Here’s a thought experiment: pick a random Middle Eastern country led by an unpopular autocrat whose legitimacy is being challenged by a growing wave of public dissent. Add in widespread allegations of electoral fraud, and increasingly violent confrontations on the street between protesters and security services — clashes that have left many civilians dead. Now imagine this politically volatile state is a major player in the area, and that change at the top could have an explosive effect on the geopolitical dynamics of the entire region. How much press coverage do you think it would receive in the west?
For the sake of convenience, let’s keep things manageable by narrowing that down a bit. How many news articles do you think such a country would generate in the British broadsheets over the years 2008 and 2009? If you guessed at 7,098, well done: you’re spot-on. Pub quiz aficionados may also wish to jot down the figure of 3,305 — an equally correct answer.
Confused? So are many Egyptians, who have seen their intense and sometimes deadly struggle against the repressive regime that rules them almost completely sidelined by the international media. Not only has their country attracted less than half the volume of newsprint lavished on Iran in the past two years, but the vast majority of Egypt-focused articles tend to concentrate on matters relating to tourism or archaeology, whereas nearly all the Iranian coverage is political in nature.
When you boil the figures down to hard news, the chasm between the media’s fetishising of Iran and their cool disinterest in Egypt yawns even wider. In June 2009 — the month when disputed Iranian elections brought thousands of anti-government protesters into conflict with riot police and left blood running through the streets — Iran was featured in 742 articles. In April 2008 — the month when an attempted Egyptian general strike brought thousands of anti-government protesters into conflict with riot police and left blood running through the streets — Egypt made an appearance in 28 pieces, almost none of which mentioned Mahalla (the town at the heart of the unrest).
Of course, this sort of content analysis is highly subjective and open to interpretation. Moreover, the circumstances in Iran and Egypt are by no means identical, and could hardly be expected to inspire a perfectly matching number of column inches. Yet popular feeling against the Mubarak oligarchy here is just as real as anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment in Iran, and the potential for monumental political upheaval just as substantial.
There is no space in this forum to detail all the ways in which the unelected political elite of the Arab world’s biggest country consistently reject democratic freedoms, subvert the rule of law to protect their hegemony, and encroach on the human rights of that country’s citizens day in, day out. A brief perusal of this week’s country report on Egypt by Human Rights Watch would provide a taste, however — the organisation helpfully points out that despite the media frenzy over the number of post-election arbitrary detentions in Iran, Egypt’s estimated tally of detentions without charge is 150 per cent higher.
Nor is there room to describe the full breadth and strength of the grass-roots reaction these injustices have triggered in Egypt, from the spread of a strike wave so large it has been labelled “the largest social movement the Middle East has seen in half a century” to the astonishing trend of local communities not only facing down the bullets and tear gas of riot police, but doing so with such vigour that fleeing security officers have been forced to bunker down in their own headquarters to protect themselves from the masses.
I would urge anyone who rejects the premise that Egypt is as unstable as Iran to take a look at the spine-tingling photos and videos of demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak in Mahalla back in April 2008, including the iconic image of hundreds of angry Egyptians bearing down with their feet on a flattened poster of the president. They are eerily reminiscent of the scenes accompanying the fall of dozens of 20th-century dictators, from Saddam Hussein to rulers of the former Soviet-bloc countries. And yet they have barely been seen outside Egypt, in common with the face of Mohamed ElBaradei — the Nobel laureate who is spearheading the opposition movement against Mubarak, yet whose unexpected leadership challenge has also been largely ignored in the west.
Whichever way you splice the figures, the disparity in media attention between Cairo and Tehran is inescapable. You can draw only one conclusion: western media outlets apply vastly different editorial judgements to these two countries and, as a result, readers at home are consuming a heavily skewed diet of Middle Eastern news. The issue is not, as some have suggested, why Egyptians remain so placid in the face of oppression from their political masters. They don’t. The question is why nobody cares.
The short answer is that Mubarak and his acolytes are grossly misunderstood in the west, partly as a result of highly effective lobbying by professional outfits in London, Washington and the other corridors of power. The Egyptian government is listed as a client by two top K Street lobbying firms, the Podesta and Livingston Groups.
Although the exact cost of their services is confidential, the fact that Podesta charged up to $13m over ten years to help the Turkish government persuade movers and shakers on Capitol Hill that there was no such thing as an Armenian genocide suggests the Egyptian regime is shelling out an awful lot on polishing its image. Meanwhile, one-third of Egyptian children are suffering from malnutrition.
The deeper answer, though, is that Mubarak’s PR people are able to do such a good job because the vision they project of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) ticks all the boxes when it comes to western policymaker wish-lists. Mubarak, they insist, is a force for stability in a tempestuous neighbourhood. Without him, the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep to power and light the fuse of Islamist revolution across the region. He is also praised for being a financial reformer, a gutsy friend of the free market who has dragged Egypt kicking and screaming into the global economy and has dazzling growth rates to show for it.
All this is false. As has been argued time and again by independent analysts, think tanks and some better-informed journalists, the Muslim Brotherhood is a vastly complex and diffuse organisation that forms only one part of a wide-ranging Egyptian opposition movement. There is no reason to think it would command majority support in the event of genuinely fair elections. Meanwhile the presumed existence of this Islamist Sword of Damocles gives Mubarak carte blanche in the international arena to arrest and torture his opponents and render dissidents invisible.
When it comes to the economy, despite more money than ever flowing into Egypt, no less than 90 per cent of the population has become poorer in real terms on Mubarak’s watch. And the number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has doubled.
Unstinting western support for the despotic, corrupt cabal of Mubarak’s cronies, against the will of the people, is not a force for stability; it is a recipe for disaster. Yet western backing for the NDP and the relentless promotion of Mubarak as a “moderate” continue, to the tune of $2bn a year from Washington — more money than any other recipient of US aid bar Israel.
So much for the western policy framework. What is scary is the extent to which the stance of the western media mirrors the values of our political masters, following blindly when they should be thinking sceptically, leaving battles shrouded in darkness where they should be shining a light.
Against a backdrop of immense turmoil, what topics has the international press chosen to write about in Egypt over the past couple of years? Artificial hymens, Beyoncé concerts and the pyramids have all figured high on the list, alongside a multitude of other cultural “colour” stories, designed to put a smile on your face over breakfast.
The slightest hint of opposition activity in Iran is guaranteed acres of coverage, whereas the equivalent in Egypt is permitted a mention only if it fits the preconceived notion of Egypt as a relatively tranquil space, disrupted only by the strange and often comedic fallout from an ongoing war between secular and religiously conservative values. Hence debates over the niqab and the slaughtering of pigs make the grade, whereas policemen shooting unarmed civilians dead, or hundreds of thousands of workers going on strike over the impact of government-backed neoliberal reform projects, are left buried in obscurity.
What is so disheartening is not that foreign editors have to use filters, both consciously and subconsciously, to sift through all the news coming out of a country and decide what is fit to print. Rather, it is that the filters they use, even in the supposedly liberal media, seem to provide cover for and chime so closely with the policy stance of western politicians — which is in turn aligned with Mubarak’s propaganda. Allowing dictators to set news values when it comes to coverage of their countries isn’t just a disservice to readers; just as the media take their cue from politicians, so politicians let their priorities be shaped by the media.
This helps create an endlessly reverberating media/politics echo chamber, sounding skewed descriptions of the state of affairs in Egypt that are constantly affirmed by politicians and journalists alike. All this feeds back into the very problem that fuels it. Were the British public to be more conscious of political realities in a destination that more than a million of them visit on holiday each year, the British government might be a bit more wary of showering Mubarak with public praise. As it is, journalists, diplomats and politicians treat him with kid gloves. This is “churnalism” at its most destructive.
Conspiracy theorists can look away now. As a journalist who reports for British newspapers from Cairo, I am only too aware how difficult it is to assess the news value of stories from far-flung places, and how inevitable it is that the tone of coverage gets coloured by the political landscape at home. But it is precisely because of this, because it is so much smoother to follow the herd, that it is imperative for the media to question their governments’ perspective on what matters. Because, by working in Egypt, I have also been made aware how often dramatic events here are sidelined by the press while equivalent developments in Iran provoke banner headlines — simply because western governments have thrown in their lot with one totalitarian leader and pitted themselves against another.
The end result is fact-distortion and myth-making. As Bertrand Russell put it:
If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinise it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
It may be easier to let the timbre and beat of international journalism follow the well-worn groove of political consensus, but that doesn’t make it right. Those reading and watching at home deserve better. So do those who have died in pursuit of justice and freedom, wherever they may be.