From Cairo to London to DC: Please, knock it off

This commentary was contributed by Dr H.A. Hellyer, non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and ISPU, who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer. Had I not been traveling in the last few days I might have written something very similar.

There are times that myths circulate so fast; it is hard to keep track of them. In the midst of an extraordinary amount of coverage on Egypt, I was asked for my evaluation of a particular piece, recently published in what I considered to be a respectable media outlet. As I wrote my assessment, I realised that I’d seen those same problems – the same narrative – time and time again in different places. Rather than keep my assessment private, I thought I would turn it into a plea to my colleagues and friends in the media and the think-tank/policy arena.

The plea reads: please knock it off when it comes to your Egypt coverage, and check your sources and facts before you publish in the interests of being ‘balanced’. Believe me: in the long run, you’ll be grateful you did. In the short-run, you probably will too: these Egyptian folks are not tameable, as a friend put it. When they’re misrepresented, except immediate and full retaliation with the full force of the Egyptian wit, sarcasm, and scorn. Trust me: you do not want to be on the other side of that.

Here are a few odd things I’ve noted recently in the Western press. Even my own British press, which I tend to, of course, view as head and shoulders above the rest – and haven’t you lot really let me down lately. You know you who are. Seriously, guys.

  • There seems to be a doubt that these protests were about President Morsi’s decree on the 22nd of November, as though they would have happened anyway. That’s an intriguing suggestion, considering that from the 30th of June 2012, to the 22nd of November 2012, there were virtually no protests against Mr Morsi. So, for 5 months, despite calls for protests from pro-Shafiq elements in August, one could not really find much in the way of street action in Egypt. Odd, that.
  • No matter. Mr Morsi is the ‘elected president of Egypt’ and as such should be able to expect two things: a) that he can give himself supra-legal powers, as stipulated in the decree and b) that we constantly remind ourselves and the world around that he is the ‘elected president of Egypt’. Well, of course, he is the elected president of Egypt – he won the elections in June 2012, in a race where I supported his victory, and I have no regrets over that decision today. Nevertheless, more than 48% of the votes (i.e., pretty much half) went to his opponent – and many who did vote for Mr Morsi, did so to keep his opponent out. That’s not generally referred to as a strong democratic mandate: it’s probably better described as a weak democratic band-aid. Mr Morsi should not have used that slim electoral victory as a sign that he could work outside of the system, as the military council had. My criticisms of that council’s handling of the transition are a matter of public record: but they did have popular support for their institution, as well as their road-map. Mr Morsi did not, and would have been well-advised to have built that support by encouraging consensus, at a critical time for Egypt’s transition, if he wanted to go outside the normal political and legal channels of Egypt’s institutions. Instead, much of his own cabinet (let alone outside of it) didn’t seem to know about his decree before it was delivered.
  • There’s the supposition that the opposition is a motley crew of liberal secularists, nationalists, youth groups, and holdovers from the Mubarak regime; while, of course, the president’s government (all good God-fearing folk) would never have anything to do with former Mubarak supporters. How intriguing, considering the MB has been working with Mubarak-era ‘remnants’ for months, in order to bolster its power within the state. Fancy that.
  • Even more intriguing, this narrative never seems to recognise that on the opposition side, there are (gasp) deeply religious Muslims (and Christians), and also Islamists like [Abdel Moneim] Aboul Futuh. How utterly nonsensical that might be, particularly in a country that is about 90–85% Muslim, and 15–10% Christian. Hey, does that mean the opposition is actually more demographically representative than the MB? (Don’t answer that one.)
    There is, however, a type of religious divide here – one that should be pointed out. One side believes it has a monopoly on what ‘Islam’ is, and what ‘enmity towards Islam’ is. For this side, there is no issue in declaring that ‘their’ dead are in heaven, and the dead of the opposition are in hell. The other side, however, has this odd notion that God alone knows who is in heaven and hell, and that while there are undoubtedly requirements for entering one place or the next, it’s somewhat dubious to consider party-political affiliation to be one of them. Most of them also happen to be Muslims, and so do not particularly appreciate being described as being ‘against Islam’ (very sensitive these folks are, you see).
  • Tragically, polarisation in this crisis has led to deaths. More repugnant than tragic, however, has been the attempt to describe all the dead as being members of the MB. The Christian doctor who was killed was, it should be assumed, not a particularly likely candidate for an Islamist party that is tacking further and further to the right. The journalist who was killed seemed to keep his affiliations very well hidden: his fiancée and several members of his family were under the distinct impression he opposed the MB. Seeking ‘victory’ even in death brings a new meaning to the word ‘low’.
  • The opposition leadership should have gone to the national dialogue. But it is somewhat easy to see why they did not feel particularly endeared to the invitation; after all, while they were being invited by one hand of the government, another hand was issuing calls from the prosecutor general’s office for them to be investigated for crimes. Moreover, it did not seem they were really needed: the presidency managed to find 54 ‘national’ and ‘legal’ figures to participate instead. Never mind that none of them were significant leaders of the opposition or protest movement – nor that the ‘representative’ of the national dialogue was, actually, a presidential advisor to Mr Morsi only a few days before. Yes, he must have had the opposition’s interests at heart.
  • The fact they did not go, incidentally, is not a sign that they are seeking to overthrow Mr Morsi, and do not recognise him as the legitimate president of this country. The leadership figures of the opposition have been very clear; they want Mr Morsi to stay and do his job, not be overthrown. I’m not sure how many times they need to say that, or perhaps they might want to repeat in several languages to be heard. 
- But back to this process: where the president’s supporters have indicated that a lack of ‘respect towards democracy’ is at the heart of the opposition’s motives, seeing as they rejected the referendum the president insisted go ahead. Because, of course, 15 days is more than enough for a population which is more than 30% illiterate, going through clashes where people have died, millions of people on the street in process over this constitution, to go through a document that is more than 200 articles and confusing for even the legalistically literate to understand… right. Very undemocratic of them to suggest it might be for the best of the country to reduce polarisation, rather than increase it. Naughty opposition.
  • But of course, they are naughty: because they should simply ‘trust’ the President. They should have ‘trusted’ the president, as his supporters suggested, when he gave himself freedom from judicial review – because, after all, he’s a good guy, and he needs to be given time. So, when he ‘commits’ himself to asking the new parliament to amend disputed clauses, the opposition should ‘trust’ him.
    Just as they should have trusted the president when he declared, after taking office, that he would not put the constitution to a referendum without national consensus. (Umm.)
    Just as they should have trusted him when he declared he would have a Christian vice-president – and a female vice president. (Still waiting on that one/two.)
    Just as they should have trusted him when he, and the rest of his movement, declared that the MB would not put forward a presidential candidate (they put forward two). Trust does not go a long way in politics at the best of times, it seems.
  • But that should not matter: because a majority of Egyptians, according to ‘opinion polls’ support the president, and have supported him throughout this latest crisis. I’m perhaps somewhat dubious about this one, considering that senior members of the Freedom and Justice party use Facebook polls to justify support levels…
- Perhaps the cherry on top of this really tasty cake is the idea that the opposition is generally made up of people who a) are in cahoots with foreign powers who seek to neuter a strong Egypt, in pursuit of an imperialist agenda in the Middle East and b) seek to marginalise, or exclude Islamists from the Egyptian public sphere.

When all else fails, it seems, it’s easy to rely on foreign conspiracies, and forget that the opposition counts among them staunch Egyptian patriots. As for the exclusion accusation – that’s kind of weird, considering much of the opposition fought for the MB when they were the ones in jail, and many of them aggressively supported Mr Morsi against Shafiq in the run-offs. They obviously got the wrong memo.

There is much to criticise the opposition on. I could probably write quite a few pieces on that subject myself – but misrepresenting them does not help anyone’s cause. On the contrary: Egypt, one would think, is big enough for all of them. As the Western media continues to cover this country, one would also think, they might ponder upon that – and report accordingly. Just might.