The Tall Tales of Cairo
CAIRO — Earlier this month, Egypt’s State Information Service (an official news and public relations agency) sent foreign journalists a letter complaining that “Egypt is feeling severe bitterness toward some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood” and urging “all media outlets to be accurate in their coverage and not to rely on false information.”
It was galling to be lectured about journalistic standards by the authorities of a country whose own media have been peddling so much vitriol and fantasy recently.
On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
This isn’t journalism; it’s disinformation, printed on the front page of a leading state-run daily. It’s also “a warning to us all,” said an Egyptian friend who has campaigned for media reform and worries that these stories are the groundwork for further repression.
Conspiracy theories proliferate around the world, but they have a particular hold in places like Egypt, where people are both very politicized and quite powerless. A general lack of transparency about how the state conducts its business leads Egyptians to believe — sometimes quite rightly — that there is more to every development than meets the eye.
They are also feeling especially vulnerable these days, living in this region torn apart by civil strife and threatened with outside military intervention. The idea a foreign plot to keep Egypt down is both enraging and comforting in its simplicity. And it allows the authorities to intimidate dissenters and rally the public.
Private TV channels and newspapers, owned by businessmen eager to ingratiate themselves with the military, have also reported dozens of unverified plots. They are cheerleading the country’s so-called war on terrorism — really, a campaign to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood — with a vehemence that has the blogger and columnist Mahmoud Salem describing them as “post-9/11 U.S. news channels on steroids and ketamine.”
Speaking of U.S. news channels: Even as the Egyptian government and most of the media have been complaining about slanted international coverage of events in Egypt, one American channel has suddenly become popular here. TV satellite channels have been showing subtitled segments from Fox News, particularly ones in which President Barack Obama is taken to task for his wrong-headed and supposedly unconditional support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Thanks to this strange connection between anti-Islamist circles in Egypt and right-wing groups in United States, the idea that Obama is a staunch supporter of the Islamists has become widespread. Read more in the New York Times.