Readers of Egypt’s main state-run newspaper this week were treated to a startling expose. Splashed atop al Ahram’s front page was trumpeted how security forces smashed a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States and Palestinian Islamists to foment the secession of northern Egypt.
“A new conspiracy to shake stability,” the red-ink headline screamed of the scheme allegedly overseen by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire businessman who is among dozens of Brotherhood leaders swept into jail in recent weeks.
The notion that Washington would connive with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a Palestinian group on the U.S. terrorist list, to subvert an Arab ally with a peace treaty with Israel is laughable. But with Egypt gripped by fear and uncertainty, the report served as a shot in a vicious media barrage aimed at destroying the Brotherhood as a political force and vindicating the military’s July 3 coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
And there is another, more ominous side to the media offensive: whitewashing an ongoing crackdown in which thousands of Morsi supporters and other military critics have been killed, injured and locked up, journalists assaulted and religious television channels shuttered.
“Even the gruesome killings that the police committed are being justified,” said Gamal Sultan, the editor of Egypt’s biggest independent daily, Al-Mesryoon, referring to the deaths of hundreds of people – mostly protesters – in Aug. 14 assaults by security forces on two pro-Morsi sit-ins. “This is an organized media campaign to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood.”
A mid-August poll measured support for the breakup of the sit-ins at nearly 70 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, reflecting massive popular backing for the coup.
And therein lies the danger, said Sultan. With almost no professional news outlets to present a balanced picture, the relentless vilification of the Brotherhood and its exclusion from politics could help drive members into the ranks of jihadists, risking a return of the Islamist insurgency that bloodied Egypt in the 1990s and bred some of al Qaida’s top leaders.
“The real fear is that the extreme violence being practiced by the state will create a new generation of terrorist groups,” said Sultan. “I’m afraid that the worst is yet to come.”
The media onslaught saturates Egypt’s state and private media around the clock, nearly drowning other news, including the possible U.S. strikes on Syria, painting the Brotherhood, the secretive movement that helped lift Morsi to his June 2012 election, as al Qaida in disguise. It comes as the transitional government considers outlawing the group before presidential and parliamentary elections promised for 2014 and prepares to put jailed leaders on trial for murder.
State-run television sports the Arabic and English logo “Egypt Fighting Terrorism.” Privately owned OnTV, displaying the banner “Egypt under Attack” in both languages, decries alleged sectarian violence by Brotherhood members as “a real holocaust.”
In doing so, the state and private channels lump together the few gun-toting pro-Morsi radicals who’ve shot at security forces and attacked churches and other Christian minority properties with the vast, unarmed masses of Morsi supporters and others who seek the reinstatement of the free and fair 2012 election results.
“The entire media, both public and private, turned into Soviet-style propaganda machines,” lamented Ghaly Shafik, a popular liberal blogger whose handle is The Big Pharaoh.
Hisham Kassam, a veteran journalist and human rights activist, said that while state-run media must push the government line, private media that have flourished since Mubarak’s ouster willingly participate in what they consider a struggle against the imposition of Islamic rule, which the Brotherhood has advocated since its founding in 1928.
“It’s not under pressure from the regime,” said Kassam. “A lot of people see what is happening now as a battle with the Brotherhood and a lot of them are genuinely terrified.”
Media commentaries span the comedic to the preposterous. A radio host griped that a more than 2-week-old nationwide curfew is forcing husbands to spend more time cooped up at night with their wives, while a former Supreme Court justice asserted on state-run television that President Barack Obama’s brother is a Brotherhood member.
An article in the pro-army Al Youm Al Sabaa newspaper alleged that Shater, the Brotherhood’s chief political strategist, ran an arms smuggling racket with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who enraged many Egyptians when he tried to broker a deal between Morsi and the army.
Television channels loop slick anti-Brotherhood video mash-ups. They contrast shots of long-bearded Morsi protesters firing guns or contorting their faces as they screech abuses with scenes of unarmed, flag-waving anti-Morsi protesters, police funerals and troops on maneuvers. Patriotic soundtracks hail Egypt’s ancient history and the military’s martial prowess.
“We will protect Egypt for all time,” intones a singer as children stand before the Sphinx, a powerful symbol of Egyptian nationalism, in a video broadcast by privately owned CTC TV that celebrated other cultural icons like dancers by the Nile River. It ended with a soldier planting a flag atop a pyramid.
Not seen anywhere: The horrific scenes of security forces charging the pro-Morsi sit-ins, snipers shooting unarmed protesters, bullet-riddled corpses lying in blood-soaked makeshift morgues and army bulldozers rolling over piles of bodies “as if they were dead livestock,” as Sultan put it.
“There’s nothing, including the presence of some rifles, that justifies killing 400 people in a matter of hours,” said Shafik. “To legitimize that, you need to demonize the other side. And the media has done that by showing a few pro-Morsi protesters carrying weapons over and over and over again.
“When I see what the media is doing, it just makes me sick,” he said.
Albert Shafik, OnTV’s chief executive officer, offered no apologies for his channel’s stance. It is no different, he insisted, than the partisanship of MSNBC and Fox News.
“In the end, this is totally about my interests,” said Albert Shafik, a member of Egypt’s 10 million-strong Christian minority.
“The Muslim Brotherhood means the Taliban. It means another Hezbollah,” he said, referring to the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia movement that dominates Lebanon. “As a liberal channel, of course we have to be against them. We are not against Islam. We are against religion in politics.”
Like many Egyptians, he bristled when a journalist referred to Morsi’s ouster as a coup. He responded by citing Morsi’s meetings with Islamists convicted of terrorism in the 1990s, allegations that the Brotherhood tortured and killed police and opponents, and the estimated 33 million people who took to Egypt’s streets demanding his resignation four days before the coup.
“Ideologically, they are terrorists,” he said.
That attitude suits Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, who is being mentioned as a presidential contender, said Said Sadek, a political sociology professor at the American University of Cairo.
“Gen. Sissi’s policy is the . . . systematic destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood step by step,” said Sadek. “The role of the media is very crucial.”
All sides in the political and sectarian divide have used the media to vilify the other throughout the crisis ignited by the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the former air force general who ruled for 30 years, in a popular 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution, experts said.
As soon as Morsi became president, private media owned by wealthy businessmen began attacking him over what many Egyptians saw as his bumbling manners and authoritarianism, and Brotherhood-led efforts to steer the country into Islamic rule. In response, more people were charged with insulting the president – most notably Bassem Youssef, emcee of Egypt’s equivalent of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” – than during Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship.
Meanwhile, a half-dozen religious channel, including Misr 25 owned by the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Justice and Freedom Party, promoted Morsi’s policies and Islamic rule. Morsi’s critics were denounced as a “kafirs,” or non-believers, while minority Christians were insulted.
Kassam blamed broadcasts of hate speech against Shiite Muslims for helping to incite the June slayings of four Shiites by a mob led by Sunni preachers.
“These stations weren’t news stations. They featured religious programs all day and then at night, they’d incite hard-line extremists and they’d basically have discussions about who should be lynched,” he said. “Whether we agree if it was coup or not, the military had no choice but to move in and depose the president.”
In the end, Shafik the blogger said, public resentment of the religious channels – fueled by Youssef’s hilarious and derisive takedowns of their hosts and Morsi – helped fan the popular hatred that enabled the army to overthrow the former president and crackdown on the Brotherhood.
Shafik worries that with all of the senior Brotherhood leaders now jailed and the movement all but crippled, the media could next target critics of the military’s return to power, including the revolutionaries who occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 to force Mubarak out.
“Will the media start demonizing the revolutionaries and pro-democracy activists?” he wondered. “That’s what we will be watching for.”
Amina Ismail contributed to this report.
Correction: This article originally misidentified where editor Gamal Sultan works.