If there is one thing that consistently defines this era that we are living in, it is the role of the media in how it not only shapes our politics, ideology and world view but also how it seeks to manipulate issues and narratives for its own goals. We all remember the concerted media campaign that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The political establishment and a large proportion of the general public were convinced that Iraq had a viable nuclear and chemical arsenal. The orchestrated media campaign by traditionally respectable media outlets like the BBC and the Sky Middle Eastern coverage tended to stoke-up fear in the hearts of the population. Some politicians genuinely believed that unless there was a pre-emptive attackon Saddam Hussain, our civilisation and our way of ’’life’’ were in mortal danger. We all know too well the consequences of the invasion. Likewise the Leveson Inquiry in the UK has called to question media ethics.
With the crises and incidents unfolding in Egypt, truth is once again the main victim — in the absence of real democratic institutions and an inherently-corrupt and unprofessional media. The loss of life over the past week — whilst utterly shocking — veers into insignificance compared to the web of lies that have been spun around to justify these killings by the government officials and those who back the military operation. What is even worse is the reception these lies seem to be getting in the West as figures are misquoted and justifications reiterated.
The flow of information from the official sources should not be taken at face value. Western leniency with the coup leaders in Egypt encouraged the army and security services to massacre hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of Cairo. These crimes were preceded by an unbelievable array of propaganda willingly reiterated by American and British officials in their briefings in the past few weeks. Take for example the American official who reaffirmed the outrageous Egyptian claim that 30 million people took to the streets of Cairo on the eve of June 30th to call for a military intervention and end Morsi’s rule.
The influence of the mass media on ordinary people in the Middle East is widely acknowledged. In the Egyptian case, money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia has fuelled a frenzied media attack on the nascent democratic institutions in Egypt to the extent that ordinary citizens were willing to sacrifice theirvote and political freedoms in order to end their miserable economic and social situation, so they were led to believe. Paradoxically the Saudi and the Arab Gulf states concentrated in their media campaign on the issue of the Western conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilise Egypt and sell its assets to foreign investors. They played on the ordinary people’s sentiments and religious sensitivities. They even claimed that the new democratic government in Egypt is in cahoots with the West and the Israelis.
Unfortunately most of the information about opposition movements in the Arab and Muslim world available to Western circles was amassed from security services and academic institutions linked to it. It was only in the last 30 years when large number of political activists and academics took refuge in the West that we saw certain changes in attitude towards a relative understanding of political Islam. At the same time the exposure to Western political theory and practice had a huge influence on the politics of the proponents of contemporary political Islam. The same strategy is followed by monarchic regimes and sheikhdoms in the Arab Gulf region. Although these regimes are considered pro-West, they support and give sustenance to religious clergy faithful to the regimes to demonise all what the Western democracies stand for. In the case of Egypt, we have witnessed how traditionally apoliticaland rejectionist trends like the Salafists have been used to defend and justify the military coup. Similarly, the head of Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious religious institution in the Muslim world, has not been spared. Here again, Western political, cultural and ethical ideals are the target. A barrier is erected between their people and international concepts such as democracy and free will.
The Egyptian military and the Gulf regimes used religious and cultural cleavages with the West to end the infant democratic experience. Unfortunately, they succeeded with an undeniable tacit approval by democratic governments in the West. This is evident of Western ancient religious sensitivities being undoubtedly intertwined with their contemporary politics.
Dr Fareed Sabri is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme for The Cordoba Foundation