“Western Media Misunderstands Egypt” Abdullah Schleifer

August 16, 2013

This article, by FPRI Senior Fellow Abdallah Schleifer,
originally appeared on AlArabia.net on August 13, 2013. Writing from
Cairo, Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American
University in Cairo.


have been shocked by the shallow way the Western media has covered the
political situation in Cairo since the coup against former President

One would never know from reading The New York Times editorials and a
good deal of its coverage – along with that of other leading news
organizations – that the Egyptian armed forces had moved against a
political movement attempting to impose an authoritarian regime on the

One would never know that, aside from coached demonstrators, the
exultation stirring the crowd at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp
was for martyrdom and not really for democracy.

One would never know, until pollsters finally released data on the
subject, that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians were opposed to
Muslim Brotherhood (MB) sit-ins and marches. These disrupted both the
traffic and a more general recovery in tourism, investment, job
creation, law and order – leading to calls for the sit-ins to end, one
way or another.

One would never know, given the absence of any real political parties
with grassroots support aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, that the
Egyptian army – with its massive number of conscripts and status as a
symbol of Egyptian independence – is the most significant popular
institution in this country, along with al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic

One would never know any of this, because it was a military
intervention which deposed Mursi – and not a bloody civil war between a
couple of million MB and allied Salafi supporters, and the many, many
more opposed to the drift to an Islamist dictatorship. And that – a
civil war – is something media can focus on.

From much of the Western coverage, few would recall how press freedom
was undermined during Mursi’s one-year rule. This was overshadowed in
reports of how the army closed down MB media outlets after Mursi’s
ouster. However, tomorrow that period will be surveyed, along with the
present situation, in a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report
called “On the divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt”.

Uncomfortable with the Military

The skewed media coverage of Egypt is partly due to something
intrinsic in journalism, which makes so many of its practitioners
uncomfortable or hostile to a professional army. Some Western
journalists –Americans in particular – make psychological associations
between military forces and the U.S. Army’s role in Vietnam, Afghanistan
and Iraq.

Many aspects of the media and military are at polar opposites.
Skepticism is a necessary journalistic virtue, versus honor and respect
for one’s superior officers in the military. ‘Nothing is sacred’ is a
plausible perspective for journalists, in the impromptu atmosphere of
the newsroom. Compare this with the sacred duty, or ritual-like
ceremonies of the military: the raising and lowering of the flag, and
the solemn honor guards escorting army parades.

Journalists react with great speed to an event: the need to scoop the
competition is a journalistic virtue. But armies need cautious
deliberation in actions that can mean death and destruction.

Military principles seem distant to the media in America and Europe,
where conscription ended years ago and nearly all journalists are too
young to identify with the critical role played by U.S. armed forces in
defeating the Nazis during World War II.

So in coverage of Egypt, the journalists face something unknowable and incongruous to them – the military. "  Abdullah Schleifer


Schleifer is a Jewish American convert to Islam.  pl

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34 Responses to “Western Media Misunderstands Egypt” Abdullah Schleifer

  1. Given my very superficial knowledge of Egypt this post makes sense to me! Does it make sense to others?

  2. turcopolier says:

    After all the time I have spent on you, you should have more than a superficial knowledge of Egypt. Are you saying you have learned nothing from me? pl

  3. Fred says:

    It is surprising that those professional reporters in the Western press are unable to see that the officers, NCOs and conscripts in the Egyptian army are members of a national institution with a unique history and social role within Egypt. Not to mention zero involvement in any of the wars America has been involved in these past few years (especially not Vietnam; though I think Professor Schleifer is correct in his analysis of American journalists’ psychological make up in that regard).
    One would hope those advising our national leadership were able to overcome their own psychological projections in this regard before giving any advice; however from the what has happened with regard to our actions in the last few months I would say they haven’t. I sure hope the new owner of the Washington Post cleans house. It would be nice to get some real reporting for a change.

  4. PirateLaddie says:

    Cher Colonel — We have learned so much here that we only now realize the depth of our ignorance.
    Cut us some slack — we are not all ME hands (thank G*d!) and rely on the expertise and instincts (not to say refined guts) of folks like you.
    Remember why the oldest regular customer at the bordello always prefered the company of Mary.

  5. turcopolier says:

    Pirate Laddie
    you are right. Sorry Bill. pl

  6. turcopolier says:

    Abdullah Schleifer is some sort of Sufi so it is natural that he has no use for the MB or Wahhabis. They have no use for him. pl

  7. turcopolier says:

    Unfortunately there is a certain generalized anti-military feeling in the press. Schliefer does not seem to be immune for it with regard to the US Army. As for the
    Egyptians recent history, there were two Egyptian divisions in the First Gulf War. They did not fight but they were there. The same was true of the Syrian Division. pl

  8. Al Arabist says:

    Schleifer raises a good point but he’s too easy on the journalism-policy connection. Some policy experts themselves either wish to defy Egypt’s history of military state building OR just believe they can catapult Egypt beyond, say, Singapore. Like we’re going to export to Egypt a super pure version of democracy. Having said that, tanks in the street shocked me after the Boston Marathon bombings.

  9. turcopolier says:

    Al Arabists
    Show me a photograph of a tank in the Boston streets. Do you know what a tank is? It is a heavily armored fully tracked vehicle with a rotating turret that has a big gun in it. Show me a picture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:M1_Abrams-TUSK.svg
    I agree with you that American media are following the WH policy line. pl

  10. Fred says:

    Thanks for pointing out my error. I seem to have my own blind spot as I had read the same facts on the First Gulf War (though I didn’t live through it like you.) How quickly we erased our influence in Syria and Egypt over the past two administrations. It is a very sad state of affairs.

  11. PL! No apology needed but thanks. Issac Newton is reputed to have said at the end of his life something like that all he had learned was but a small shiny pebble he had picked up on a beach with many many pebbles nearby with an ocean of ignorance in which to find more.
    My long term issue for Egypt is what do the Egyptians do when their dams silt up?

  12. jdgalvez says:

    I think Schleifer was featured in the documentary on the 1967 war “Six Days in June”. Very interesting fellow.

  13. steve says:

    While there were no tanks on the streets of Boston, Marine Colonel Peter Martino made some interesting observations on the increased militarization of our domestic police departments when speaking before the Concord, NH, city council regarding that city’s purchase of a APC for its police department.
    “We’re Building a Domestic Army”–Marine Colonel Peter mMrtino
    “[MARTINO 1:25] What’s happening here is that we’re building a domestic military because it’s unlawful or unconstitutional to use American troops on American soil. So what we’re doing, is we’re building a military.
    And so what we’re doing here, and let’s not kid about it, we’re building a domestic army and we’re shrinking the military because the government is afraid of its own citizens. The last time more than ten terrorists were in the same place at one time was September 11, and all these vehicles in the world wouldn’t have prevented it, nor would it have helped anybody. So, I don’t know where we’re going to use this many vehicles and this many troops; Concord is just one little cog in the wheel. We’re building an Army over here and I can’t believe that people aren’t seeing it. Is everybody blind?”

  14. turcopolier says:

    Yes. They are confusing some sort of police armored vehicle or USARNG APCs with tanks, but I continue to be concerned with this kind of imprecision in speech since it has political implications. p l

  15. turcopolier says:

    I have no problem with the thesis that a police state with domestic armed forces not covered by the posse comitatus act is being created. Of course the national guard is already outside the PC Act if not in federal service. pl

  16. oofda says:

    Concur with Mr. Schleifer- the Egyptian Army is a nationally-revered institution. From my few personal contacts with Army officers, they do not want to rule the country- but felt they had to act against the MB. The NY Times, Post and TV talking heads have completely missed the boat.
    And Fred was right when he commented on how we have lost our influence in Egypt. McCain and Graham certainly didn’t help matters with their comments.

  17. ISL says:

    My main critique is that there seems to be some assumption that the purpose of journalists is to inform the public. It may have been once, but today, journalisms purpose is to sell advertising time. Their goal is to provide information that keeps the viewer interested enough to not change the channel during the numerous publicity breaks. The information needs to be of high public interest, with its main point(s) communicated in 15 second or less sound bites.
    None of the ideas Prof Schleifer proposes are amenable to 15 second soundbites. The inevitability of Political Islam (and the need for more security spending) and Lindsay Lohan’s underwear nicely meet the key criteria. The complex role of military in societies (domestic and foreign)? Not really. Hence the attraction of SST.
    Re: The veracity or utility of this information, well…. most inevitable things usually are not and Lindsay Lohan’s fashion – well nuff said…

  18. Matthew says:

    Col: In “This Town” by Mark Liebovich, the author will provide many examples of how the media almost always waits for ther government’s cue.

  19. Maureen Lang says:

    “None of the ideas Prof Schleifer proposes are amenable to 15 second soundbites. The inevitability of Political Islam (and the need for more security spending) and Lindsay Lohan’s underwear nicely meet the key criteria…”
    The very definition of “infotainment,” ISL.
    Also the reason my husband & I became fed up to the gills & stopped watching any national “news” shows (24/7 or otherwise) several years ago- read instead across a broad spectrum of online international newspapers/news sites. SST always the 1st bookmark hit for all things ME.

  20. Bill H says:

    “None of the ideas Prof Schleifer proposes are amenable to 15 second soundbites.”
    I don’t know. How long does it take to say, “The vast majority of the Egyptian people opposed the Muslim Brotherhood?” I don’t speak very rapidly and it only took me four seconds.

  21. Fred says:

    Not just Lindsy Lohan; let’s not forget Russian gymnasts kissing on stage, much to the glee of the left wing crowd.

  22. ISL says:

    Bill H:
    That is a sound bite, for sure, but that still needs qualification (given the general uselessness of polls as shown by Nate Silver) and is not the point of Prof Schleifer’s article – that the relationship between the military and the Egyptian people is complex and nuanced. And nuance does not soundbite.

  23. Medicine Man says:

    I read an article in our (Burnaby, BC) transit newspaper about the violence in Egypt. It was rather vague. Lots of “X number of religious minorities were killed” and “violence is spreading”. Basically talking about political violence as if it were a flood or wildfire, rather than a phenomenon with actors, victims, and motivations. I don’t know if it was deliberate or not but the net result was to obscure the multilateral nature of the violence in Egypt.
    I simply don’t trust a great portion of the western media these days. At best they are sloppy and not up to the task of seeing foreign parts of the world as they exist, rather than how we imagine they exist. At worst they are completely in the tank for their owners.

  24. Matthew says:

    oofda: Which McCain comment? He was for cutting off aid to Egypt until AIPAC told him to be against it before he decided again that he was in favor of it.

  25. Al Arabist says:

    Mea culpa. You got me sir. Yes i get your point about nomenclature. What I saw was this, http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenco_BearCat
    a civilian, i too am a product of my experience. I was not against strong measures and did NOT feel Boston was in lockdown any more than during a bad blizzard.

  26. turcopolier says:

    not just a comment on nomenclature. A tank is altogether a killing machine. An APC is an armored trick or tractor. The Bradley is more like a light tank. pl

  27. walrus says:

    With respect Bill H; “The vast majority of the Egyptian people opposed the Muslim Brotherhood?” is NOT the soundbite I think Maureen Lang and ISL are talking about.
    The correct soundbite is “Stay tuned, because after the break we will show you why The vast majority of the Egyptian people opposed the Muslim Brotherhood”
    As opposed to “Stay tuned, because after the break we will show you Lindsay Lohans latest underwear”.
    The news content in infotainment is, as ISL said, a call for viewer action or inaction. There is nothing titillating about the Egyptian situation unless you are a necrophiliac, hence it isn’t aired.

  28. optimax says:

    Americans, including journalists, are brainwashed into believing “democracy” is constituted solely by the act of voting, at least, on the national level. That is why so many in the media keep saying the military overthrowing a democratically elected president is unacceptable. The fact that Morsi lied his way into office and was creating an authoritarian regime is unexplored by the media, possibly because we are use to our leaders doing the same thing, on a slower and more secretive level. From Bush’s pre-election “I don’t believe in nation building” to Obama’s “more transparent and less secretive government”, their complete reversals once in office have elicited barely a peep from the MSM. Journalists are just average Americans who think the only sacred place in America is the voting booth–not the home, not the land, not the people. To them Morsi is just another lying politician and we are use to that.

  29. In what may or may not be an important refinement in Posse Commitatus discussion DoD has issued a doctrinal statement labeling assistance in law enforcement operations that support military operations AOK with Posse Commitatus. Located in Title 18 of the US Code, Posse Commitatus has been amended several times since enactment in 1878 as part of the Hayes/Tilden election deal and ending of Reconstruction efforts in the Confederate States after the WBS!

  30. turcopolier says:

    Does this mean that federal troops can be used in population control operations? If so, why do they not show up in places like Boston after the event? pl

  31. PL! The role of the military in population control is completely unarticulated except for civil riot and civil disorder situations. Always remembering the right of the people to peaceably [undefined] assemble in the Constitution.
    But your question leads me to a spontaneous thought on DoD reform. What if DoD was limited to force projection ops and capability and DHS got the Homeland Security portion of DoD including Cyber?

  32. rob says:

    “A tank is altogether a killing machine.”
    I never knew Guderian was an idiot when he envisioned tanks with surprise, mass and good tank terrain… …breakthrough battle… …operational mobility.
    I always thought a tank was a mg suppressing machine, considering mg’s are a killing machine of infantry. A la WW1

  33. turcopolier says:

    Sophistic nonsense. At the point of Guderian’s spear tanks kill. That’s what they do. pl

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