The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Egypt’s Propaganda War

By: Mona Abdel-Fadil,

Senior Researcher, Fafo Institute of Applied International Studies

The political scene in Egypt is dauntingly confusing –not only to grasp but also to describe. The scenes shift so fast, and what is actually happening on the ground – is difficult to establish. Cynical scenario after scenario are being launched in OpEds and across various social media. A daunting amount of unpleasant questions surface when trying to make sense of what is going on in Egypt at the moment.

Is it the military who is persecuting Muslim Brotherhood supporters, at any price? Did the army plan to get rid of Mursi from the very outset? Is the military trying to eradicate the entire Muslim Brotherhood organization and its following? Are the millions of Tamarud campaigners and followers simply naïve fools who have been ‘played’ by the army? On the other hand, Why didn’t the Muslim Brotherhood accept the offer to put Mursi’s presidency to a referendum? Why was there talk of fighting for the Brotherhood – with blood – in early June? Did the Brotherhood calculate that a violent ending to Mursi’s presidency would better serve the organization – than admitting political defeat? And, most importantly, whose fault is all the violence? Is it the military backed by the millions who marched with General Sisi who are to blame for all the violent images we see on our computer and TV screens? Or – is it largely the supporters of Muslim Brotherhood who are to blame for the critical violent situation that Egypt has to be thrust into?

Most Egyptian media sources are currently unreliable. They are tarnished by either supporting ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’ or ‘the Military’s’ account of events – neither of which are entirely accurate. Western media largely follow in one of  these two footsteps…

The point I would like to make in this blog post, is that if we are talk of battles waging in Egypt at the moment, we must not make the mistake of only talking of violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and the military or police – we must also include the propaganda war.

An incredible amount of effort has gone into establishing and spreading two opposing media narratives (or media frames) in order to sway public opinion both within Egypt, and in ‘the West’ to support one or another of the parties in conflict. I would argue that propaganda war may be just as important as the actual clashes on the ground. Some would even argue that the propaganda war is more important than violence on the ground. The latter argument is founded on the assumption that salient media frames will ultimately influence decision makers who will either opt for the continuation or discontinuation of financial or political support from Western countries. Such support is also important in terms of claims to democratic legitimacy.

Let me now present these two frames. The first frame I call ‘the Muslim Brotherhood narrative’. The second, I call ‘the Military narrative’. This does not mean that there are no other narratives that can be attributed to either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. My point is simply that I consider these two frames to be the dominant and most salient media narratives and readings of the current political events in Egypt – and each has a clear bias. Most media frames ‘talk to each other’ as you can see below. I’ve also retained ‘the narrative’s own voice’. And of course, this is a mere summary.

The Muslim Brotherhood narrative

The Muslim Brotherhood are victims of a violent and planned persecution at the hands of the Egyptian military. The army are the ‘bad guys’ who planned to get rid of Mursi from the very outset. The ousting of Mursi  is a military coup, and the Tamarud campaign and its supporters have been played as fools. Not only is the military authoritarian, but it is all things evil, such as being fulul (pro-Mubarak era), and undemocratic. In effect, military involvement means that we are back to the pre-revolutionary days, i.e. back to start, back to the beginning of January 2011. It is as if Mubarak is still in power. The military coup is a derailing of the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood are the heroes, and the peaceful protectors of the revolution and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood are the only democratic force in the country. Mursi is the first democratic president, ever. His reinstatement is vital to ensure Egypt’s steady if bumpy road to democracy. In contrast, the military are autocratic and violent. The proposed remedy is the reinstatement of president Mursi, to save the revolution and democracy.

The Military Narrative

The Brotherhood are villains and the military are heroes. It is not a military coup. It is the will of the people. The army are simply protecting the will of the people. The tamarud campaign proves the Mursi had no legitimacy amongst the people.  It is the Muslim Brotherhood who derailed democracy through their authoritarian rule, controversial pushing through of the contested constitution and attempts to instate contentious ministers and governors. (Such as the cultural minister who wished to ban ballet, and the governor to Luxor with links to a militant group responsible for bombings in Luxor), in addition to other attempts at narrowing in liberal arts, and freedom of expression. In fact, Mursi was not even all that democratically elected. First, he is not the first democratically elected president in Egypt ever. Second, the presidential race that Mursi won, was highly irregular by any democratic measure. The constitution was formulated in a highly undemocratic fashion. Mursi put himself above the constitution. All these episodes prove the Brotherhood was taking Egypt down an undemocratic, totalitarian and religiously conservative road. The derailing of democracy claim of the Muslim Brotherhood is entirely fictitious. The military are heroes and protectors of not only the nation but also of democracy. The proposed remedy is the elimination of Mursi as president, and a new government and constitution and savior by the army. The military saved Egypt and Egyptians from the undemocratic and hugely unpopular Brotherhood.

These two narratives pretty much sum up the most major divide in public opinion in Egypt today. However, the narratives do not appear to be equally salient among Egyptians. From what I can make out, the majority of Egyptians appear to support the removal of Mursi and the Brotherhood from power, and embrace the military narrative (next to) wholeheartedly. The latest estimates of figures, relates that 1 million demonstrators were in the streets for Mursi, vs. 30 million demonstrators against Mursi (Ahram Online).  It should of course be mentioned that some Egyptian voices are critical to both narratives such as those who now call themselves ‘the third square’.  For a representation of this third position you can for instance watch Mosireen’s video:

3.august

On a lighter note, ‘the fourth square,’ has popped up as a joke, claiming to form a platform for those who are against, those who are against, those who are against, those who are against, The Muslim Brotherhood, the military and humanity etc..

3.agu

Thankfully, even in these very dire times, Egyptians still poke fun at absolutely everything – for a bit of comic relief. I’d like to thank anthropologist Samuli Schielke for making me aware of this satirical forum.

On a more serious note, I’d like to end with a couple of reflections on who appears to be winning which battle.

My cursory impression is that ‘the military narrative’ is more salient in Egyptian media, while ‘the Muslim Brotherhood narrative’ appears to have gained more salience in ‘Western media’. As for battles on the ground – the military are reported to be suffering less causalities – placing them as the ‘winner’. However, proponents of ‘the Military narrative’ will argue that the Muslim Brotherhood must have calculated that they would loose more of their own, because they would be up against an organized armed military unit. In fact, some would go so far as to argue that for the Brotherhood, ‘blood is cheap’ and the loss of lives amongst Brotherhood supporters as martyrs only strengthens the Muslim Brotherhood Narrative and places them as ‘victims’ in Egypt’s ongoing Propaganda War – which is essentially the point they are trying to sell.

This type of dialectic demonstrates how the two narratives feed into each other, and continue to evolve as events unfold ….