US and Egypt, and why people get frustrated by mainstream media coverage

Today’s (26 Nov 2011) NY Times has a front-page article that illustrates perfectly why so many people get frustrated by mainstream media coverage of contemporary events.  Just as the media lemmings follow official pronouncements on “sovereign debt” off the cliff of economic (dis)analyis, so, too, the media swallow whole the interpretations that governments provide of their own pronouncements.  We read today that the US government wishes to portray itself as supporting the goals of the Tahrir Square demonstrators (the article uses the term “Arab street” and carefully avoids any suggestion of support specifically for the Tahrir crowds); they issued their statement at 3 am EST to make sure it came out in time for today’s demonstrations.  (“For US, Risks in Pressing Egypt to Let Civilians Govern,” 26 Nov.).

That Times reporters would pass off uncritically this interpretation is a travesty of serious analytical journalism.  Let’s look at two obvious reasons why.  First, in trying to analyze what is happening in Egypt, where do the journalists turn first for expert analysis: former (Clinton Administration) US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk.  Ambassador Indyk certainly knows a great deal about the Middle East, above all about matters related to Israel, but turning first to him means one views events in Cairo through the prism of Tel Aviv.  Sure enough, later on, the article has three full paragraphs about Egypt’s relationship to Israel, and about the possible impact of the Obama Administration’s statement on the solidity of the Camp David Accords.

Such concerns certainly do matter and arguably merit their own article in the Times, but they should not take pride of place in an analysis of internal Egyptian events.  The Times itself, on its Op-Ed page, has regularly turned to specialists – political scientists who work on elections, for example – to analyze what is going on in Egypt.  Why do the Times’ own reporters seem so unfamiliar with the analysis of the political scientists who have published in the Times?  Let’s turn to the most obvious case, the 22 Nov. article by Andrew Reynolds, “Egypt’s Doomed Election.”

Reynolds directly advised several Egyptian groups on the creation of the electoral process, so he knows first hand what happened.  He describes the manner in which the military excluded many groups – liberals, Copts – from the discussions of electoral process.  He argues that the process created by the military (with civilian advice) is all-but certain to lock out several constituencies, the Tahrir Square groups among them.

If Reynolds’ analysis is correct, then how precisely is the Obama Administration’s focus “on a full transition to a new civilian government on the timeline that’s been announced” support for the “Arab street?” If, as Reynolds suggests, the electoral rules mean the chances of a “fair and inclusive” outcome are “slim,” and the “first post-revolutionary election” will be a “democratic failure,” how does the Obama Administration’s statement mean the US has come down “on the side of democracy,” as Ambassador Indyk puts it?

If Reynolds’ analysis is on target (other political scientists, and the sort of young, educated Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square or Alexandria or Suez, agree with him), then the Muslim Brotherhood, Old Regime local notables, and middle-level members of Mubarak’s outlawed party will take virtually all the seats in the new Parliament.  They will create a 100-member constitutional committee that can act on the basis of a simple majority to move swiftly toward a new form of government that will guarantee the stability of most of the key elements of Mubarakism.

One can plausibly argue that the Obama Administration does want to curb the worst excesses of the Egyptian military, both for philosophical and practical reasons (enlightened self-interest, if you will), and does want some elements of civilian rule in Egypt.  They surely believe that some form of popular legitimation of the new government will make it more stable, quite apart from being philosophically more amenable than military rule.  Yet they also want the Egyptian military to remain strong, both because of the US’s close ties to, and considerable influence over, it.  They view the military as the main secular counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), so a headlong rush to a democratic system that might bring the MB to power must be the American government’s worst case scenario for Egypt.

The US wants to appear that it supports “democracy” in Egypt, but what it really supports is an Egyptian solution that maintains the Camp David Accords, keeps key levers of power in the hands of the Egyptian military, and adds a veneer of popular legitimation to the government of Egypt.

The upcoming elections will have a counter-revolutionary outcome.  Look for massive demonstrations to take place during the constituent assembly’s deliberations, particularly as word leaks out about how they plan to make sure the old elites stay in power.  Egyptian rulers will then have to decide whether they want to stomp on the aspirations of an entire generation of their best and brightest people, holding back national development in every sphere, or whether they want to give those people a chance to help Egypt develop its full potential.


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