Reading the reports from the mainstream media covering the popular uprising in Egypt over the last few weeks, one cannot but notice that the general undertone conveys a similar theme – a decisive scepticism over the ability of the Egyptian people to bring about democracy in their own country. The revolution will either bring about Islamic rule, as the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as the most powerful electoral force, or the army retain control after Mubarak steps down and the situation will essentially remain the same. Either way, the Egyptians are not ready for true democracy and scepticism about the movement’s chances of success abounds. However, reports coming in from the frontline in Tahrir Square through blogs, Facebook posts and tweets reveal a radically different picture – there are debates ongoing about parliamentary vs. presidential systems, constitutional reforms, programmes of political transition, etc. All in all, it seems that the Egyptians are much better at doing democracy then we in the West generally are. And, crucially, in an age of instant user generated web content and widespread access to the internet, this poses the question of how dominant mainstream media accounts of crises such as Egypt will remain.
Whilst there is a general consensus in the media that the protests should be applauded and Mubarak is evidently the villain, it seems that the experts wheeled out on channels such as the BBC, ABC and CNN have varying degrees of obsession with the threat of impending Islamic rule. As the inevitability of Mubarak’s departure became ever more apparent, the instant reflex of established British and US media outlets was to run endless features on the Muslim Brotherhood whilst drawing parallels with the Iranian revolution in 1979 that brought about Islamic rule. While the Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest opposition party, when one listens closely to the reports and interviews from Tahrir Square, they do not seem to be the dominant force within the protest movement at all. So why this focus on the Islamists?
According to Jeremy Paxman, interviewing Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed El Baradei on BBC’s Newsnight (09/02/2011), the Egyptian people do not have a culture of democracy. Throughout the interview, Paxman’s scepticism about the movement’s chances of success is so apparent it is surprising that El Baradei is able to hold his nerve. El Baradei however makes some excellent points, playing down the perceived role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests, appealing to universal democratic values and emphasising that the Western powers must show they are on the side of the Egyptian people, who possess enough talent to handle their own affairs.
In the same Newsnight broadcast that is entirely devoted to the Arab Revolution, Dr. Marwa Daoudy from Oxford University makes the point that it is precisely the secular Mubarak regime with Western backing that has allowed Islam to become a political force. According to Daoudy, the reason the Brotherhood been strengthened over the recent years is because the Mubarak regime has been viewed as a secular regime, backed by the US, which has allowed Mubarak to buy his loyalties and keep his regime in place. The people turned to religion simply because the Muslim Brotherhood – much like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – has stepped in to provide social services there where the government failed its own people. If Egypt were to see the birth of a democratic system with real institutions and transparent elections, there is no need for the people to turn to religion as a political identity.
The arrogance of Tony Blair and Paul Wolfowitz (respectively advocate and architect of the invasion on Iraq) on the matter is breathtaking. Tony Blair patronisingly applauds the protesters’ best intentions yet calls for “an ordered transition in such a way that produces order and stability in the region” after referring to Mubarak as a “staunch and courageous advocate for peace in the region” (Sky News, 31/01/2011). He then hails ex-general Omar Suleiman as potential successor. Paul Wolfowitz (BBC Newsnight, 11/02/2011) is much less able to hide the racist logic underlying Western discourse on the region, when he claims that the Egyptians “… have vindicated the view that Arabs are any different than other people”, in their quest for freedom. Whilst the BBC anchor makes an attempt to bring to light the hypocrisy of US foreign policy by asking Wolfowitz to comment on the US’ cosy relationship with the repressive Saudi regime, the BBC’s own discourse on the Egyptian protests does not differ sufficiently from the neo-con’s argument for this to be effective as critique.
The contrast with reports from the US community media collaboration that is Democracy Now is striking. Countless interviews with Egyptian journalists and activists on the front line of events, and hardly a mention of the Muslim Brotherhood at all. The focus here lies on revolutionary tactics, the freeing of journalists detained by the regime, the likelihood of Mubarak’s departure, and how people at the grassroots level expect the transition to free elections to take place. Crucially, the protests are not seen as some kind of spontaneous uprising of a mob that has simply had enough of an oppressive regime, but as the result of a series of strikes, walk-outs and mass demonstrations that have been going on for years and are carefully planned and organised. The reason that their coverage strikes a radically different tone is because media outlets such as Democracy Now rely precisely on what has made the uprising so successful – grassroots bloggers, social media websites and journalists who are also activists on the frontline.
Increased access to the internet has allowed for people to organise effectively at the grassroots level, but also to counter the narratives pushed by mainstream media outlets that are upholding a global status quo. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the incredible wealth of blogs have created a new pluralism, and given birth to communities of people circulating and editing their own news instantly. What is incredibly hopeful about the Egyptian revolution is that people are successfully countering what Noam Chomsky would call ‘the manufacturing of consent’, and are allowing information to move freely and rapidly from one part of the world to another, allowing for variety of views and perspectives that are genuinely grassroots and representative.
Koos Couvée writer based in London
Slavoj Zizek – ‘Multiculturalism or the Cultural logic of Late Capitalism – http://libcom.org/library/multiculturism-or-the-cultural-logic-of-multinational-capitalism-zizek
Adam Curtis – The Power Of Nightmares – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIRrMOpsdN4