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In Egypt, moderation is hard to come by

Egypt's dramatic descent into chaos underlines the danger of the media's inability to maintain objectivity.
Last modified: 27 Jul 2013 04:54

On the eve of the protests called for by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who asked Egyptians to give him a mandate to ‘crackdown on terrorism,’ the narrative on state TV was clear: deposed president Mohammed Morsi and his supporters are the enemy, and the military is the country’s ultimate savior.

For days, private TV stations joined ranks with state-run media in an apparent campaign to whip up sentiments against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. A documentary was aired Thursday night shedding light on Morsi’s failures, showing long fuel and bread lines during his time in office, detailing his unfulfilled promises, and even mocking some of his unflattering mishaps in various speeches.

Morsi is now being referred to on state TV as ‘El Ma’azoul’ or “The Deposed One,” and even though state TV also changed colors after Hosni Mubarak was removed from office, it’s safe to say the tone by which Morsi is being ridiculed now surpasses any criticism Mubarak received.

The rhetoric used by presenters and their guests, particularly on private stations – who Morsi had come at loggerheads with particularly during his last days in office – has gone beyond trying to isolate the Brotherhood and veered into the more serious territory of demonizing and dehumanizing them. Pro-Morsi sit-ins in the eastern and southern part of the capital have been repeatedly described as pools of filth covered in human excrement, and occupied by lice-ridden people with skin disease.

Meanwhile, El Sisi is being described, literally, as ‘Lion-heart,’ with flattering posters of him with the slogan “The military and the people are against terrorism” – a promo released on private and state TV stations after he issued the call for protest. Also appearing on state TV in recent days, a medley featuring a singing group called ‘Bless the hands’ extolling the military and its leader. The video clip shows the singers in a studio, some draped in the Egyptian flag, and cuts to scenes of army formations and shots of El Sisi, including one where he’s jogging at the head of a group of special forces soldiers Putin-style.  

 A permanent logo has also been emblazoned on the corner of most TV stations’ screens reading: “Egypt against terrorism.” It’s the use of the word ‘terrorism’ without qualification in the official discourse that has been a particular cause for concern. Analysts interviewed on state and private TV stations have repeatedly linked the Brotherhood to a history of violence and terror attacks. It’s not clear if the current use of the word and accusation refers to acts of violence against security forces in the Sinai, or if it’s a reference to gatherings and rallies supportive of Morsi across the country.

Newspapers headlines, too, have been supportive of the military message with banners using larger-than-life fonts to tell people: “Go down.” On Friday, the headline of the anti-Brotherhood Al Masry Al Youm daily read “Terrorism (crushed) in the fist of the revolution today,” while the notoriously anti-Morsi Al Watan’s read: “ Today, the people sentence the Brotherhood.”

To encourage people to heed El Sisi’s call to take to the streets, state and private TV stations suspended their special Ramadan programming. The holy month paradoxically is actually known as a primetime period, with TV series and shows specially produced for the 30 days. But on Friday, people did not have to worry about missing an episode of any of their favorite shows, with all stations focusing on the pro-military rallies in Tahrir and outside the presidential palace.

The state press center even sent media outlets an email announcing that a frequency has been set on Nilesat to transmit footage of Friday’s protests logo and charge free. State TV maintains it has been unable to broadcast from the pro-Morsi rallies in the eastern district of Nasr City because their crew was expelled by the protesters there after Morsi’s removal from office. The state broadcaster also says the protesters there took over the official satellite trucks to broadcast the protests to channels sympathetic to them.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s channel Misr 25 and other TV stations backing Morsi were promptly shut down the day he was removed from office. They, too, had been engaged in a similar campaign of demonizing Morsi’s opposition for months ahead of the June 30 protests. The group is now making its voice heard primarily  through social media and their newspaper “Freedom and Justice” – its headline on Friday read: “Today, the million man protest to reverse the coup.”

Speakers at the pro-Morsi sit-ins have also been fomenting anger against the military. Some Brotherhood figures have gone as far as telling their supporters to prepare for Jihad, or  a holy war, and clerics preaching to the crowds have been repeatedly heard incurring God’s wrath against those who caused them to be in this peril. In the build-up to June 30, several hardline clerics repeatedly referred to Morsi’s opposition as ‘infidels,’ including even at a public rally attended by the deposed president.

What some in the Egyptian media are doing now is falling into the same mistakes the Brotherhood and its supporters did when they were in power – dismiss their rivals, label them as irrelevant and place themselves as the sole authority of what constitutes the ‘right’ way going forward.

Egypt’s latest crisis and the way the media has been handling it is yet another proof that moderation is a virtue hard to come by in this country.