A spirit of awakening has gripped the Egyptian people with unprecedented and previously unthinkable defiance and bravery. They have awoken from their slumber and have realised, at last, that they can forge their own destinies. They have found their voice and are uniting to use their freedom of expression to demand liberation from the shackles of a 30 year dictatorship.
While such incredible events are taking place in the former British protectorate, instead of embracing the revolutionary spirit and reporting on the bravery of the people of Egypt and the sheer size of the demonstrations – yesterday an estimated 2 million people marched in cities across the country to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power – the British press have, for the most part, adopted a downbeat approach. Despite the current events being journalistic gold-dust in terms of human-interest stories and history in the making, British headlines are obsessed with scaremongering, no doubt taking a lead from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which all too often sets the tone and agenda for much of the British media.
The “Islamist” bogeymen
A quick glance at a few recent headlines illustrates this point. First we have reports focusing on the “Islamist” bogeymen; the Guardian newspaper (normally one of the better sources of reports on the Middle East) had this on 31 January: “Muslim Brotherhood jailbreak prompts fundamentalist fears”. Was there any depth to this piece beyond scaremongering? Did the writer stop to ask why the Brotherhood members had been arrested in the first place or why Egypt has banned the Brotherhood movement for so many years? No. Was it explained that the issue is not simply about government opposition to an “extremist” Muslim organisation, but that the arrest and persecution of Brotherhood members over the decades in Egypt has been a way for Mubarak (and his allies) to crush any real political opposition which he has applied to many of his opponents across the political spectrum? Of course not. On 1 February, the same newspaper reported that unrest in Egypt has led to “fears of a greater threat than Pakistan” by which one assumes that the Muslim Brotherhood is being equated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Not only astonishing but also extremely misleading and inappropriate.
Media coverage of the Egyptian revolution and the “Islamist” bogeymen reflects to some degree what was said about Tunisia. The emphasis was all too often on the possibility of power for Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi’s Harakat Nadah rather than on the victorious outcome of the uprising and the removal from power of the despot Ben Ali.
Other media techniques used to side-line the main issues
In addition to stoking fears of an “Islamist” takeover of the region, media reports play on the fear of an almost inevitable surge in oil prices. Headlines like “jitters over Egypt push oil prices through $100 dollar barrier” (The Guardian, 1 February) litter our newspapers.
Another approach by the media has been to underplay the seismic events shaking up the Middle East. Yesterday (February 1st), the Daily Telegraph does not even mention Egypt until page 17, while the story of the sale on eBay “of a single snowdrop bulb for record £350” makes front-page headlines.
While some news stories are very conveniently overlooked, such as Israel supplying the now despised Egyptian government with plane loads of crowd dispersal weapons, other ridiculous “stories” are featured; the Telegraph’s “news” item that “Egyptian riots put Tony Blair’s holiday in peril” is an example.
It is normal in an ideal world for the media to fulfil its duty to report objectively and without bias of any kind but we do not live in an ideal world. Nevertheless, such an ideal has rarely prevented journalists from lauding positive developments and condemning negative ones. The gushing prose produced about the revolutions in the former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia is a case in point. When Czechoslovakia overthrew the Communist government in 1989 it was dubbed the “Velvet Revolution”; Ukraine was hailed as “the Orange Revolution” and its liberation was praised as a “triumph”. The Washington Post headlined it as an example of “Home grown Freedom.” Many reports about the shift in the balance of power in those states were cloaked in terms of optimism and triumph, in stark contrast to such changes which occur in the Arab/Muslim world; then we see words bandied around like “anarchy” and “revolt”.
As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gather in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday the scrolling news line on the BBC was “Egypt in Crisis”; turn to Sky News and it was “Egypt Crisis”. BBC radio newsreaders can’t even pronounce Tahrir properly; “Taarear” assaults the senses. Much of the news coverage over the last couple of days has focused on looters and scared tourists.
Turn to Al Jazeera English channel, however, and the tone is much more upbeat with reports from the ground reflecting the jubilation and excitement on the streets of Egypt’s capital. We hear people crying with joy and unable to believe that they are living to see the end of Mubarak’s regime; this is cup half-full journalism as opposed to the western media’s half-empty version. Obviously, this is a sweeping generalisation, but there is a very noticeable difference in what we are being shown and told, and how it is presented to us.
Airing Zionist concerns
In all of the reporting one thing is abundantly clear; Israel is being shaken to the core by the events in Egypt. The Zionist state’s rhetoric about supporting democracy is evidently devoid of sincerity and Israel is clearly terrified at the thought that its collaborator-puppet Mubarak will be replaced by a leader chosen democratically by the Egyptian people.
Much airtime and many column inches are being dedicated to airing the fears of the Zionist entity. For example, the BBC could have chosen almost anyone to discuss the shifting sands in Egypt but opted to host Mortimer Zuckerman, a “US billionaire and influential member of the American Jewish community”, on BBC Hardtalk. The trailer for the show proclaims that “the Muslim Brotherhood would be a disaster for Egypt”. In advance of the programme itself, Zuckerman made the ludicrous assertion that “if there is no Mubarak regime there, the Iranians will provide them with huge amounts of money to try and, in a sense take over the country”. Furthermore, Zuckerman declared that “there has to be a change in that government… but it has to be a managed change, it cannot be a radical change that will happen in a way that produces the Muslim Brotherhood.” When challenged, he failed to explain exactly who he thinks has the authority to “manage” such a change on behalf of the Egyptian people. Presumably, he thinks that this task should fall to America or Israel.
As absurd as this idea of “managing” change may seem it is unfortunate that it seems to be the thought process of many in the west who believe that Egypt does need a reformed government but that the current system should be tinkered with, not overthrown. That is nonsensical, of course, as a dictatorship by simple definition cannot be simultaneously a platform for democratic reform. Nevertheless, despite the absurdity of such claims this is the call of many such as the Telegraph on 28th January: “Egypt needs reform, not revolution”. The west is clearly not listening to the people of Egypt. Egyptians are no longer asking for change but are demanding it and if the supposedly free press in the west claim to be upholders of basic human dignity and morality that is a call that must be supported. The lack of support tells us a lot about the standards of dignity and morality of at least some sections of the media.
It’s all very well pointing out that this revolution will cause a slump in tourism, rising oil prices and so on, and such issues do need to be discussed, but the Egyptians have been paying a heavy price for our cheap package holidays. They are willing to lay down their lives for social and political change and that should tell us just how desperate they are.
Where is the serious analysis of WHY this revolution is taking place? Instead of negative side effects, why don’t the media explain to the western public about the food shortages and unemployment that have plagued Egyptians for decades? Why not describe the police corruption and brutality? Or the slums and grinding poverty, all caused by a corrupt government and elite lining its own pockets.
Britain claims to be a beacon of democracy, a defender of human rights and a liberating force in the world; think government rhetoric about Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet it seems that if we are not doing the “liberating” ourselves, liberation and freedom are dirty words, to be avoided for political expediency.
We are living through a time of momentous change in the Middle East and history is being made before our eyes by a genuine, spontaneous and united people’s revolution. This is an exciting time not just for the Egyptian people who are the instigators of this change but also for other people who may begin to believe that they too can be free from dictators and tyrants. It would make a pleasant change to see our media report accurately on why the Arabs are so desperate for change instead of prompting a western audience to fear real political awareness and responsibility in the Arab and Muslim world. Change is needed in many countries, and change appears to be on its way at last. The people who are brave enough to put their lives on the line for freedom and democracy deserve nothing less than our full backing and support; British media please take note.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.