Egypt began the year with two separate incidents of killings that beg comparison.
On 24 January, the day before the fourth anniversary of the national uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and the rest of the regime, a female political activist was shot and killed during a peaceful anti-government demonstration held in downtown Cairo.
Five days later, hundreds of kilometres away, assailants armed with rocket-propelled grenades, car bombs and mortar rounds attacked police stations and military installations in the Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 30 people in a massive coordinated assault.
So one person died on Saturday and over 30 on Thursday.
It would have been thought that the media, in particular that of the West, would have covered the Sinai attack much more than that of Cairo.
In fact, the opposite happened.
While the Sinai attack got its due coverage, it was straightforward and “just the facts ma’am”. The prose and the opinion, the tributes and the editorialising, flooded in for the activist, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh. It seemed a golden opportunity for the Western media, not to mention a few at home, to paint the Egyptian government as a fire-breathing Godzilla who forces menfolk to lock up their wives and run for the hills.
Here are some choice quotes from the foreign press published about Al-Sabbagh’s killing:
“The killing of Al-Sabbagh, which was captured on video and in still images, symbolises how severely the Egyptian authorities are cracking down as they enforce authoritarian control; a potent symbol of the lethal force the Egyptian authorities have deployed to silence the cacophony of protest and dissent unleashed here four years ago; the latest example of the use of excessive force by police at a time when the government is accused of suppressing freedoms and trampling on human rights.”
Before going further into the news coverage, let’s first address the media people who have apparently found work as forensic experts during coffee breaks. An ongoing investigation has yet to prove who killed Al-Sabbagh. We have photos of her in the rally before and after she was shot but not when she was actually shot. Though Al-Sabbagh’s death was captured in social media footage, including a clip showing two masked policemen pointing their rifles in her direction, followed by sounds of gunshots, none of the pictures can prove beyond reasonable doubt who pulled the trigger. Yet, the foreign media suddenly banged the gravel, deciding for themselves that the whodunit must have been the police.
But Al-Sabbagh’s friends asked a very pertinent question: why on earth would the police shoot and kill the mother of a five-year-old who was armed only with flowers and doing nothing more menacing than mildly protesting to remind the public that the revolution’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice” had not yet been met?
Al-Sabbagh, 31, was neither well known – meaning she could not galvanise people in their millions or hundreds of thousands or even a handful — nor was she dangerous to the police or to the government. If anything, she was a supporter of the present administration which helped oust the previous Islamist president. So why would the police kill her?
Why couldn’t it have been somebody from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has been battling the army and the police since the 2013 ouster of the Islamist government, to make it look like the police? Is that scenario so far-fetched? This time-honoured frame-up is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and was applied dozens of times in various pitched battles that the revolution spawned, yet seems in this instance to have somehow eluded consideration. It was either the police or some baddie like Pol Pot, but Pol Pot died long ago.
As to the media coverage, it was baffling to see hours and hours of punditry and front pages dedicated to the death of one person, while there seemed to be near silence and tacit disregard for the more than 30 people killed in Sinai. These Sinai killers are Ansar Beit Al-Maqdas, the Egypt branch of Islamic State which may be the most dangerous of all of IS’s satellite offshoots. This is the same Islamic State which has just burned alive the Jordanian pilot Moath Al-Kasasbehin an abominable execution.If you can kill somebody that way, killing itself becomes so ho-hum that the fun and excitement becomes dreaming up which kind of brutally imaginative ways you can murder. This is the barbarity that’s Egypt’s military and police have been struggling to contain in Sinai, as they are picked off by these terrorists every other day (alongside continuing protests in Cairo against military rule, which makes it a double whammy for the security bodies).
The relatively sympathetic coverage afforded to Al-Sabbagh has upset those who feel the Sinai dead did not receive such compassion, did not attract the same level of attention and outrage.
You may conclude that this is due to inherent biases of Western media. The numbers are so disparate between the tragedy in Sinai and the Cairo murder that the media over there must be charged with lopsided journalism — failing to condemn the Sinai atrocity but mass mobilising their resources for Al-Sabbagh. There was a massive showing of solidarity for her as much as there was against her perceived killers.
It seems that Al-Sabbagh’s killing touched a nerve with members of the media worldwide. It should, because the murder of an innocent is heart-breaking and cannot go unpunished. And we will never be so heartless to even insinuate that Al-Sabbagh’s passing is less important than those who fell in Sinai.
Both were terrible losses and we mourn each and every one who was killed on those two fateful days.
But let’s be brutally honest. Al-Sabbagh is not the only one who has died in this revolution. Though there is no official count, since the uprising began at the start of 2011 thousands have died, many hundreds innocent.
Al-Sabbagh was one too many, but one of many.
This is not about the number of body bags. We are not saying that the Sinai victims warranted more news coverage because it’s 30 vs one. Every human life is precious.
In answer to the foreign media’s claim that the Egyptian government is suppressing freedom by supposedly killing Al-Sabbagh, an unusually forthright article published in the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram could not have been freer in its condemnation when it pretty much pointed to the police, “the misuse of power and a failure to implement the law”.
This is written in a newspaper that tows the Cairo government line. Try pinning a murder on the Pyongyang government in one of its dailies and you could be next.
Back to our compare and contrast. The foreign media showered glowing eulogies on Al-Sabbagh and gave short shrift to Sinai — deliberately. If you go by the storyline:
Al-Sabbagh was killed by the government.
The Sinai victims were killed by those against the government.
It’s not difficult to see which angle the press people would choose to focus more on. If you don’t like a certain government, if you like bashing it every now and then, if you harbour some sort of agenda, go for the first. Anti-government militants took care of the second.
Why one story receives more attention than another is the kind of question that can result in accusations of indifference.
One might also add intentional.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.