Keyboard Wars in Egypt

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. A rare voice in this cacophony was that of Egypt historian Steven Cook who tweeted Egyptians are fighting the same group as the Iraqis, but without the help of sectarian death squads”, thus summarizing in a few words all that matters in this fight and in all the other fights raging in the region. The majority of the foreign press, however, were dusting up old stories of ISIS conquests and preparing to bulk-edit “Egyptian” for “Iraqi”.

We do not know all the details of what did occur during that fight. We do know that some things did not happen. The ISIS-affiliated group did not take over the town, nor was the Black Flag hoisted on government buildings. We also know that the conscripts of the Egyptian Army, clean-faced young men, the majority devout Muslims from rural or working-class backgrounds, did not ditch their uniforms and flee. That was a story worth reporting, but instead the majority of reports spoke of government repression, escalation of attacks since the removal of President Morsi, the alienation of young men, etc etc etc. All very important topics, but hardly breaking news. 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.

Foreign reporting is a peculiar genre. Reporters have to both document facts and provide “context” for the readers back at home who might not be familiar with history and culture of the countries in question. Naturally all reporters come freighted with their own ideas and biases. The best among them will pierce through that fog. It is more complicated in Egypt, where a sense of injury and hyper-nationalism has made everyone behind a camera or a notebook seem like a dangerous spy. Some reporters go beyond writing to exhibit their biases and occasional holes of knowledge on social media. The reporters are suddenly the glaring sidebar, muddling the real story. But what is the real story here?

The story is by-now a familiar one, of identity fights and state collapse. Should Egypt succumb to these then all hell will break loose. But in managing to fend off terrorism using the instruments of the state, however creaky and clumsy, there is hope left. To build a democratic and prosperous state, you need to start with an actual state. This is an unsurprising statement, but one that occasioned an esteemed Western reporter to attack it as “conniving with the coup”. There is a loss of perspective here, a proverbial trees-for-forest confusion. A century ago Western powers put potentates in charge of states, more recently it has yanked potentates from them. Various actions, from the invasion of Iraq to the fall of Qaddafi, have adopted the attitude of change-regime-now-ask-questions-later. Egypt has been largely exempted from both processes, but Egyptians have honored the Western powers by impugning these actions to conspiracies rather than to fumbling. The rest is history in the making. Yes, the Egyptian state is ramshackle, and Egyptians need to place more effort than pride in it; but when faced with its dissolution, can they really be expected to join in? Reporters can not be expected to participate in this fight, and they can best refrain from doing so by sticking to the facts, and skip the “context”.

So to sum up a frustrating post. 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.

— Maged Atiya


July 3 in Egypt – Two Years Later

Two years ago I wrote that the removal of President Morsi is as difficult to condone as it is to condemn. Events since then have not altered this judgment, even if the post reads with embarrassing naïve faith in the willingness of Egyptians to step from the edge.

The “difficult to condone” part is easy. The removal of Morsi was a violation of the rules, even if such things are sketchy and elastic in Egypt. It is also not a healthy development for Egyptian politics, pushing its politicians into more infantile behavior. Above all it is not healthy for the Army. Egypt is surrounded by chaos and collapsing states caused by the fall of the Arab order and outside meddling in it. The Army has a tough job defending the country, and it needs to be above the fray, not a partisan in its politics.

The “difficult to condemn” part is significantly harder. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the removal of Morsi has occasioned the violence that followed it. If true, then it is an implicit condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood. If false, then it is an equally implicit endorsement for the need to remove the inept Morsi. The reality is likely in-between and much arguing can ensue about its exact position. Some will argue that Egypt would have been in far worse shape had Morsi stayed in power, given the events around it. That argument can never be empirically proven and hence must be discarded. The real troubling aspect of all this comes from a different spectacle; the unraveling of Iraq. It is tempting to see no analogy at all between the fractious Iraq and the supposedly “real” and solid Egypt. Certainly there are major differences, but one must not fall too easily into believing the myth of Egyptian exceptionalism. All states, subjected to certain stresses, will falter in similar ways. The fact of the matter is that Iraq was ruled by an elected and hapless leader who had no political checks against his power. In the end he sank the state. With all collapsing about him he was ejected from power, not by a native force, but by the fiat of foreign leaders secure in capitals far away. But it was still too late.

These are the uncomfortable facts. It is the sadness of those who care about Egypt that there is no comfortable ground to stand on, and that any hope for an exit from this situation remains years away.

— Maged Atiya