Battle of the printing presses

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Al-Ahram and The New York Times levelled accusations at each other, but the underlying issue: Egypt should not be forced into becoming America.

Al-Ahram and The New York Times are well known for covering the news. Between them, they have been in the business for over 300 years.

These days, however, the two giants of the newspaper industry are in the unaccustomed position of being in the news.

It began with a 7 October piece in the Times by Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick which was not very flattering of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Al-Ahram later published what Kirkpatrick had wrote, but the Arabic text came out to look as if Kirkpatrick was praising the president.

Al-Ahram then published an apology, one in English and one in Arabic. In the English version it said it regretted the error and apologised for the skewing of Kirkpatrick’s piece, blaming it on the Middle East New Agency which had translated the original but also blaming itself for not having read the original text. But in the Arabic retraction, along with an apology, Al-Ahram had strong words for Kirkpatrick and the Western media which it said had not so hidden agendas.

What is not very hidden is that the NYT is not a big fan of the current Egyptian administration while Al-Ahram is a strong, vocal supporter. That is their respective editorial and policy positions. There is nothing wrong with either. Free press. Free speech. Free world.

What is disconcerting is Kirkpatrick’s double speak. He disapproves what the Egyptian media is doing but conveniently misses the fact that their American counterparts do exactly the same, and more. Kirkpatrick, for example, took exception to the Egyptian media’s grandstanding over Al-Sisi’s UN General Assembly speech, particularly how they hailed his performance as a “transformational moment.” He took special aim at the talk show host Amr Adeeb who gushed over how Al-Sisi “changed the way presidents make speeches at the United Nations,” suggesting that “Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was the groom of the United Nations, and Egypt was the bride,” so the assembly “had consecrated a marriage”.

So what? Newspapers the world over are well known for acting as cheerleaders. The NYT, in which Kirkpatrick writes, traditionally endorses a US presidential candidate towards the end of his campaign, although this taking of sides so publically is something a professor of media ethics would have a hard time explaining to aspiring 101 journalists who are taught from the get-go to always be impartial, neutral observers.

And what if an Egyptian TV talk show host went overboard? What about big American media personalities who go overboard every single day. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher and Sean Hannity are just some of the conservative political talk show commentators and hosts on TV and radio who are some of the biggest anti-black, anti-Arab and anti-Islam bigots who have ever sat in front of a microphone or TV camera. Their work would never be taught in Good Manners and Politeness 202.

Kirkpatrick takes a swipe at what he says is the Egyptian media building a cult around Al-Sisi, although it might have occurred to Kirkpatrick that the Egyptian mainstream media, along with the Egyptian public, might, just might, like Al-Sisi who in the end won June’s presidential elections by a whopping 96 percent of the vote. Since he became president just four months ago, Al-Sisi courageously raised the price of gasoline — a move which on the surface appears negative but one which none of his predecessors were willing to take despite its urgency; provided additional subsidies for low-income families free of charge; and cleaned up the streets of hawkers and vendors who were blighting the capital with their wares.

The biggest decision was launching the building of a second Suez Canal whose corridor will produce significant revenues for the state. The project was funded by Egyptians in the form of bonds, and the over LE60 billion collected in just under two weeks from mostly average Egyptians whose average income pales to that of Westerners, provides solid evidence of the trust the Egyptian public has in their new president.

Kirkpatrick, we believe, would like Egypt’s media to be more critical of the president but the writer should understand Egypt’s current situation; it is not like that of the United States. After having gone through two revolutions in three years which ousted two sitting presidents, Egypt is still in the throes of those breath-taking rebellions which brought change but which also brought instability. The country, its people and media, should rally around the new president. It is not the time or place to vilify him. That is a luxury afforded and accorded in countries which might have gone through what Egypt went through, but hundreds of years ago, and have had plenty of decades to right themselves up again.

Kirkpatrick takes umbrage as to how Al-Sisi became president. Al-Sisi became president following nationwide protests last year against then president Mohamed Morsi. It is believed Kirkpatrick would have preferred that Morsi finished his term, after which Egyptians could elect a new president should they please.

The problem is that it would have been disastrous for the country to wait. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a member, was a clear and present danger. There was no shortage of serious problems — a deeply divisive new constitution, an economy in free fall and an increasingly dysfunctional state under an increasingly power-hungry and unilateralist president and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

All this, people like Kirkpatrick will loudly claim, are not grounds for unseating a president by force. Agreed, but what if the accusation is high treason? It cannot be a coincidence that when Hosni Mubarak was around, Sinai was relatively calm but when Morsi came along, a Sinai insurgency began. Morsi had allowed into the peninsula his jihadist brothers — Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, you name it. They sought to create the Grand Caliphate, much like the current goal of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Army troops and police officers in Sinai were picked off every other day as the militants went on their mission to slowly creep into the small, then big cities, to eventually rule over a nation whose identity they would change in their image.

No better example was Friday’s Sinai attack which killed at least 31 Egyptian soldiers. This was the work of Morsi’s comrade-in arms whose brand of Islam is anything but Islamic.

For a good seven months, there were protests against Morsi which could have ultimately started a civil war with his supporters. Amid the chaos the country was facing, the military had to intervene but only after at least one-third of the country, 30 million people as related by CNN, went out to the streets to protest Morsi’s rule.

Kirkpatrick would have liked that Morsi be changed at the ballot box. Fine, but only if the president himself abided by the legitimacy of law. Morsi did not follow the law and broke it when he issued a highly controversial draft constitution that gave him sweeping unlimited powers over the state’s judicial system.

If Kirkpatrick’s president had granted himself unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts, we are sure he and the rest of America’s media crew would be clamouring for the American president’s ouster. They might demand he be impeached and in Egypt this could have been done but not with Morsi as president. He would have simply remained in office with the acquiescence of the judiciary whose posts Morsi had started to fill with his Islamist friends.

So Morsi was not ousted because of traffic jams, long queues at gas stations, daily electricity blackouts and garbage-strewn streets, nor was he unseated because of increasing authoritarianism and his pushing through an Islamist agenda, disregarding the predominantly secular nature of the country.

He was kicked out because of the charges he is now facing: treason for espionage, working with foreign militant groups including Hezbollah and Hamas. There is also a charge of murder — inciting the killing of opponents protesting outside his palace.

So Mr Kirkpatrick should not insist that Egyptians should have kept a president who is charged with being a murderer, a man accused of treason and a member of the Brotherhood, officially labelled by Cairo a terrorist organisation. The Brotherhood was dangerous and so was Morsi.

Unless, of course, Washington has an interest in the Brotherhood which might serve its own political purposes, and wants the US media to disseminate this support. Since when, actually, were Americans so enamoured with beards, sandals and galabiyas? To our recollection, never.

Kirkpatrick obviously is against the way the government was changed in Egypt. But how many governments were changed around the world because of clandestine US involvement? Libya and Iraq, to name a few, and who not by chance possess oceans of oil. That Gaddafi and Saddam were dictators is really beside the point. The point is that the US blatantly interfered in the domestic politics of these countries, to the point of changing their leaderships.

And who knows? Had there not been some sleight of hand in the counting of votes in the US presidential elections of 2000, then Al Gore would have become president. This was a forced change of government from within if ever there was one.

American correspondents who live in glass newsrooms…

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.