By Mohamed Selim
The first step that any country on the verge of collapse should do, is to empower its institutions, including its fourth estate without which, all efforts to garner the public’s confidence would be an exercise in futility.
A few weeks ago, Egypt’s newly appointed interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, maintained the mandate of the Ministry of Information without any structural changes, aside from a new motto “Straightforwardness with the Public” that the old-new Minister, Dorreya Sharaf El-Din, has conceitedly declared as the guiding principle in pursuing her responsibilities. Yet, any observer of Egypt’s chaotic, violent and lingering transitional process would notice that the country’s media scene is to blame. For hours each day, free-to-air programmes attempt to vilify whoever is against their singular narrative using one or more of the following tactics: a) tendentious editorial boards; b) lack of ethical and/or professional fact-checking and investigative journalism; c) a biased moderator(s) fomented with cherry-picked guests whom are parroting the agreed-upon repertoire without logical questioning and/or reasonable dialogue; and d) the utilisation of unethical methods of mudslinging the opponents including the airing of snooped upon phone-calls and unsubstantiated reports.
It’s very precarious for any nation to subscribe to a sole narrative and its accommodative rhetoric as the only one that is nationalistic and patriotic, while condemning any different perspective or perception as serving the agendas of the terrorists and their entangled web of enemies of the state. In Egypt’s case, that play is sliding into a wobbly phase where the lines between politics (which aren’t a zero-sum-game) and the military establishment’s interests and views (which doesn’t accept, let alone condone, any investigative right by the fourth estate) are blurred. Egypt’s military establishment, via its propaganda arm, the Department of Morale Affairs, has set the narrative that whatever the army sees and does is for the sake of the nation and against that of its enemies. Egypt’s media conduits, lead by the Ministry of Interior, parroted the Department of Morale Affair’s narrative, excluding the people’s right to question, challenge or debate.
The past few weeks have seen three-instances that prove the fact that Egypt’s Army has delved into territories that aren’t black and white, while Egypt’s mainstream media failed to notice the difference between reporting and parroting.
On 27 January, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces mandated its General, Field Marshal Al-Sisi, to run for Egypt’s presidency. Egypt’s mainstream media has tackled this atypical announcement as if the military is a political party that has the right to nominate, let alone mandate, a candidate to seek Egypt’s top post. Very few journalists, including the country’s satirists-cum-analysts, attempted to question how this unprecedented and perilous move reflects on the army’s credibility and integrity, which time-and-time-again has excused itself from keeping the promise not to meddle into politics and focus on its singular mandate, which is protecting Egypt’s borders and acting as its shield and sword against its enemies. Yet, as if in a chorus with a Maestro adorned with military insignia, the mainstream media has hailed the decision as one that signals the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces patriotic loyalty; any other move would have been forfeiting its duty to protect the country against an enemy that is serving a transnational agenda, that of the United States, Israel, Iran, Qatar and their orbiting parasites, combined. On mainstream media, the military’s decision as a necessity – more than a privilege – because all prospective civilian candidates would be working for foreign agencies; the only establishment that is genuinely patriotic is the army and its decorated generals.
A few weeks later, on 23 February, army spokesman Ahmed Ali announced to the world that Egypt’s military has invented a medical gadget that detects AIDS and hepatitis C, with the possibility of curing the latter with a 90% success rate. He also reiterated the military’s establishment’s scientific breakthroughs in treating other illnesses, including the H1N1 virus, at army hospitals. From a methodical perspective, all discoveries, inventions, and other scientific attempts are subject to verification, rigorous questioning, replication and possibly refutation through objective experiments. Nonetheless, in the case of Egypt’s army, any attempt to question the alleged discovery was painted as an attempt to undermine Egypt’s scientific breakthroughs and the agency that spearheaded them, which now has a range of responsibilities so farfetched and all-encompassing that it must not only shoulder the task of alleviating Egypt’s physical ailments, but should also take on its political malaise. Does that mean that any scientific scepticism is perfidious and subversive? In Egypt’s case, where the lines between science and patriotism are blurred, it’s alas, an unequivocal yes.
As for Egypt’s version of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it’s a pity to watch and listen to a self-proclaimed TV host whose show is solely about broadcasting tapped and taped personal phone calls between Egyptian citizens who happened to be working in public service, whether as politicians, activists and/or fellow media personalities. The imprecise lines between ethical journalistic practises and defamation has reached the gutter, and the Ministry of Interior is silent, focusing its attention instead on going after journalists who question the official narrative, and quelling media conduits that are trying to present a version of events that differ from the authorised repertoire. When Edwards Snowden released his trove of official documents, he didn’t uncover personal calls between two politicians, but secret files that exposed illegal public policy directives that the United States’ National Security Agency has employed to eavesdrop on millions of Americans and foreign citizens. Abdel Rahim Ali, through his programme on Al-Kahera Wal Nas channel, on the other hand, has committed an utterly unethical, immoral and disreputable act of slander. The rule-of-law should guarantee the privacy of every citizen without any Orwellian practises that are only conducive to more subversion and perverse political practises that aren’t prone to the democratic state building that Egypt desperately needs.
What should be done? First and foremost, Egypt’s separations of powers must be enshrined as prescribed by the newly ratified constitution. The military establishment is part of the executive branch, and not an independent state that oversees other branches within Egypt’s cohort of fragile institutions, including the fourth estate. The press doesn’t have a sanctimonious mandate to parrot, glorify and magnify rulers’ actions. Conversely, it must rise up to the challenge of serving the public through fair reporting, fact-checking and accountability towards good governance and democratic practises. All aspects of sensationalism, vituperation and exaggeration must be halted as it only assembles the pyre before the indoctrinated viewers, readers and listeners set it ablaze. The media must be liable only to the rule of law, before which all citizens have equal rights and responsibilities regardless of their political affiliations which aren’t fixed and can change along electoral cycles.
Egypt isn’t the first country to witness a democratic transition marred by conflicting interests, religious strife, terrorism, a nose-diving economy and a venomous culture of intimidation. Other countries had the same problems, and we can learn from their experiences once all members of the society (including the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) can must the political will to accept reconcilliation, coexistence and compromise. That goal won’t be attained unless the media stop their hype and hypocrisy and employ, instead, veracity and sensibility. As the country slides into its 11th hour, the fourth estate must embrace the latter traits and forsake the former ones in order to point the way to a more efficient, safer transition. Anything else, including maintaining the status quo, is a recipe for disaster.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @moselim.