SCAF’s transition in the Western press

Published in The Daily News Egypt

The Western press was this week gripped by the electoral drama in a Mediterranean nation with a history of military meddling now in the midst of a national crisis. I am talking, of course, about Greece, whose elections pipped Egypt’s to the front pages.

Not that the great game of Egypt’s own electoral politics hasn’t attracted its fair share of commentary. They all knew something was up when the Supreme Court’s rulings in favour of Ahmed Shafik’s candidacy and the dissolution of parliament were announced.

“A counter-revolution in all but name”, declared David Hearst in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, while The Economist proffered a similar analysis: “this amounts to a soft military coup through the proxy of the country’s most important court.” About a move by SCAF to crush dissent, there was fittingly no dissenting pro-SCAF voice in the Western press – an anti-Contitutional Court consensus that was surprising in the context of the anti-Brotherhood hysteria that flourished, not without reason, in some quarters of the Western media.

(It made a small re-appearance this week in a silly report on Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that re-iterated theories in the Israeli media that the Brotherhood were responsible for two missiles fired into Israel by a band of Bedouins in the Sinai.)

The New York Times struck a more moderate note about SCAF’s politicking, asserting their constitution-related decisions merely amounted to a “blow to transition”. However, David Kirkpatrick, the piece’s author, also placed them in a rather dramatic context, citing other instances in Middle Eastern history “when secular elites have cracked down on Islamists poised for electoral gains, most famously… the dissolution of Algeria’s Islamist-led Parliament”. That started a civil war.

Although no-one offered quite so overblown a prediction, talk of a second revolution was revived. Charles Holmes in Foreign Policy magazine boldly predicted that “a much bloodier uprising is inevitable”, while Robert Fisk, in Britain’s The Independent, reproved “the belief among journalists and academics that Tahrir Square would fill once again with the young of last year’s rebellion, that a new protest movement in its millions would end this state of affairs, has… proved unrealistic.” If the last few days are anything to go by, Fisk appears to be correct.

In neglecting to cover the current elections with as much aplomb as previous ones, the Western press was perhaps afflicted by the same malaise and indifference that afflicted the Egyptian electorate, only 15% of whom – according to some reports – deigned to vote in the second-round.

The usual, tiresome narrative of army vs Islamists was served up for their readers’ delectation. Prizes for the most facile exposition goes to Holmes in Foreign Policy, who sees Egypt, appropriately enough, as a pyramid of “the three M’s: the military, the mosque and the masses”. While Shafik can reasonably be termed the military’s candidate, is it sound to reduce Mursy’s support to the clerisy?

France’s Le Monde parroted that same narrative: “60 years of struggle between Islamists and the military”, a feature was entitled. But it also went on to speculate on impending arrangements, if – as now seems very likely – Mursy accedes to the presidency and becomes chief of the army. Le Monde’s analyst Christophe Ayad believes co-operation to be perfectly plausible, even citing (un-named) “Islamist sympathisers in the military”.

This is a contention that swims against the tide, as most commentators are revelling in “prospect of a dramatic showdown within the highest institutions of the state”, as Jack Shenker puts it in The Guardian, reporting on The Brotherhood’s angry reaction to SCAF’s Constitutional Declaration.

It would appear that a view of the Brotherhood pitted in opposition to the military has taken hold of the Western media, transforming these shrewd Islamists into unlikely poster-boys for democracy. Even that bastion of Western liberalism, The Economist, has endorsed Mursi: “Vote for the Brother”, read their editorial. The endorsement was not unqualified: “If they opt for Mr Morsi and the Brothers, they face a future full of risks.” But they echoed many Egyptians in warning against “a return to the oppressive past under Mr Shafiq.”

But even a Mursy victory, Robert Fisk explains astutely in The Independent, will be no guarantor of democracy. “Mubarak’s 300,000-strong army of thugs remains in business despite elections”, he declares, and despite the Brotherhood’s fighting talk, no-one believes they have the wherewithal to pose a serious challenge. “The Arab Spring may be dead”, Fisk wonders. The electoral aftermath will provide us with an answer.

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