Cairo: City of rumours and paranoia

With rampant distrust in politicians, the military and the media, how do Egyptians separate truth from fiction?

Cairo paper accuses Muslim Brotherhood of smuggling chemical weapons to pro-Morsi sit-ins [D.Parvaz/AlJazeera]
One paper suggests the Muslim Brotherhood smuggled chemical weapons to pro-Morsi sit-ins [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Cairo, Egypt – This hectic capital, home to 18 million people, is a city of rumours – a place where a man can’t trust his own shadow, let alone what he’s told by politicians or the media.

The push for restoring democracy here – either by reinstating deposed president Mohamed Morsi, or by holding fresh elections – faces a huge obstacle in the lack of trust from all sides towards politicians, the media and each other.

Since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and the periods of chaos that have followed, a heightened state of tension – at times marked with paranoia – has become the norm.

Among other entirely unfounded rumours, the following claims have been swirling upon the streets: That the military used a special type of tear gas on pro-Morsi protesters on the morning of July 27, during the deadly clashes. Also that the pro-Morsi supporters have planted landmines in the botanical gardens in Giza. And that the Muslim Brotherhood is stashing chemical weapons procured from the Free Syrian Army at the sit-ins.

Maher Abdelfattah said he doesn’t believe most of what he reads or sees on television.

“I think maybe they [politicians and the military] try to use news and rumours as a test balloon,” said the 53-year-old carpenter, pointing to the Maspero media building.

Like many, he’s left to his own devices to verify information, and says he has very few trusted sources in the current atmosphere of distrust.

Abdelfattah’s interview with Al Jazeera was interrupted by a man who, suspicious of the conversation, demanded this reporter’s identification, and said he wanted to call the police – until his friends stepped in to calm him down.

But in today’s Egypt, this level of paranoia has become alarmingly common.

Seeing is (almost) believing

Mahmud Ali, of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy, said that the current atmosphere of gossip and hearsay couls be attributed to the massive polarisation in society, which has been starkly reflected in the nation’s press.

“The media is being used to distribute the government line, rather than committing to objective values” said Ali, explaining that, in this tense atmosphere, the facts can be hard to find.

“Even objective news agencies struggle because of the contradictory messages often coming out of the same government agency,” said Ali.

If people whose training and livelihoods are based on finding and verifying information still struggle to find certainty, the general public is going to have an even harder time deciphering fact from fiction.

“The public, in the end, is the victim,” said Ali. “It becomes impossible to verify the information or news that they are presented with.”

Still, some try.

“I trust the army, so when I hear that they’re shooting people, I don’t believe it,” said Magdy Yusef.

“If I hear there are some clashes, I go down to see what’s happening. Not to get involved, just to see for myself,” said the 23-year-old waiter.

And if that fails?

“I use Google to try to verify it.”

Reports and denials

These days, almost as soon as something is reported, it is denied – often times by the very people quoted in the story denounced. One must be prepared to totally abandon any piece of information as false at whiplash-inducing speed.

For example, a local newspaper reported on Sunday that Morsi’s supporters felt defeated and were on the verge of negotiating a deal and sending him into exile – a claim vehemently denied by the Muslim Brotherhood hours later.

On Monday, a news agency, quoting an unnamed military source, reported that the military had offered the Muslim Brotherhood a deal that would free its detained leaders, unfreeze their assets and give them three cabinet positions in the new government.

A military spokesman immediately denied the report.

Safwat el-Alem, a professor in the mass communications department at Cairo University said that the media wasn’t only manipulating the public – it too has been “manipulated for political agendas”.

And even that message can seem unclear, because “the political performance of the interim government is confused – and this is reflected in the media as well”, he added.

The denial of reports, then the retraction of those denials – as was the case with the Ministry of Interior and the delegation of envoys who visited Khairat el-Shater, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood – are proof “the incompetent performance of the government is reflected in the media”, said el-Alem.

The problem – with the media, at least – is the result of a historic legacy that stretches way beyond the current situation, or even the 2011 revolution.

“It’s easy to criticise the media for its biases, but the root of the problem is that there is no independent organising body that documents, analyses and evaluates Egyptian media,” said el-Alem. Media regulating mechanisms in Egypt “are obsolete”, he said.

This allows outlets to be used for “advocacy or propaganda for the military and the government, presenting one point of view,” he said.

“News that doesn’t support that agenda gets very short play in the media here.”

But some, such as Ayman Wagih, don’t even believe the news when it agrees with their political views.

For example, 34-year-old Wagih believes there are “terrorists” in Egypt – he considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation. Yet, when he read in a local newspaper that the police had managed to defuse three bombs in Nasr Hospital, he remains sceptical.

“I just don’t believe it – how do they always manage to defuse these bombs?”

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Source: Al Jazeera