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The media needs to understand reality, not a general's dreams

May 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Something remarkable happened in Egypt this week. The military junta that deposed the country’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and is now putting him on trial for a plethora of politicised charges, not only filmed the president meeting with his attorney to discuss legal strategy but also released the tape to the public.

Why didn’t this send shockwaves through the Western media and human rights circles? The president has not been allowed to have the normal level of access to counsel. One would have expected news stories to focus on this vulgar breach of confidentiality when he was finally allowed a few minutes with his attorneys to prepare for court.

Some journalists chalked this up to the “normal” excesses of military juntas that cannot reasonably be expected to adhere to international standards of rights let alone civility, but there were a number of other promising angles to cover. For a start, the banter and frequent laughter between the president and his attorney were striking given the treatment to which Dr Morsi has been subjected. He seemed not only in high spirits but also in command of his jailers. At one point an officer walked into the room to tell the president that the presiding judge was ready for them. The president dismissed the officer, saying, “Tell him we’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Or one could focus on the integrity of the president. He is completely dismissive of all the legal proceedings against him except for a notice received from the public prosecutor that they will investigate him for financial corruption. The president is adamant that in this one case he must have access to his legal counsel to prepare a proper financial disclosure because, “God knows, but the people must also know.”

Another interesting line was the president’s analysis of the general who ousted him. He asked incredulously whether Al-Sisi is serious about pursuing the presidency and leaving the military. He also asked why the man felt the need to promote himself to the rank of Field Marshal. Both the president and his attorney see this as the general’s attempt to bring himself out from under Morsi’s shadow.

Yet another story exposed by this tape is the extent to which the junta still fears Morsi’s influence. The man once mocked by his political detractors as a “spare tyre” and “lacking in charisma” commands so much respect that he has to be placed in a soundproof enclosure during the trial. He cannot receive visits from legal counsel or family members because, as his lawyer puts it, one word from him could set off street protests and “the street is already an incredible mess”.

Instead of exploring these or other interesting issues brought into the frame by the release of the tape and by its contents, followers of the situation in Egypt were shocked by the coverage of several media organisations that simply toe the junta’s line. It seems that they did not check the dialogue independently.

The junta’s line is that the president is “broken” and asking for “money”. It is shocking how they have deduced this from a conversation where the president instructs his lawyer to demand the court to overrule the draconian measures instituted by prison authorities whereby they have refused to accept deposits from Morsi’s family into his prison account.

Egypt’s prisons provide very limited food and almost no services to a prisoner free of charge. Prisoners have to purchase food from the canteen using a prison account. The junta apparently wished to humble the president by blocking him from receiving funds that he could use for such purposes, and broadcasting to the public his protest against these conditions. To call him “broken” for protesting against this treatment is more wishful thinking than accurate reporting.

These biased media outlets also report that the president admitted the defeat of his supporters and agreed that their protests are futile. This is in reference to some dialogue where the attorney said that negotiations with the military are needed because the current strategy is not “producing results”. The president’s response was that they are not producing results “for either side”.

At that point the president brought up Al-Sisi’s promotion to Field Marshall and told his attorney that the general should be worried because having led a coup he is now likely to be subject to a coup. It is clear to anyone who reads the dialogue that the president is sending a message. Far from admitting defeat he actually told the general that he, more than the pro-democracy camp, needs to seek a negotiated solution before it is too late.

It has been said that one should not explain by malice something that may simply be explained by incompetence. Those Western media outlets that have swallowed the junta’s line wholesale, seemingly without checking the original video at all, appear to be engaging in very sloppy journalism.

In this they do a disservice not only to Egypt but to the international community which needs to understand the reality in the country and to distinguish that reality from a petty general’s dreams.