A panel discussion at the University of London chaired by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph brought together a range of critical views on the events in Egypt since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup on 3 July. Oborne was joined by Dr Maha Azzam of Chatham House, who was recently appointed as coordinator of Egyptians for Democracy; Nadia Abou El-Magd, a leading journalist and foreign correspondent; Jamal El-Shayyal, a producer at Al-Jazeera English; and Ayman Moheyldin, a correspondent for NBC news.
Dr Azzam spoke first, describing the revolution as having failed. She explained that the revolution in 2011 was an attempt to fight corruption, but in July of this year that fight against corruption was lost. She pointed out that the numbers of those protesting against Morsi’s government on 30 June were inflated by the military, as many others have argued, but pressed home the more important point – that those people who did take to the streets were calling for an election, not a coup. Since the downfall of Morsi and his elected government, human rights organisations and international bodies have raised numerous concerns about the human rights abuses taking place in Egypt. Describing these abuses as “rife”, Dr Azzam noted that some believe human rights are being violated more now than they were under former President Hosni Mubarak. In light of these abuses, she also drew attention to the UK’s resumption of arms sales, and the funnelling of arms to Egypt, despite the military crackdown. Ending on a sombre note, Dr Azzam warned that the “political atmosphere dictates that there will be no free and fair elections in Egypt” anytime soon.
Nadia Abou El-Magd, a leading Egyptian journalist who is now based in Doha, Qatar, explored how the media was supporting the coup. She explained that the media was not only propagating the lies being put out by the coup, but also disseminating a campaign of incitement to dehumanise and demonise President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. She explained that General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is so close to the media in Egypt that no one is willing to speak out against him. In fact, the media have been doing all they can to support his power. El-Magd went on to argue that the Egyptian media in general had never been in favour of any revolutionary change, not even in 2011, because business people who are part of the “deep state” control the media in Egypt. Thus s described the media struggle in Egypt as a battler to tell the truth.
Whilst El-Magd explained how most of the media in Egypt were bent to the tune of the military, Jamal El-Shayyal argued that there was one source in Egypt that has genuinely tried to provide continuous and reliable coverage of the events to the international community: Al-Jazeera. El-Shayyal, who reported live for Al-Jazeera English throughout the coup, was able to give an eye-witness account of what really happened in those tumultuous days. He drew attention to some of the difficulties still facing Al-Jazeera network, noting that a cameraman was due to stand trial with one of the charges actually being “possessing a camera”. Perhaps more harrowing was his description of the journalist who essentially filmed his own death when shot by military snipers. El-Shayyal also described how the military fired at people praying outside the republican guard’s palace, but noted that despite the evidence and eyewitness reports, some journalists could not believe that the military would act in such a manner and therefore “outright denied it”, refusing to even acknowledge the possibility. As the days passed he noticed that the protests in Al-Nahda and Rabba Al-Adawiya turned from pro-Morsi protests to pro-democracy protests, even though the international media refused to call them thus for fear of taking sides. But the cry is now for a return to a legitimate democracy. And it is within this context that El-Shayyal believes the military have demonised Al-Jazeera, encouraging people to attack the network’s offices.
Before starting his own remarks, Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC news, and formerly Al-Jazeera English, polled the audience to find out how many people defined it as a coup and how many called it a revolution. The vast majority of the audience acknowledged that it was a coup, but there were a number of people calling it a revolution. Perhaps as a nod to this, Mohyeldin coined a new phrase, the “coupvolution”, and said that what had happened in Egypt was not black and white, arguing that events could not be simply described as a coup. He noted that the international media reactions consistently challenged the coup, and he also explained that their coverage and operations are now being severely limited and restricted as a result. He commented on the US reaction to the coup in particular, noting US Secretary of State John Kerry’s dramatic reversal of Washington’s cautious position a few weeks ago, when he declared that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked the 25 January Revolution. But Mohyeldin concluded by pointing out that it should not really come as a surprise that foreign policy is driven by interests, not human rights concerns.
After the panel discussion, a lively question and answer session gave opportunity to a range of voices both for and against the coup. As in Egypt, opinions in the audience were diverse, and emotions were sometimes high, but the event yesterday gave everybody the opportunity to share their thoughts on how and why events in Egypt had come to play out. Egyptians have become markedly divided over their support or opposition to the coup, and the panel members noted with sadness that people no longer knew how to disagree without severing ties from one another. Moheyldin summed this up by noting that Egypt today was by no means an inclusive society.