Published in Ahram Online on September 3, 2013
Western media misunderstood the Brotherhood and underestimated Egyptians’ desire for democracy and social justice
One of the signs of the crisis that Egypt is currently going through is the gap between the vision of a large portion of Egyptians that revolted against Mohamed Morsi on 30 June and that of Western media coverage of Egyptian events.
Despite the fact that this dissonance initially revolved around the term “coup,” I believe the core of the problem is not related to how the army’s move was characterised, as much as to how the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed by each group. By following some of the English-language international media, I was able to document the following few points that illustrate some of the differences between both perspectives.
Western media viewed president Morsi as an elected president who acquired his legitimacy through free and fair elections. And while they acknowledged that his one-year term in office left much to be desired, they still believed that Egyptians should have given him a chance to complete his term, and in the event that failures continued, they would have another chance to remove him at the next presidential elections.
By contrast, many Egyptians, myself included, believed that rebelling against an elected president did, indeed, carry many risks, including challenging the principle of the peaceful transition of power, which is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Yet we believed that democracy had already been threatened by Morsi’s reckless decisions, starting with his contentious constitutional decree whereby he effectively declared himself above the law, to the appointment of an attorney general who was not respected by prosecutors nor society, to waging a war against the Constitutional Court and working towards overturning it. Our biggest fear was that the door of freedom would be slammed shut, and we felt that at this rate, we might not have the opportunity for another round elections in which we could vote him out of office.
There were also those Western journalists whose sympathy with the January 25 Revolution led them to consider the Muslim Brotherhood a revolutionary faction that had triumphed and ended up in power thanks to its organisational and administrative skills. By contrast, many Egyptians, myself included, never regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as a revolutionary force and constantly doubted their belief in the principles of the January revolution.
For the Brotherhood is a conservative organisation seeking reform not revolution. Their year in office revealed the extent of their animosity to the revolution, an animosity that manifested itself when they arrested revolutionary figures and sent them to jail, when they colluded with the Ministry of Interior in the Mohamed Mahmoud Street massacre, and when they condoned the crimes perpetrated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), particularly the Maspero massacre.
Many Western journalists also saw in the Muslim Brotherhood a political faction with a right to enjoy the new found political freedom ushered in by the revolution. On the other hand, like many Egyptians, I saw a big difference between the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which I believe has the right to participate in politics, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been described by its founder more than six decades ago as a “Salafist movement, a Sunni way of life, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, a sports club and a scientific association.” And we had our suspicions about the relationship between the FJP, whose candidate won the presidency, and this amorphous organisation which takes the Quran and two swords as its logo, and we always suspected the relationship between the presidential palace and the office of the supreme guide of the Brotherhood, which runs the organisation and about which we know next to nothing.
The most visible evidence of this elusive relationship was when the supreme guide whispered in Morsi’s ear during one of the latter’s speeches, dictating to him what he should say, a scene that revealed to many that what controls Mohamed Morsi was not his relationship with the people, but rather with this mysterious, unelected man.
Many Western journalists also regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as a charitable organisation with strong grassroots connections, something that allowed it to step in and fill the gap that resulted from the state’s failure to provide basic services in the fields of education, health and others. And of course, this strategy was one of the factors that helped the Brotherhood win the parliamentary elections. Yet running an elections campaign with the aim of attracting votes is one thing, running a country is another.
Foreign journalists did not recognise the degree of resentment felt by many Egyptians as a result of the unfair policies practised by the Brotherhood after they had assumed power, and according to which they rewarded their supporters by giving them key government posts (Brotherhoodisation of the state) while denying others basic goods and services.
Having missed the deep suspicions we had of the intimate link between the FJP and the Brotherhood, many Western journalists also undermined our anxieties regarding this mysterious, non-inclusive organisation. For the Muslim Brotherhood is not a political party that any Egyptian citizen, even if he were a Muslim, could join once s/he believes in its principles; rather it is more akin to a sect that one cannot join except after close personal vetting and only after being sponsored by one of its existing members.
Among the most significant differences in the perception of Western media and that of many Egyptian citizens was the belief shared by many journalists (and here they are joined by many politicians and policy makers in the West) that our region is deeply conservative and religious by nature; that the Muslim Brotherhood is the best representation of this conservative and pious essence; and that while it would have been better, in the interest of achieving stability, to have an “enlightened” secular elite lead the countries of the region, these elites, unlike the Brotherhood, are alienated from their societies, far removed from their people and unconcerned with their real problems.
By contrast, many Egyptians refused this characterisation of their society, the “elites,” and the Brotherhood. They believe that Egyptian society might be conservative, yet the Egyptian revolution, unfolding over the past two and a half years, is best proof of Egyptians’ desire for freedom and a more equitable system of social justice. They also believe that the “elites” are not detached from their societies, nor is their secularism the most important or defining features, for these elites also include Islamists and deeply pious figures, figures whose religiosity and piety is at odds with that of the Brotherhood.
But the most important difference setting both perspectives apart is the West’s prioritising of stability over freedom, and the very narrow definition it has of democracy, a definition that limits it to voting, and one which Amr Ezzat brilliantly described by his neologism “ballotocracy.” For while many Western journalists accepted, mostly unwittingly, the Brotherhood’s own belief that the revolution had ended after we cast our ballots in the parliamentary then the presidential elections that were soon followed by the referendum on the constitution, a large faction of Egyptians believed, by contrast, that the revolution did not erupt only to hold elections or to bring in new faces to the political scene, but to change the rules of the entire political game.
And since the revolution has not yet succeeded in establishing these new rules, these journalists need to buckle up and brace themselves for what will surely be a long and bumpy ride. Our revolution is still in its very early stages.