritarian and tyrannical dystopia,” would be the honest answer. Almost always, the wondering words, “but, why?” follow. Most Egyptians do not feel that this description matches the Egypt they are living in.
As a result, because there are no easy answers as to why the narrative on their country tends to be negative, arguments about the West plotting against the Arab countries tend to fill the void. Such conspiracy theories strengthen anti-Western sentiment and represent an obstacle towards peace, dialogue and cooperation.
However, the anti-Egyptian narrative is an equally unfortunate obstacle that ought also to be deconstructed.
Looking for positive or balanced reporting on Egypt in the Western media can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Little to no attention is given to the progress occurring in Egypt such as the increased protection of Egypt’s Christians, the renovation of previously damaged Jewish heritage sites and synagogues, the combating of extremism and terrorist recruitment, the reform of religious teaching and Islamic interpretation and the promotion of ideological diversity among scholars of theology.
Other areas where progress has been made lie in urging Egyptian immigrants in the West to respect Western values, improving the country’s infrastructure and housing challenges, combating childhood diseases and mortality rates and strengthening women’s rights in society and politics.
As commentator Cynthia Farahat has noted, “while there is certainly room for improvement in the regime’s governance and policies, it is no less important to recognise President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for the historic reformer he is”. Celebratory descriptions aside, even moderately bright reports about, for instance, how Al-Sisi “seems to have no weakness for corruption,” as the US magazine New Yorker puts it, are quite rare. Instead, negative stories seem to dominate Western discourse, leading to a narrative that remains largely unquestioned.
An old and overused, but certainly valid explanation, is that orientalism still exists across most of Western media. For instance, a 2017 article in the New Yorker said that “Egyptian pride sometimes drives policy, and officials have a reputation for being hot-tempered.” A 2014 article in the US publication Politico noted that “the US trained him and funds his regime. So why won’t Al-Sisi listen?”
There are countless more examples of such stereotypical portrayals and neocolonialist conceptualisations in the Western media. Taken together, they create an image of a country that cannot be trusted to govern and protect itself.
A case in point was when in November 2020 the Austrian police conducted more than 50 raids against members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in that country. Shortly after the terrorist attack that occurred in the same month, they announced a set of security measures aimed at preventing terrorism and curbing increasingly violent extremism. Despite some heavy criticism, the consensus was one of acceptance and understanding of the police actions given the circumstances.
Why should the same right not be granted to Egypt, which ranked 14 in the 2020 Global Terrorism Index, when most European countries rank far lower in terms of the terrorist threat?
At the same time, evidence of Eurocentrism can also be found in the pragmatic policies that many Western countries pursue. These policies are seen to benefit the West without regard for how they might negatively impact the other party, in this case Egypt.
The “inclusion promotes moderation” principle is a good example here. The assumption is that, once in power, the MB would become less extreme and act as a firewall between the West and more extreme terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. But history has shown us that this is not the case, since the same thing was argued about Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, and his rule certainly proved the opposite.
While the MB cannot be compared to Hitler’s Nazi Party, it does have the potential for danger and mayhem. But the West seems to focus on the positive (its self-declarations of non-violence) instead of the glaringly negative (its actual record of terrorism and extremism). The MB lobby has played an important role in skillfully manipulating the narrative to its benefit, something it is still good at doing.
Since the early 1990s, the MB has been expanding in the European public arena and promoting its ideological agenda through cultural, commercial and social functions. It has managed to present itself as the representative of Muslims in general and thus hide itself in moderate ranks. Combined with the perks of living in a tolerant society in Europe, the MB silences critical voices by accusing them of Islamophobia and intimidates anyone linking it to a particular organisation by simply suing.
Because of its immense funding, it can afford to do so. This financial backing also allows the MB to influence politics, the media and even academia in the West. What does this have to do with the Western narrative on Egypt? Everything.
By hiding behind cultural institutions and religious communities, the MB has been actively taking part in the Western discourse and shaping it in its favour. A big part of the MB effort is devoted to trying to ensure that Egypt gets a bad press in the West in order to demonise the Egyptian government. The more negative the coverage of the Egyptian government in the Western media, the more sympathy the MB can garner for itself. Countering such claims would be to question the alleged “lived experiences” of ‘poor’ Muslim immigrants.”
One recent example was provided by Amir Al-Shami, an Austrian socialist turned Salafi with Egyptian roots, who said that “no one criticises us except for far-right politicians” in an interview with a female journalist whose hand he had refused to shake. The fact that the left and centre in many European countries are afraid to touch the subject of the MB means that it will continue to be successful at hiding in plain sight.
Another camouflage technique is the MB’s trick of linking itself to international justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. This creates the image of the MB being for human rights and equality. The more successful it is at establishing this as a given, the more whatever follows from it is taken to be true.
In other words, if the MB is pro-democracy, then its enemies must be against it. If it is oppressed, then its enemies must be oppressors. As a result, it is no surprise that a negative narrative about Egypt can be built, propagated, and, with time, solidified. Egyptian counterterrorism is thus presented as “tyranny,” and tyranny needs to be resisted. Counterterrorism becomes crackdown, and terrorism becomes resistance.
It is high time for the MB’s ideology to be unveiled as the totalitarian, radical and anti-democratic one that it is. At present, the dispersed members of the MB are not living in a democratic manner in the West, they are merely surviving it.
Western audiences need to be aware of the MB’s influence on how the narrative on Egypt is shaped. Carefully navigating the paradox of an inwardly (mostly) tolerant and an outwardly (often) pragmatic and orientalist West, the MB has been tirelessly working to keep this narrative negative. If things stay this way, the MB will be able to continue to hide in plain sight while enjoying the perks of the victim.
On that note, it would be as well to assure Western readers that the Muslim Brotherhood are not your Muslim brothers.
*The writer is the general secretary of the IISES, a Vienna-based think tank for social and economic studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly