At the onset of the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza, popular Egyptian television presenter Tawfiq Okasha shouted to Egyptian viewers that “anyone defending Gaza on any media platform is a dog”. His comment was just one of many condemning the besieged territory and Hamas political officials.
Amani Khaya, a presenter on the privately owned ONTV, warned viewers not to forget that “Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organisation”. Another television host, Osama Mounir, responded to Hamas’ demand that the Rafah border crossing be opened under international supervision, by asking: “Have you lost your mind? Hey man, why don’t you just come and take Tahrir Square?”.
Last year, after the military coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the closure of television networks sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood across Egypt, Oxford University lecturer Walter Armbrust asserted that the interim government’s promise to bring Islamists back into politics were “only a veneer over a more repressive strategy that fuels divisiveness rather than curing it”.
One year after the forced clearances of the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Square sit-ins in Cairo, many stations that were sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood or that voiced opposition to the military coup have remained closed.
State television and many private stations in Egypt are “essentially parroting government positions”, explained Samer Shehata, associate professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Coverage of the Gaza conflict has been very different from previous reporting,” he added.
In a break with the tradition of sympathising with the Palestinians during previous conflicts with Israel, the early stages of Israel’s latest military operation in Gaza were marked by a series of television broadcasts that excused Israel’s actions.
While the Egyptian government’s official position has been to support Palestinian independence, Abdallah Schleifer, a veteran journalist and professor emeritus of journalism at the American University in Cairo, told Al Jazeera that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s actual stance is motivated by a clear logic: “He sees Hamas as a Gazan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a group giving safe haven to Sinai terrorists.”
Hamas was founded as a political offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the First Initifada, according to the group’s founding charter. Hamas was also barred from all political and financial activity in Egypt after the overthrow of Morsi last July.
Egyptian media have attributed acts of violence in Sinai, including the killing of Egyptian troops, to Hamas or those sympathetic to Hamas, although there has been no direct evidence of Hamas involvement.
Meanwhile, some Egyptian media personalities have gone further than the government in linking Hamas to the Brotherhood. On July 2, Azza Sami, an editor for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, praised Netanyahu’s actions in Gaza over social media in posts that have since been removed.
According to Schleifer, the media response was not only based on the government’s position on Hamas, but is also influenced by “public opinion as well as the contemporary political context”.
At the start of the conflict in Gaza, up to 800 young Egyptian activists from across the political spectrum attempted to travel to the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to supply Palestinians with food and medicine. They were turned away at an army checkpoint at al-Balouza in Sinai.
“The only people willing to do something about Palestine are the revolutionary youth. Egyptians used to support Palestine, but this a counter-revolutionary period in Egypt, and support for Palestine has fallen away as part of that,” said one activist, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
|Gaza Under Siege|
An Egyptian journalist in Cairo, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that “organising a rally in support of Palestine means you risk getting shot or going to prison for supporting ‘terrorism'”.
Despite the allegations that publicly supporting Palestinians is dangerous, some have still backed Palestinian “resistance”. Amr Hamzawy, a public intellectual, tweeted his support for all Palestinians to his nearly two million followers on Twitter during the first week of the conflict, and has written in the privately-owned Al-Shuruq newspaper that “the reality is that the rockets of Palestinian factions followed Israeli aggression and air strikes that targeted people”.
But articles in Al-Watan newspaper have emphasised sources that are critical of Hamas; a majority of news articles published from the start of the current conflict until August 5, that discussed responsibility for the start of the conflict or for a breakdown in interim ceasefires, quoted only sources that apportion blame to Hamas.
Over at Al-Ahram, Egypt’s highest-circulation daily, the paper’s opinion column adopted a more conciliatory tone, supporting Sisi’s assertion “that the Palestine issue occupies its traditional position in Egyptian foreign policy”.
Nonetheless, in the opening phases of the conflict, the paper also disputed those suggesting Sisi had removed Egypt from its usual role as mediator: “Does Egypt need to be called on to enter into stopping the suffering of our brothers the Palestinians?” asked Al-Ahram‘s own opinion column. “How so, since it has been Egypt that has shouldered the responsibility of defending the Palestine issue over the years […] So what more can it do?”
This exasperation has been echoed in Egypt’s leading private paper Al-Masry al-Youm. In an editorial for the newspaper eight days into Israel’s military operation, magazine editor Umur al-Shubki wrote that Hamas “was subject to Qatar’s blackmail and its money when it was pushed to reject the Egyptian [ceasefire] proposal for the simple fact that it originated in Cairo, even though the price would be the death of hundreds of innocent martyrs and thousands of injuries”.
The failure of the United States, together with Turkey and Qatar, to broker a ceasefire paved the way for Egypt’s return as the principal mediating body between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Delegates from both sides returned from Cairo on Thursday to consult with their governments as a five-day ceasefire came into effect in Gaza.
This is not just about anti-Brotherhood rhetoric; it is about any movement that is not in one with the governmental voice. If you're not with us, you're against us.
Egyptian involvement in ceasefire talks has softened the media’s position vis-a-vis Gaza, according to Saozig Dollet from Reporters Without Borders. “That doesn’t mean they’ve turned against the Israeli military operation. But they became less aggressive and included more coverage of the consequences of the operation on the civilian population,” she told Al Jazeera.
Schleifer agreed. “At the beginning of the crisis, the media’s position reflected public opinion, but I think public opinion has shifted,” he said. “You’re affected by these terrible images, watching this horrible destruction being wrought on Gaza.”
Much of the reaction to Palestinian suffering was encapsulated in a post on Twitter by broadcaster Emad Adeeb: “With Gaza but against Hamas” – a sentiment that has gained currency with several writers and broadcasters.
The idea that, a year after the events of Rabaa al-Adawiya, much of the Egyptian media has simply perpetuated its anti-Brotherhood line by condemning Hamas is too reductive, Dollet added. “This is not just about anti-Brotherhood rhetoric; it is about any movement that is not in one with the governmental voice. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”