-Taken from the New Statesman
-Cairo - January 2010
Here's a thought experiment: pick a random Middle Eastern country led by an unpopular autocrat whose legitimacy is being challenged by a growing wave of public dissent. Add in widespread allegations of electoral fraud, and increasingly violent confrontations on the street between protestors and security services - clashes which have left many civilians dead. Now imagine this politically volatile state is a major player in the area, and that change at the top could have an explosive effect on the geopolitical dynamics of the entire region. How much press coverage in the west do you think it would receive?
For the sake of convenience, let's keep things manageable by narrowing that down a bit -- how many news articles do you think such a country would generate in the British broadsheets over the years 2008 and 2009? If you guessed at 7,098 then well done, you're spot on. Pub quiz aficionados may also wish to jot down the figure of 3,305 -- an equally correct answer.
Confused? So are many Egyptians, who have seen their intense and sometimes deadly struggle against the repressive regime that rules them almost completely sidelined by the international media. Not only has their country garnered less than half the newsprint splashed over Iran in the past two years, but the vast majority of Egypt-focused articles tend to concentrate on issues relating to tourism or archaeology, whereas nearly all the Iranian coverage is political in nature.
When we boil the figures down to hard news, the chasm between the media's fetishising of Iran and their cool disinterest in Egypt yawns even wider. In June 2009 -- the month where disputed Iranian elections brought thousands of anti-government protestors into conflict with riot police and left blood running through the streets -- Iran was featured in 742 articles. In April 2008 - the month where an attempted Egyptian general strike brought thousands of anti-government protestors into conflict with riot police and left blood running through the streets -- Egypt made an appearance in 28 pieces, almost none of which mentioned Mahalla (the town at the heart of the unrest).
Of course this sort of content analysis is highly subjective and open to interpretation. Moreover the circumstances in Iran and Egypt are by no means identical, and can hardly be expected to inspire a perfectly matching number of column inches. Yet popular feeling against the Mubarak oligarchy here is just as real as anti-Ahmedinejad sentiment in Iran, and the potential for monumental political upheaval just as substantial.
There is no space in this forum to detail all the ways in which the unelected political elite of the Arab World's biggest country consistently rejects democratic freedoms, subverts the rule of law to protect its hegemony, and encroaches on the human rights of its citizens day in, day out - although a brief perusal of this week's country report on Egypt by Human Rights Watch would provide a taste - the organisation has helpfully pointed out that despite the media frenzy over the number of post-election arbitrary detentions in Iran, Egypt's estimated tally of detentions without charge is 150% higher.
Nor is there room to run through the breadth and strength of the grassroots backlash these injustices have triggered in Egypt, from the spread of a strike wave so large it has been labelled "the largest social movement the Middle East has seen in half a century", to the recent and astonishing trend of local communities not only facing down the bullets and tear gas of the riot police, but doing so with such vigour that fleeing security officers have been forced to bunker down in their own headquarters for protection from the masses.
Anyone who rejects the premise that Egypt is as unstable as Iran is urged to take a look at the spine-tingling photos and videos of demonstrations against Mubarak in Mahalla back in April 2008, including the iconic image of hundreds of angry Egyptians bearing down with their feet on a flattened poster of the president. They are eerily reminiscent of the scenes accompanying the fall of dozens of 20th century dictators, from Saddam to the former Soviet bloc. And yet they have barely been seen outside Egypt, in common with the face of Mohamed ElBaradei -- a Nobel Laureate who is spearheading the opposition movement against Mubarak, yet whose unexpected leadership challenge has also been largely ignored in the west. Whichever way you splice the figures, the disparity in media attention between Cairo and Tehran is inescapable and only one conclusion can be made: western media outlets apply vastly different editorial judgements on these two countries, and as a result readers at home are consuming a heavily skewed diet of Middle Eastern news. The issue is not, as some have suggested, over why Egyptians remain so placid in the face of oppression from their political masters - they don't. The question is why nobody cares.
The short answer is that Mubarak and his acolytes are grossly misunderstood in the west, partly as a result of highly effective lobbying by professional outfits in London, Washington and the other corridors of power. The Egyptian government is listed as a client by two top K-Street lobbying firms, the Podesta and Livingston Groups, and although the exact cost of their services is confidential the fact that Podesta charged up to $13m over ten years to help the Turkish government persuade movers and shakers on Capitol Hill that there was no such thing as an Armenian genocide suggests that the Egyptian regime is shelling out an awful lot on polishing its image (meanwhile, one third of Egyptian children are suffering from malnutrition).
The deeper answer though is that Mubarak's PR people are able to do such a good job because the vision they project of the ruling NDP party ticks all the boxes when it comes to western policy-maker wish-lists. Mubarak, they insist, is a force for stability in a tempestuous neighbourhood; without him, the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep to power and light the fuse of Islamist revolution across the region. He is also praised as a financial reformer, a gutsy friend of the free market who has dragged Egypt kicking and screaming into the global economy and has dazzling growth rates to show for it.
This is all false; as has been patiently argued time and again by independent analysts, think tanks and some better-informed journalists, the Muslim Brotherhood is a vastly complex and diffuse organisation that forms only one part of a wide-ranging Egyptian opposition movement, and there is no reason to think it would command majority support in the event of genuinely fair elections. Meanwhile the presumed existence of this Islamist Sword of Damocles gives Mubarak carte blanche in the international arena to arrest and torture his opponents and render dissidents invisible. When it comes to the economy, despite more money than ever flowing into Egypt's borders no less than 90 per cent of the population has got poorer in real terms under his watch, and the number of individuals living below the poverty line has doubled.
Unstinting western support for such a despotic, corrupt and crony cabal against the will of its people is not a force for stability, it is a recipe for disaster. Yet the western backing of the NDP and relentless promotion of Mubarak as a 'moderate' continues, to the tune of $2bn a year from Washington -- more money than any other recipient of US aid, bar Israel.
So much for the western policy framework. What's scary is the extent to which the stance of the western media mirrors the values of our political masters, following blindly when they should be thinking sceptically, leaving battles shrouded in darkness where they should be shining a light. Against a backdrop of immense turmoil, what topics have the international press chosen to write about in Egypt over the past couple of years? Artificial hymens, Beyonce concerts, and the pyramids have all figured high on the list, alongside a multitude of other cultural 'colour' stories designed to put a smile on your face over breakfast. The slightest hint of opposition activity in Iran is guaranteed acres of coverage, whereas the equivalent in Egypt will only be permitted a mention if it fits with the preconceived prism of Egypt as a relatively tranquil space, disrupted only by the strange and often comedic fallout from an ongoing war between secular and religiously conservative values. Hence debates over the niqab and the slaughtering of pigs make the grade, whereas policemen shooting dead unarmed civilians or hundreds of thousands of workers going on strike over the impact of government neoliberal reform projects are left buried in obscurity.
What's so disheartening is not the fact that foreign editors have to use filters, both consciously and subconsciously, to sift through all the news coming out of a country and decide what's fit to print, but rather that the filters they use, even in the supposedly liberal media, seem to provide cover for and chime so closely with the policy stance of western politicians -- which are in turn aligned with Mubarak's propaganda. Allowing dictators to set the news values when it comes to coverage of their countries isn't just a disservice to readers; just as the media take their cue from politicians, so politicians let their priorities be shaped by the media. This helps create an endlessly reverberating media/politics echo chamber where a skewed perspective on the state of affairs in a place like Egypt is constantly reinforced by both politicians and journalists alike, which all feeds back into the very problem that fuels it. Were the British public to be more conscious of the political realities in a destination that over a million of them visit each year on holiday, the British government might be a bit more wary of showering Mubarak with public praise. As it is, journalists and politicians treat him with kid-gloves; this is 'churnalism' at its most destructive.
Conspiracy theorists can look away now. As a journalist who reports for British newspapers from Cairo, I'm only too aware of the difficulty in assessing the news value of stories from far-flung places, and how inevitable it is that the tone of coverage gets coloured by the political landscape at home. But it's precisely because of that inevitability, because it's so much smoother to follow the herd, that makes it imperative for the media to question their government's perspective on what matters. Because by working in Egypt, I've also been made aware of how often dramatic events here are sidelined by the press whilst equivalent developments in Iran provoke major headlines, simply because western governments have currently thrown in their lot with one totalitarian leader and pitted themselves against another. The end result is fact-distortion and myth-making; as Bertrand Russell put it:
“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”It may be easier to let the timbre and beat of international journalism follow the well-worn groove of political consensus, but that doesn't make it right. Those reading and watching at home deserve better. So do those who have died in pursuit of justice and freedom, wherever they may be.