The Middle East Channel

On Egypt, the truth is the greatest victim

One could have written "in Egypt," the truth is the greatest victim: but in truth, the level of misinformation with regards to coverage on Egypt, be it written in Egypt or abroad, is incredible. Over the last week, it has become clear that time-honored analysts on Egyptian affairs could spend their entire day simply issuing clarifications on misleading, or simply wrong, media. Such misinformation is not coming from simply one source, or from one "side" of the political divide -- but all sides, for various reasons, and with magnificent intensity. What is striking is that the clarifications would not necessitate much in the way of research -- it would only require a limited amount of familiarity with Egypt over the past three years. Instead, overnight, it seems that commentators and analysts who wrote and published virtually nothing on Egypt in the past year (let alone the past three) have become noted authorities -- with more often than not, abysmal results. In the process, truth itself, on Egypt is the greatest victim. 

As noted, there is no "one" side in this discussion that escapes unscathed. The pro-Mohamed Morsi camp, whether in Egypt or abroad, is pushing a narrative of the past year which is truly bizarre -- at its best, it promotes Morsi as a model democrat, who did nothing to deserve the animosity that so many in Egypt feel against him, even after having backed him and the Muslim Brotherhood in presidential and parliamentary elections. His failings, if any, are limited to incompetency, aggravated by his opponents' willingness to see him fail, and perhaps some rashness. The extra-legal decree, suspending judicial review; the constitutional writing process and referendum; nepotism; the crackdown on media personalities and activists who were opposed to him; the toleration of and acquiescence to sectarian and violent incitement; all of that is somehow swept under the rug, as though it was unimportant to the "larger" democratic project. After all, he won at the ballot box, so the rest is at best collateral damage, and at worst, didn't happen. Quite.

On the flip side are much, if not all, of the anti-Morsi camp, who do not fail to remind us all of the above. That's all well and good, but when it comes to pointing out the structural issues that Morsi would have had to face down, they minimize it entirely. Indeed, for the past year, the narrative in much of this camp has been that the "deep state" of Hosni Mubarak collapsed then, and that Egypt was essentially a clean slate. That, of course, is a fallacy -- the "deep state" and former Mubarak networks did not collapse. They simply took a beating, which is why they failed to mobilize around parliamentary elections properly; but by the time presidential elections came around, they had regrouped, and struck back, leading to such a split decision between Morsi and Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. To underestimate their power is foolhardy -- but, alas, it seems that even the Muslim Brotherhood itself did that.

The narrative over the June 30 protests is equally polarized. For the pro-Morsi camp, the protests were essentially engineered, the numbers did not reach very substantial proportions, Morsi had at least as much support from the population to remain in office, and no matter what he had done, his forceful overthrow was assured. For his opponents, the mobilization was entirely organic, the numbers exceeded 33 million, and Morsi rebuffed every single attempt to compromise. In reality, parts of both narratives actually reveal the truth. The protest movement plugged into an existing swell of anti-Morsi sentiment, due to popular dissatisfaction with his performance -- and then the movement was aided and assisted by many different parts of society which gave it amplification in the media, as well as providing financial assistance. But amplification did not mean it was not already there -- Egyptians at large were unhappy with Morsi's rule. They almost definitely did not reach 33 million on the streets -- but we are talking millions, and probably over 15 million did. Pro-Morsi protesters could not claim to have brought out even half that amount. Finally, Morsi did have the chance -- actually, several chances -- to defuse the situation, right up until the end, and even stay in office. It was still in his hands -- and he refused to do so, thinking that he would be able to hold on, regardless of popular pressure, as well as the organized forces against him.

The same can be said about the last week. Pro-Morsi campaigners insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-violent and has no weaponry, and they focus all attention on the killings that took place at the pro-Morsi sit-in in front of the Republican Guard, at the hands of state forces. On the other side, anti-Morsi commentators argue that the Brotherhood is essentially a militia; that the sit-in was armed; and that the Brotherhood tries to redirect attention to the deaths that have taken place elsewhere at the hands of pro-Morsi activists. The media in Egypt is primarily imbued with the latter, with little nuance -- the international media and pro-Morsi outlets in the region are generally concerned only with the first narrative. 

Again, reality lies in between, and with elements of both. The Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly has weaponry -- such was evident when the headquarters was attacked during the uprising. However, there is really no evidence that heavy weaponry was at the sit-in -- at best, according to eye-witnesses and civil rights groups, the weaponry was mediocre and much of it homemade. Certainly, it would be difficult for anyone to justify the break up of a sit-in, resulting in dozens of casualties, with the level of firepower used by the army. One suspects that privately the state agrees, and that this was a mistake arising from a tense situation and probably Morsi-supporters resisting arrest -- but we will probably never hear that line in any state broadcast. At the same time, the reality is that on top of this tragedy, many civilians have been attacked, and killed, by pro-Morsi forces around the country in the past week -- and the killings are often sectarian.

Of course, recognizing the truth of both narratives, at the moment, is unthinkable. Sins of omission, as well as commission, are rife -- either due to unfamiliarity with Egypt altogether, or clearly partisan agendas. Objective media is, unfortunately, rare indeed.

The importance of that kind of coverage and analysis cannot be overestimated at such a crucial time -- not simply because good information is rare to come by, but because so much poor disinformation is so utterly common. On Egypt, right now, truth really is the greatest victim. It is a victim worth rescuing, and right now, it seems that the best source of information is going to be direct access to eyewitnesses of particular controversies, as well as civil rights and human rights organizations.

That small, but imperative, community of advocates has never been more important than it is now: civil rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch in Egypt, with the untiring efforts of the likes of Heba Morayef, as do the likes of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, headed by Hossam Bahgat, remain critical. They will probably be smeared as "un-Egyptian" -- but what could be more patriotic than calling your rulers to account, according to the law, especially considering these organizations have done similarly under Mubarak, Tantawi, and Morsi? Their reporting of abuses never stopped -- and it is not likely to now. These advocates will be lone voices, for a time: but in the future, Egypt is likely to regard them as having saved a not so insignificant part of the Egyptian truth.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.

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The Middle East Channel

Egyptian prosecutors reopen Morsi’s 2011 prison escape case

Supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and opponents are planning rival protests Friday, the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Since Morsi's removal over a week ago, more than 90 people have been killed in violence, including over 50 Islamists killed Monday by Egyptian troops. The army defended its role in the clashes later on Thursday releasing a video of events and suggesting a Muslim Brotherhood propaganda campaign. The video, however, has a gap between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., when most of the deaths occurred. The United Nations and United States have expressed concern over the "arbitrary" arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members after the Egyptian military released warrants for the arrests of Mohammed Badie and nine other leading Islamists on Wednesday. On Thursday, Egyptian prosecutors said they are renewing an investigation into the 2011 prison escape of Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood members during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Syria

Rivalries have expanded within Syria's opposition after the killing of a top Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander. Senior member of the FSA's Supreme Military Council, Kamal Hamami (also known as Abu Bassel al-Ladkani), was reportedly killed by a rival Islamist group after meeting in Latakia with members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to "discuss battle plans." Members of the council said they will meet Friday to discuss the killing. FSA political coordinator Louay Almokdad called for the groups responsible to "hand us over those who killed Hamami." There has been fighting between opposition groups before, however fractures have grown as the FSA has increasingly worked to distance itself from Islamist factions in order to secure funding and weapons deliveries from the United States. Late Thursday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition released a statement complaining that "elements in the U.S. Congress" are obstructing the delivery of arms shipments committed by President Obama.

Headlines

  • A series of attacks across Iraq Thursday, including car bombings and checkpoint shootings, have killed 51 people, mainly security forces and Shiites.
  • Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has accused the Israeli army of illegally detaining a five-year-old Palestinian boy who the army said had been endangering people by throwing rocks.

Arguments and Analysis

The Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi' (Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Foreign Affairs)

"It is tough to say whether the military's dismissal of Morsi was legitimate. Morsi was elected in generally free and fair elections, and in democracies the outcome of the ballot box must be respected. But Egypt is not an established democracy. When the military intervened, it was against a president whose power was not subject to effective institutional checks and balances and whose commitment to democratic values was uncertain. For good or ill, a combination of popular mobilization and military intervention has altered the balance of power and granted the secular groups that were bested by Islamists in recent elections a greater voice in shaping Egypt's new political order. Military intervention broke the link between democracy and Islamist hegemony, creating the space for the establishment of a new order founded on a constitution that defends individual rights and on some power-sharing formula that prevents any group -- whether the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, or some other force -- from monopolizing power in the future. 

Yet the prospects for Egypt's ‘rebooted' transition are dim if the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to take part in it. Unfortunately, the speed and alacrity with which the army has pursued and arrested Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders could be the marks of a witch hunt. And the military's use of lethal force against pro-Morsi demonstrators in recent days will make the Muslim Brotherhood's reintegration into the political system even more difficult. More broadly, the military's hastily conceived road map is conspicuously opaque on key issues such as the criteria that will be used to determine who can propose and review changes to the constitution. And even liberals who supported the military intervention are dismayed that it grants unchecked power to the interim president.

Going forward, the leaders of the interim government must do their best to convince the Muslim Brotherhood -- or at least some factions within it -- that the benefits of participating in the new order exceed those of continued protest and abstention. This will likely require intensive negotiations with senior Brotherhood leaders who are now in detention and may ultimately entail granting Morsi a formal or advisory position in the new government. If Egypt's new power holders fail to bring the Muslim Brotherhood on board, they risk creating a system that is just as exclusionary, and hence just as vulnerable to disruption, as that of the Morsi government they managed to displace."

The Case for Cutting off Aid to Egypt' (Ali Gharib, The Daily Beast)

"Aside from the heady debate about, as Abrams put it, remaining a ‘nation of law' in order to encourage the same in Egypt, several little discussed factors should strengthen the case for cutting off aid. Dispensing with some of the objections helps to illuminate this case.

A common complaint is that such a move would reduce American leverage. Where was this leverage over the military before it carried out a coup? Before the decades of repressive military rule under Mubarak? Who knows. More to the point, an aid cut-off could actually increase leverage. Here's how: P.L. 112-74 stipulates that ‘assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.' 

Since the Egyptian military's ‘road map' for this transition stipulates that new elections should take place within six months, that actually means Egypt might not lose out on much aid at all. ‘Military aid to Egypt for 2013' -- which constitutes the bulk of the cash - ‘was already disbursed back in May, and there likely wouldn't be another round of funding until next spring,' reported Brad Plumer. That quite nicely corresponds with the military's timetable, meaning the military aid would actually flow on schedule if the promised elections are held and power turned over. Some of the paltry non-military aid to Egypt might get stalled, but even the portion of non-military aid dedicated to democracy promotion can still slip thought because it is exempted in P.L. 112-74."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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