I recently was interviewed by Dr. Alfonse Javed, host of the podcast Our Urban Voices. We spoke about the necessity of religious literacy in reporting on this often-troubled region, and how I go about my job. It runs about 35 minutes, and the topics are listed by timestamp, below.
Additionally, Isabella Meibauer interviewed me (among others) on a similar topic for her article in IJNet, “Tips for Reporting Ethically and Accurately from Abroad.”
Please click here for the link to the podcast, and click here for the link to the article. It is our privilege as journalists to represent the perspectives of our sources. Thanks for your interest, from time to time, in what we think as well.
Timestamped Show Notes:
01:41 – Topic: The Importance of Representing all Views in Journalism
01:50 – Family, from America to Lebanon
03:39 – A Day in the Life of a Journalist
06:59 – Reporting Complexities Fairly
08:56 – Representing 2% of Population
10:04 – What is Sympathetic Reporting?
10:28 – Hope, Reflection and Prayer
13:28 – Handling an Accusation of Bias
16:22 – Religion Impacting News in the Middle East
18:05 – Religion a Factor in Community Relations
18:23 – Religion a Factor in Politics
20:37 – Christians in the Middle East and Diaspora
21:37 – Relations Between Christian and Muslim Communities in the Middle East
23:17 – Religious Identity and Neighborliness
24:02 – Surprised by Christians in the Middle East
25:26 – Christians in Egypt
27:10 – Learning about the Middle Eastern Culture
27:46 – Cheaper Way to ‘Travel’ to the Middle East
28:04 – Middle Eastern Hospitality
28:22 – Connecting Middle Eastern Christians to Americans
So much in Egypt is zero sum. Nullify correctly, or change the equation.
During recent protests over the Red Sea islands, several journalists were arrested. Many were quickly released. But when police entered the syndicate to arrest two journalists staging a sit-in, the majority believe a line was crossed.
Police had a warrant, but allegedly broke protocol and press law.
As the syndicate calls for the dismissal of the Interior Minister, police accidentally revealed an internal memo on how to discredit journalists. Newspapers united to boycott the minister’s name and use his photo in negative. Escalation is threatened, while other activists are arrested.
God, it is human to struggle. Negotiation is a vital art. But restore to Egypt the trust and decency necessary to determine what is best for all.
Best, God, is a free society with vigilant police. Best is a discerned transparency with vigilant journalists.
There are many understandable barriers to what is best, with many and diverse interpretations. But save Egypt from the barrier of protecting turf. Save her from the barrier of manipulating exaggeration.
Save her from herself, but from within herself. Promote personnel who can forge consensus while identifying wrong.
Help Egypt reform widely, discipline accountably, and fight honorably.
Make no one a zero, God, but fix every fraction. Bless Egypt, and make her whole.
Double standards are human nature, but seem also to be evident among some of Egypt’s journalists. Consider these two articles from AhramOnline.
Two weeks ago President Sisi made a speech in which he criticized the media:
“I heard a media personality saying that the president was holding talks with representatives of foreign companies while Alexandria was sinking. Speaking like that is totally unacceptable. We can’t deal with our problems this way,” he said, referring to TV host Khaled Abu Bakr who criticised him during the flooding in Alexandria.
But the syndicate held its ground, and responded:
“Constructive criticism is the way to build a state with justice and freedom regardless of how strong it is or its nature or the person who is being criticised,” a statement issued by the syndicate read.
All well and good. But consider the syndicate’s reaction when a member receives apparent ‘constructive criticism’:
Egypt’s Press Syndicate announced on Monday its solidarity with the Chamber of Audiovisual Media Industry’s (CAMI) decision to ban lawyer and Zamalek Club chairman Mortada Mansour from appearing on its TV channels.
“We call on all journalists who are members of the syndicate to boycott any pressers held by Mansour as well as not report on any of his statements,” the syndicate said in a statement.
There is a history here, of course:
The Press Syndicate’s statement also announced its solidarity with CBC “especially since Mansour has returned to attacking journalists and media personalities.”
For his part, Mansour decided late Monday to cancel the membership of several prominent journalists at Zamalek Sport’s Club in response to the CAMI and Press Syndicate decision.
Mansour is certainly a firebrand, not averse to making controversial and often ill-founded statements. But what was his concern in this case?
Mansour had accused El-Hadidy of intentionally not giving a voice to his son Ahmed Mortada Mansour while he was running for parliament last month.
Mansour claimed that his son, now an MP, wanted to make a phone call on El-Hadidy’s show, which she refused while at the same time hosting his rival in the electoral race, Amr El-Shobaki.
At issue, of course, is whether or not the accusation is true. The article gives no indication either way.
But it appears contradictory for the syndicate to insist to the president on the right of free and open coverage, including criticism, when it calls for a media blackout against one who criticism them.
Last week I highlighted a poor op-ed from the Washington Post. This article from the New York Times is better, but its headline is well, dubious.
Egyptians do thrive on conspiracy theory, though they should be accorded a degree of sympathy given the troubles and outside influences on their region.
Now, writing a headline is almost more art than journalism, sometimes crossing the line into marketing. The author is forgiven, and may not have had say in the final wording.
But the body of the article does not quote one single average citizen to make its point. It opens with President Sisi urging Egyptians to even go without food if necessary in the face of threats. Then the closest it comes to demonstrating popular rejection of the message is this:
After Mr. Sisi’s bellicose talk of going without food, “people are just making fun of him,” said Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian journalist sympathetic to the president. “I am disappointed.”
Hisham Kassem is an important voice. As a journalist he should be expected to have his ear on the street. The author does well to quote him, and builds a case against the Egyptian habit of resorting to conspiracy.
Unfortunately, other voices quoted are from influential Egyptians outside of the country. They are critics of the regime, and some have fled for their safety. Their voices are also important, but they are not well placed to demonstrate the popular reception of government statements.
The article also quotes media figures in Egypt, and even an ordinary citizen, who express criticism of the regime:
During parliamentary elections, one pro-government talk show stunned viewers by broadcasting a call from a woman who said her disappointment with Mr. Sisi had kept her from the polls. She cited a much-hyped economic conference hosted by the president that failed to bolster growth, and an expansion project billed as a “new” Suez Canal, which had resulted in a decline in toll revenue. “I am sorry, but we are kidding ourselves,” she said. “I feel cheated.”
And it ends with a powerful statement from a prominent broadcaster who chastised the recourse to conspiracy and urged Egypt to take responsibility for itself:
Lamees el-Hadidi, one of the most popular pro-government talk show hosts, said in a broadcast that the government was compounding the economic pain from the plane crash by scaring away investors with the detentions of a prominent investigative journalist, Hossam Bahgat, and a newspaper owner, Salah Diab.
“If I am now in a very difficult situation with tourism and a foreign plot, do I need to make another problem with investments and another problem with freedoms?” she asked. “We don’t need a foreign conspiracy. We are the conspiracy itself. We conspire against ourselves!”
But these voices concern a popular discontent over the economy and to a lesser degree, over rights and freedoms. These are present, but they do not speak to a ‘dubious’ attitude towards either the state narrative or the conspiracies that swirl around.
I would say the great majority of Egyptians believe that outside forces are out to get them. And this attitude is shared equally by pro- and anti- regime.
And they have good reason. Right after the Russian airline crash, when early speculation imagined a terrorist missile, the UK’s Daily Mail published a story about a British tourist airliner having to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a similar fate.
Besides enraging the Egyptian public, this article was – to use a British expression – rubbished by the UK government:
UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described on Sunday the Daily Mail’s allegations that a British passenger plane “had been seconds” from being struck by an Egyptian rocket last August as a “red herring.”
I have no explanation for the article, but it came amid a media frenzy that has now resulted in the restriction of UK and Russian flights to Egypt, crippling the tourist industry. Already struggling for foreign currency, this crisis is estimated to lose revenue of $280 million per month.
As Salama Moussa has repeatedlywritten, Egypt must face up to its self-inflicted wounds and take responsibility for itself. Foreign nations can help.
Foreign media has a role to play as well, and the power of shaming – though not appreciated in the Middle East – can be strong. The New York Times article describes well much of what is happening in Egypt.
But it would do better with a proper headline, especially one that is better documented. Perhaps nothing the author could have done would have made a difference, but the result among Egyptians is that this is just one more example of Western media misrepresenting it.
And sadly, they are not short of evidence that can be similarly construed.
This Guardian article contains explosively frank quotes from leading Egyptian media personalities, about how they openly support the regime and seek to sway public opinion. Here is a sample:
“I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution,” says Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters in Egypt.
Sharing Moussa’s sense of duty towards the military is the veteran talk show host Mahmoud Saad, from Al-Nahar TV. “The military should never, ever, ever be covered,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don’t know what will hurt national security.”
But it’s also the power to influence people that appeals to him, he says. “It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that when you swing right,” he says as he swivels his upper body right, “the people will swing right. “And when you swing left,” he goes on, swivelling in the opposite direction “the people will swing left.”
El-Watan reporter Ahmed Ghoniem says owning media outlets “comes in handy if you get into any kind of trouble and have to pressure the government”. But no owner completely “unleashes his journalists” on the government, he says.
“No one has ever made me say something I didn’t want to say, but they have made me not say what I wanted to say,” says the TV presenter Mahmoud Saad.
But not all agree:
“Claims of oppression are just a trend,” CBC’s Khairy Ramadan says. “Anyone who says they are under pressure is a liar.”
Other media figures — outside Egypt — take an opposite track, criticizing the regime and accusing it of monolithic control of the state.
The question is fair for both: Are they serving an active agenda, or do they reflect personal motivation either for or against the regime? Or, are they simply correct in their assessment?
Most recently within Egypt, the Journalist Syndicate has publicly criticized a draft law that threatens journalists with two years in prison for reporting terrorism news in contradiction with official statements. The immediate occasion was the terrorist assault in Sinai. Western press outlets reported 60-70 soldiers dead; the military stated 17.
When hundreds of fighters allied with the so-called Islamic State streamed into the Sinai border village of Sheikh Zwayd, there were few reporters to document the situation. The notorious murderousness of these men, as well as restrictions from the Egyptian government, had understandably depleted the pool of reporters there. This did not stop the filing of many reports in the Western press, nor of many journalists taking to the social media to comment on the unobserved scene.
He described how beyond the numbers, reporting missed the actual story. In the face of an Islamic State attack, the army did not turn tails and flee — as happened so frequently in Iraq.
There was some reason for the Egyptian government to be miffed at this, but in typical fashion, it compounded the problem by attempting to shape the narrative and intimidate the reporters. It thus shifted the attention from the shortcomings of the reporting to that of its own.
Here is his frustrated conclusion:
An unsolicited advice to the Egyptian government is to “chill out.” To the Western press, I offer no advice. These are the things we hold sacred; that no government should muzzle the press, that no reader should believe newsprint blindly; that news is a product where the tires must be kicked, the fabric handled and the package sniffed; and that men, both wise and foolish, should await facts before filing reports.
It is difficult to interpret Egypt and how it operates. Analysis is plentiful, and bias is natural. Unfortunately facts are often lost in the political struggle.
But at least on the pro-regime side, the Guardian article gives raw material for evaluation — let the reader judge.
And if the reader wishes to pray for Egyptian journalism, here is my best offering.
Help Egypt know the truth about herself. Help her know the truth about her region. Give her good journalists of good conscience, with the freedom to do their job well.
A prominent NGO has said Egypt has jailed more journalists than ever before. The state replies all are held on non-press issues.
A prominent Jazeera journalist, wanted in Egypt, is briefly arrested in Germany. The confusing situation ended with his release.
A prominent newspaper dumps leaks from Saudi Arabia into the media. Some infer the kingdom uses its financial might to influence coverage.
And God, some media rail against the regime, while others rally to its defense. Both can be fair, but both should be fair. Like people and parties, principles can be at odds with each other. But let journalists, however they differ, walk only by principle in covering all.
Make the state strong enough to endure even those without principles. Expose those with a hidden agenda, while permitting the maximum freedom to inform society.
Make the state accountable when exposed by those with principles. Reform institutions that keep secrets hidden, while protecting the minimum need for national security.
God, it is only truth that brings freedom, even if freedom permits the presence of lies. Give Egypt wisdom and discernment. Give her journalists brave and good.
May she be open, strong, and free. May her conscience be pure.
Here is a recent report from Reuters, showing the difficulty in covering Egypt well. Kudos for going there, but we can only trust the journalist for his/her impressions.
The pronoun is not specified, as he/she requested anonymity. The fear, likely, is of covering anti-regime sentiment. The question is if he/she covered it well.
The brief story is that Kerdasa, Giza was the site of an Islamist take-over following the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda. That day locals stormed the police station with rocket-propelled grenades, killing 12 officers. Authority was not reestablished until a month later. Since then, 185 Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death for their role in the violence.
The headline states: Sisi’s Crackdown on Islamists Yet to Win Over Egyptian Village.
Fair enough, as Kerdasa would be a difficult village to win over. The article reports that night raids on suspected Brotherhood members continue, and the police man checkpoints into and out of the village.
But the following first-hand anecdotal description could be found almost anywhere in Egypt:
A look around Kerdasa offers plenty of reminders that arrests and intimidation have never succeeded in silencing enemies of the state.
Idle teenagers who can be easy recruits for jihadists. Women covered from head to toe in black. Profanities scribbled on a burned-out police station insulting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and calling for Mursi’s return.
This is one of the troubles in reporting about Egypt — those reading don’t know the commonality of everyday life. Teenagers are idle in every city. Many women wear the full niqab. And anti-Sisi graffiti from the past year and a half has rarely been scrubbed from the walls.
None of this necessarily suggests a dissatisfaction with him, nor ongoing support for Morsi.
Good reporting gets local opinion, on the record. But still the journalist must be trusted in selection of sources. Some quotes against the current atmosphere were given anonymity, but the following are bold in their public criticism:
Ayman al-Qahawi works at Al Azhar, a center of Islamic learning seen by Sisi as an ally in the fight against extremism.
“Kerdasa has become a black spot in our lives even though there are only a small number of criminals. They treat all of us as if we are terrorists,” said the professor, adding that a colleague was not allowed to leave Egypt because his identification card showed he lives in Kerdasa.
Bus driver Sayed Hassan, 31, says that when he went to renew his vehicle license, police stopped him at a checkpoint.
“Pull over you terrorist. You are from Kerdasa. You will spend a lot of time with us,” he quoted an officer as saying.
What should be inferred from these voices? Is Kerdasa so Islamist they don’t fear to give their names, safe in the protection of village solidarity? Or that Kerdasa is in the process of being restored, and thus there is no fear to voice complaint?
Probably no inference is best, but the willingness to go on the record is a positive development.
Of course, the fear of the correspondent is still telling.
Even so, he/she did a good job of balancing opinion:
“We are sure that Mursi is oppressed and his case is political,” said student Abdel Rahman Mohamed, 22.
“The country will not calm down. The only solution is Mursi’s release and the release of the 40,000 people detained since the military coup.”
A pharmacist blamed both sides for the deterioration in Kerdasa and in his finances.
“Please don’t mention my name,” he told a Reuters reporter. “The Brotherhood are already boycotting my pharmacy because I don’t agree with their viewpoint. I don’t want to anger them even more. They are still around.”
Fear, apparently, is shared by many. It makes reporting difficult.
Eyes were on Egypt this week, from inside and outside, to hold her accountable. May she be worthy and exceed all standards.
But some do not think so. Offended by their editors-in-chief, 400 Egyptian journalists signed a petition protesting media pledges to not undermine the government.
And in advance of a periodic human rights review by the United Nations, a consortium of NGOs and activists put forward several recommendations where they believe Egypt falls short.
Many in the UN criticized, while Egyptian officials defended their policies.
God, weigh between them, but only for good. May their disputes lead to dialogue and then to development.
Bless journalists for the courage of their convictions. Bless editors for their support of their nation. But keep the former from muckraking and the latter from sycophancy. Help the truth to be told with all transparency.
Bless activists for their dedication to human rights. Bless officials for application in difficult times. But keep the former from distortion and the latter from misrepresentation. Help life to be lived with all dignity.
But where there is fraud or injustice, God, root it out.
May those inside and outside both contribute. Make Egypt accountable, above all to your standard.
In all that happened this week in Egypt, the impression is not nearly as strong as that received from summer catch-up. First I read the news, largely from Egyptian sources. One could not be happier for the progress in the country.
But then I read the analysis, largely from Western sources. One could not be more depressed over the regression in the country.
Revolution. Coup. Hero. Autocrat. Strong state. Deep state. Terrorists. Detainees.
Some coverage was balanced; some was not. But reviewing the news of the summer felt like whiplash. I am still dizzy.
Egyptian media seems to have stabilized its perspective, as has the world’s. God, may they not remain in different places.
Even within all the necessary nuance, there is truth to the matter. May it be found, and be universally recognized. May it trump opinion. May it dismiss conspiracy.
May it be transparent.
God, censure those who spin the news to their own favor. Rebuke those who push an agenda. Events will always have interpretation; newsmen can never be fully objective.
But multiply, God, both evidence and fidelity. Release the information necessary; enable journalists to tell the story rightly.
And then may it be heard, by ears willing to hear.
Help all to live in the light, God. Shine in Egypt, and abroad.
Journalism is a difficult job, largely dependent on the conscience of the journalist. But not far removed is the outlet that pays the bills. Equidistant is the government which grants the credentials.
For all plying this trade in Egypt, God, give them grace, courage, humility, and discernment. Show them what stories to tell. Find them their credible sources. Fit all context into too brief reports. Help them help the world understand.
There is never one narrative, but ever a clamoring for it. The more insistence on a single storyline, the more resistance both issued and received.
And currently, al-Jazeera is in the crosshairs of both. The network challenges the government straight on, and its reporters have found themselves in jail.
Protect the free press, God, and keep the press free. Free from agenda, free from manipulation, free from the politics that birth many narratives. Help them tell the story, and get the facts right.
Free to expose, free to commend, free to hold all stakeholders accountable. Give government wisdom to encourage their work, knowing the curb on corruption comes best from outside. May it respect its people sufficiently to be transparent with them.
Grant this transparency, God, with respect to the Jazeera team. Journalism can clarify, but it can also obscure. Information is power, and journalists are gatekeepers. What keeps them the tendency to corruption but a monitoring presence?
This is the ideal, God, but bring it to Egypt. Give a fair trial to those in prison. Give fair coverage to those in the newsroom. Give fair oversight in fair space to operate.
Give Egypt and the world understanding on what is happening in the nation. However different the narrative, may both government and journalism tell the truth. May the conscience of all be pure.
In Egypt’s current political struggle both sides are using the media to highlight their interpretation of events. State media is accused of turning the nation against the democratically elected president and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, anti-Islamists target Western media in particular of having a bias toward the Brotherhood, against the military, and neglect the popular role in Morsi’s overthrow.
This survey was designed to test one overlapping segment within this struggle to establish a media narrative: foreign Christian residents.
Two assumptions were made of this community. First, they would be sympathetic to local Coptic opinion, which is strongly anti-Islamist. Second, they would be consumers of Western media and generally trust their journalistic professionalism.
Thirty-three individuals were surveyed, including both leaders and laity of the Catholic and Protestant foreign communities of Egypt. They were asked fifteen questions concerning recent political events beginning with the election of Mohamed Morsi as president. Each question was provided various options, reflecting the opinions and conspiracies of both camps.
Participants were allowed to choose more than one answer, if multiple interpretations were possible. They were asked only to choose according to their leanings and perceptions, not according to an elusive certainty or proof. Not all participants answered each question. In the results which follow, this explains why some percentages are provided with the qualifier ‘among those responding’.
Here are the questions as they were posed to participants:
1. Did Mohamed Morsi legitimately win the presidential election?
2. Were Egypt’s political problems caused by:
The desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate
The deliberate non-cooperation of opposition parties
Normal competition after a revolution
3. Were Egypt’s economic problems caused by:
State sabotage of gas and supplies
Continuing deterioration since the revolution
4. Did Western powers support Morsi because:
He was the legitimately elected president
They desired the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Mubarak
They desired Islamist rule to weaken Egypt
They desired to discredit Islamism by letting it rule temporarily
5. Did Morsi and the Brotherhood desire:
To turn Egypt into an Islamic state
To recreate the Mubarak regime
To shepherd in a civil democracy
6. Was the Rebellion (tamarrud) Campaign:
A grass-roots movement expressing popular rejection
Aided by the military/state/businessmen
A conspiracy to end the Morsi presidency early
7. Should the military have:
Intervened to depose Morsi as actually happened
Waited longer to see how things would develop
Not intervened at all
8. Was the military action a coup d’etat?
9. Was the removal of Morsi:
Mostly positive for Egypt
Mostly negative for Egypt
Both positive and negative in different ways
Necessary for Egypt
10. Should the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest site:
Have been dispersed
Have been relocated to another area
Have been left to protest indefinitely
11. Why did so many people die:
Because of deliberate excess force used by the security services
Because of poor training in crowd control
Because of pro-Morsi armed resistance
12. Were the widespread attacks on Christians and their churches:
Orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood
A spontaneous reaction by pro-Morsi supporters
The action of criminals exploiting the situation
A conspiracy by the state to tarnish the Islamists
13. Should the Muslim Brotherhood:
Be labeled as a terrorist organization, banned, and prosecuted
Be invited into national reconciliation
Be allowed to participate in the new democratic roadmap
Be forbidden from politics but allowed a social role
14. Does the military desire:
To rule directly (perhaps through a retired general)
To have influence and guardianship from behind the scenes
To maintain its economic privileges
To secure a true and open democratic transition
To destroy the Muslim Brotherhood
To prevent Islamist rule in general
15. Will the coming months/years in Egypt witness:
The development of an emerging democracy
The return of an autocratic state
New economic prosperity
Continued economic deterioration
A reversal back to Islamist rule (democratic or otherwise)
Low-level, but violent Islamic insurgency
War (either civil or regional)
Each possibility was given a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice to indicate the perception of the participant.
Here are the key findings:
Did Mohamed Morsi legitimately win the presidential election?
52% said yes, 48% said no, roughly mirroring his percentage of winning
Egypt’s political problems were caused by:
97% of all surveyed believed it was due to the MB’s desire to dominate
45% also blamed deliberate non-cooperation on the part of the opposition
36% attributed it to normal competition after a revolution
Egypt’s economic problems were caused by:
82% blamed Morsi’s mismanagement
42% also blamed a state policy of sabotage
82% believed the poor economy following the revolution played a role
Western powers supported Morsi because:
73% believed it was because they recognized him as the legitimately elected leader
24% believed they desired the MB to continue Mubarak’s policies, with 9% support for other conspiracy theories
The political desire of the Muslim Brotherhood was:
100% to turn Egypt into an Islamic state
0% to turn Egypt into a civil democracy
The Tamarud Campaign was:
82% believed it to be a grass roots campaign
But 67% believed it also to be sponsored by the army, state, or businessmen
Even so, respondents divided evenly if it was a conspiracy to remove Morsi from power, though only 30% of everyone surveyed indicated this
On military intervention to depose Morsi:
70% agree with their decision to do so, as opposed to waiting longer or doing nothing
But 47% call it a coup anyway, while 53% believe it does not deserve that label
93% of those responding believe this action was mostly positive for Egypt
75% find that it was also somewhat negative
85% believed it was necessary
On dispersing the pro-Morsi sit-in:
79% agreed with the decision to do so
88% believe that many people died due to the MB’s decision to resist with arms
45% also believed the security forces deliberately used excess force
48% believed poor training on the part of the security forces contributed
On the subsequent attacks on churches:
76% believe these were orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood
58% believe it was a spontaneous action by Morsi supporters
48% also thought criminal elements were involved
9% believe it was at least also a state conspiracy to make Islamists look bad
The Muslim Brotherhood should be:
42% believed it should be labeled a terrorist organization and banned
Only 27% opposed this designation
Responders were roughly divided between inviting them to national reconciliation and allowing them political participation in the new elections, with slightly more positive response
The military desires:
Of those responding, 59% did not believe the military wants to rule directly
But 73% believe they want to maintain significant influence behind the scenes, and 52% to maintain their economic interests (0% opposition to this idea)
Of responders, 60% believe the military wants to conduct an open democratic transition, but 40% do not
48% believe they want to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, and 61% believe they want to prevent Islamist rule in general
The future holds:
48% of all and 73% of responders are confident a real democracy will begin to emerge
At the same time, of those responding, half fear the return of another autocratic system
55% believe the economy will continue to deteriorate, with only 27% predicting new prosperity
Only 3% predict a return to Islamist rule, but 79% predict a continued low-level Islamist insurgency
9% predict war in Egypt’s near-term future
In quick summary, therefore, this sample of foreign Christian residents of Egypt indicates the community largely accepts the anti-Islamist narrative concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time displaying significant, but not universal, distrust about the role and intentions of the military and state.
Determining whether their perceptions are correct or incorrect was not the goal of this survey. Rather, results indicate the following possibilities:
Foreign Christian residents are disproportionately influenced by local anti-Islamist sentiment or their own anti-Islamist inclinations
Western media has not exhibited sufficient pro-Islamist bias to sway their interpretation of events, but has contributed to a distrust of local actors
As residents, these foreign Christians are well placed to interpret local events.
Other interpretations are also possible, including combinations of these three.
Western media is understood to be professional in its coverage, though subject to the ability to find suitable local spokesmen to convey perspectives. Most actors in Egypt are polarized and subject to their own biases.
Egyptian state media, however professional, is understood to be the voice of the government, and independent media has been drawn into the local dispute. Pro-Islamist media has largely been shut down.
In wading between the two, one further assumption is necessary concerning foreign Christian residents: They will represent the truth as they perceive it. The value of this survey consists therein.
Though Islamists currently govern Egypt, they often behave as if they are still an oppressed minority subject to endless conspiracies. Among their chief targets of complaint is the independent media. Here, they have a point.
Riham Said receives a prominent Islamist lawyer, Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, on her show and proceeds to bait and berate him on what seems like an obscure point. The video is only a three minute clip, but the tenor of their conversation suggests it was a difficult interview throughout.
At heart is the issue of wearing a hijab, a head covering which reveals the full face. After the revolution several Islamists have demanded their interviewers wear a hijab, and Riham appears to relent, though she is not pleased.
But then she takes it off amid an argument, and reveals the amount of money Badri received to make an appearance on the show. It is good entertainment, but it looks also like a set-up. Certainly she showed little respect to Badri, an old man.
But then again, Badri appears to deserve little. He earned his reputation as as an activist lawyer. Long before the revolution he would bring lawsuits against prominent personalities who in his opinion violated sharia law. Often, the law (or at least the judge) agreed. He is a crusader and the scourge of Egypt’s intellectual class.
But perhaps he is also a hypocrite. Filming off air, he and Riham talk casually without her hijab, as they discuss whether or not she must wear it. But once the cameras are rolling, as she removes the head scarf Badri averts his vision, lest he improperly look at an uncovered woman. Furthermore he shouts about her betrayal of agreement amid boasts of his suit to shut down the whole station.
But his piety is public, and she exposes him. It is fair, I suppose; hypocrisy should be exposed. But perhaps one of the reasons Islamists detest the independent media is they violate the cultural values of honor and shame.
In traditional Egyptian understanding, sin is not a great problem unless it becomes known. Public morality is elevated over personal morality, and if an individual can conceal his or her deviant thoughts or behavior it does not embarrass the family or larger group. Everyone knows the arrangement; you protect me and I’ll protect you.
Independent media has its own objectives, which include entertainment, making money, and often, opposing Islamist politics. But to do so, they trash this unwritten understanding. Yes, Badri is exposed as a hypocrite, but Riham emerges as a woman with little honor.
Sometimes I find this balance to be difficult to maintain. In pursuing journalism I do not simply want a story. I want to tell the truth, but I also wish to honor those I speak with. Ideas and politics can be thoroughly opposed; their advocates must be treated with respect.
But what about a hypocrite? The honor and shame culture breeds hypocrisy, in my Western-developed sense of morality. There is much to be respected in covering over sin, but at the end of the day, sin will be exposed. Is it not the journalist to whom this burden falls?
Especially as a foreigner, lack of full understanding gives me pause, and knowledge of my own hypocrisy invokes the Golden Rule. There is a job to be done, but what manner of conduct results in the most good?
Randa embarrassed Badri, but Badri was rejected and hated by her audience from long before. Perhaps those outside her audience were also listening; maybe those outside Badri’s ideological camp but of non-liberal persuasion might see him in a new light. Let us consider that his activism is unbecoming and improper; did Riham’s behavior curb his influence? Did it damage an excessive Islamism?
What if she had simply ‘honored’ him? If she let him spew his viewpoints with deference perhaps he might have even have convinced some of her traditional audience. She would be hurting her own cause.
This is why honor is not enough. Riham showed little, and though she exposed Badri she comes off herself as brutish. She makes a point, and perhaps some are affected. But Badri remains an unchanged man.
What if instead of exposure or honor, Riham cultivated love for Badri? There would be no off-camera revelations, no set-up, no angry storming off the set. She would challenge him – pointedly and explicitly. But could she engage him and lead him to expose himself? Could she have sought to display his hypocrisy not to an audience, but to his own heart?
Maybe, and perhaps he would still have remained an unchanged man. Perhaps Riham would have lost rating points, and Badri maybe would even have gotten the better of her.
But this video brings out the worst of both. Hopefully Egyptian media – of all stripes – can find a better way.
On March 28, 2013 Fox News broadcast an incendiary video report entitled, ‘US Silent as Christians are Persecuted in Egypt?’ It is understood that media relies on a level of sensationalism in order to attract the viewer or reader to a story. Yet this report moves beyond sensationalism to distortion, in which elements of truth are stretched to create an impression far removed from reality.
I watched this report after friends and family brought it to my attention. I’m sorry to say it made my blood boil. Several months ago I published a report on AWR examining if the Muslim Brotherhood was crucifying its opponents, but this alleged incident was reported only by fringe and internet-based sources. Here, we’re talking Fox News! Certainly it is known that the station has a conservative bent, but this video makes it seem as if they are pushing an agenda.
Egyptian news coverage is generally of poor quality, un-sourced, and designed to shape opinion rather than inform. Here, Fox News does its best impression. I have heard similar descriptions of US stations MSNBC, and to a lesser degree, CNN, only from the liberal side. I am fearful the American public has entered an era in which news is meant to entertain and confirm opinions, rather than to educate and challenge them.
I am also dreading this aspect of being back in America for an upcoming visit.
Of course, something very terrible appears to have taken place in this mosque in Cairo, and to a Christian in particular. From al-Monitor:
During the clashes that erupted last Friday [March 22] between the Muslim Brotherhood and protesters in Mokattam, the Brotherhood arrested left-wing activist Kamal Khalil and detained him inside a mosque. He saw a number of demonstrators stripped of their clothes and brutally flogged in the mosque, to the point that most of them lost consciousness. Brotherhood members were using a big whip to strike their victims. Khalil asked the flogger [about it], who replied: “It’s a Sudanese whip. I soaked it in oil a while ago. … A single strike can cut through skin.”
Luckily, Khalil recognized his neighbor from among the Brotherhood members, who intervened and prevented him from being tortured. Yet, Khalil posted his testimony about the Brotherhood’s slaughterhouse on the website of Al-Bedaiah newspaper. Soon after, the testimonies from victims published in newspapers confirmed that they had been brutally tortured. Amir Ayad, a demonstrator, revealed that when the Brotherhood found out that he was a Copt, they increased the severity of his torture, pushing him to the brink of death as they called him a “Christian dog.”
But excerpting from my report:
Broadcaster leads with words, ‘We were not able to independently confirm this reporting by Mideast Christian News’ which claims ‘Islamic hardliners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo and turned it into a torture chamber for Christians’
If news is not able to be confirmed by a reputable news agency, it should not be repeated, and certainly not the lead story. At least they mention this detail up front.
Mideast Christian News did not report about a torture chamber for Christians, however, as best I could research following their newsfeed. On March 23 they ran an article featuring testimony from Amir Ayad, a Coptic activist. He related how he was ambushed by the Muslim Brotherhood during the clashes and tortured in a mosque in Muqattam.
Muqattam is the suburban Cairo neighborhood mentioned by Fox News. It hosts the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood and as such was the site of an anti-Brotherhood protest. The administration of the mosque in question publically confirmed that Islamist activists took over the facilities and turned it into a detention center.
A similar incident took place during the clashes at the presidential palace in protest of President Mursī’s declaration immunizing his decisions from judicial review during the controversy over the drafting of Egypt’s constitution. Muslim Brotherhood members attacked a small but peaceful sit-in at the palace, which led into large-scale confrontations between the two sides. During the clashes the Muslim Brotherhood also created detention centers in adjacent facilities, though not in a mosque.
Details and testimony about what happened at both events is contradictory, but it appears likely the Brotherhood or supporting Islamists assumed police-like prerogative to apprehend protestors – perhaps rioters – on the opposing side. Furthermore, there is no reason to dismiss the testimony of Ayad that he was tortured; the article includes a picture of him in the hospital suffering from multiple wounds.
The protest at the Brotherhood headquarters, however, was not a Christian protest, it was political. Ayad, as a Christian, was detained, perhaps along with other Christian protesters. The great majority of protestors, and therefore detainees, however, were Muslim, consistent with the makeup of Egyptian society.
For Fox News to report this incident as a mosque transformed into a torture center for Christians – with none of the context of these recent clashes – is an egregious distortion of a story terrible in its own right.
And finally, showing an element of the Fox News report which is absolutely contrary to reality, and would be known by anyone who spent any time in Egypt at all apart from the pyramids:
Peters continues, saying Miller went to the Coptic quarter where the Christians live. It’s a shabby slum where they are third-class – not second-class – citizens
It is fair to ask what Miller believes is the difference between a second- and third-class citizen. Clearly this is only a rhetorical device. But it is in service either of wanton ignorance or clear distortion. There is no ‘Christian quarter’ in Egypt or any of its cities. Christians are spread everywhere throughout the country.
Perhaps he was referring to the district of Shubra in Cairo, which has a large percentage of Coptic residents. Shubra is a lower- to lower-middle-class neighborhood, but it is hardly a slum. If it is, it is equally populated by Christians and Muslims together.
Or perhaps he had in mind Heliopolis, which also has a large percentage of Coptic residents, but is one of the wealthier districts of the city. In either case, these areas are characterized by the best relations between Muslims and Christians, as they grew up together in an integrated community. They are far from second-class citizens. They are neighbors.
Please click here to watch the original video, and here to read the rest of my point-by-enraged-point rebuttal (and occasional agreement).
In Egypt, sectarian conflict can be dizzying. When news breaks it explodes – Muslim mobs, churches burned, priests attacked. When the news crests it collapses – Muslim denials, church agreement, security clampdown. Only when the news settles can the situation be understood – however incomplete, contradictory, and subject to enduring confusion.
The recent incident at the Church of St. George in Sarsena, Fayoum, approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo, contains all the above elements.
This is a somewhat lengthy report, but the basic summary (disputed) is this: A church in a small village was bothersome to its Muslim neighbor. Perhaps this was because the priest was looking to expand the building, perhaps because of the noise of the mass, perhaps because he simply did not want a church as a neighbor.
During a priest-arranged reconciliation session between the two, the family of the neighbor appears to have attacked the church with stones and handmade firebombs. During a second reconciliation session to settle this development, the attack began again. Eventually, the church agreed to a number of restrictions on its noise and future expansion, but was allowed to remain on it current plot of land.
This is the basic summary. The full report shows how this understanding developed, wading through the different versions which circulated in the media, including the denial of the local bishop that anything happened at all. The report also includes testimony from researchers who visited the village firsthand, as well as the account of the local priest.
Here is the conclusion:
At this point it is important to recall Allam’s editorial. Exaggeration and sensationalism do not serve the Coptic cause, let alone the cause of justice. Initial reports of hundreds of attackers, thrust from the mosque, recall the worst examples of sectarian tension since the revolution. As the reality appears much simpler, though still serious, media attention prompted immediate denial from the church.
The church denial now casts all in suspicion. Fr. Dimyadios appears a crusading priest. Nader Shukry appears an activist first, a journalist second. Coptic-focused news outlets appear more bent on discrediting Muslims than on reporting truth. Even the mostly corroborating testimony of the judicious EIPR appears doubtful – are they making a mountain of a molehill in service of their distaste for Islamist governance?
Of course, all the above may be true, even if only in degree. But EIPR’s Ibrahim states why this case is relevant, even in its less than exaggerated details.
“The law must apply to all,” he said. “The customary, traditional solution is only a temporary solution.
“Letting go of your rights through reconciliation sessions only provides encouragement to those who transgress, and shows Christians are less than full citizens.”
That is, unless nothing happened at all. Such is sectarian tension in Egypt.
In our last post I described our hope to provide readers with an easy way to access the Egyptian news, and gave a preview of trying to do the same with Arabic language links.
Well, perhaps encouraged by the relative ease of getting the English links online, I got all excited and gave analysis links as well.
The Arabic links are provided near-daily by a friend who sends them by email, but would prefer to stay behind the scenes and not mention his name. He especially follows news that concerns the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, concerned there is an effort to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. I cannot vouch for the reporting standards of every article to which he links, but it is a very useful picture of an angle of Egyptian developments.
The analysis links will come less frequently, provided by Issandr el-Amrani, who maintains the outstanding regional blog – The Arabist. He has given his permission to copy the links he provides on a more or less weekly basis. These include noteworthy events, but also the best of what people are writing about Egypt and the region. Please explore his own commentary regularly as well on his site.
The Arabic page proved a bit more difficult to work with, so if there is a reevaluation down the road that feature might be the first to go. But I love the idea of being semi-bilingual, so I hope it is not too time consuming. As always, please note your preferences, and perhaps we can try this for a month or so and see where it goes.