On August 17, my friend Hugo Bachega was leaving Al-Fath mosque in Cairo, where Brotherhood protesters had been taking refuge from security forces, when he met with a nasty surprise.
Hugo, a Brazilian journalist, had decided to leave the hotspot after he heard that several journalists had been beaten up and detained, so he walked up to Ramses Street and hailed a taxi. As is the case with most taxi rides in Egypt, the driver initiated small talk, during which Hugo used his limited command of Arabic to explain that he was a journalist. Fifteen minutes into the trip, the taxi encountered an army checkpoint carrying out searches. To Hugo’s surprise, the driver informed the officers that his current customer was an Arabic-speaking journalist. Fitting that description has come to be treated as a crime due to the media portrayal of foreign correspondents as spies or biased enemies of the state. Hugo was taken to a police station, where he was searched and questioned in addition to having his equipment thoroughly scrutinized. With the assistance of his embassy, Hugo was released around seven hours later.
What happened to Hugo, where a citizen volunteers to aid the authorities, is not a novelty on the Egyptian street. The reason for this unsolicited cooperation is largely down to the way in which public opinion is molded by the media—both state-owned and private—in Egypt, which has become increasingly provocative in recent months. Consequently, people started reacting to what the media deems to be threats, occasionally taking matters into their own hands.
Due to the media’s maligning of foreign journalists, it has become commonplace for an ambassador to negotiate the release of one of his countrymen on account of a citizen arrest. The media has successfully depicted foreigners, mostly correspondents or politicians, as posing a threat to national security. This narrative is slowly cementing a notion of ‘Egyptians versus the world.’ Foreigners have not been the only ones to be vilified by the media, as the well-documented ‘Egyptians versus Egyptians’ pattern can also be traced back to media discourse.
It is important to note that the lack of professional standards and objectivity in the media industry long pre-dates the overthrow of Mursi. It is a hangover from decades of journalism stifled under Mubarak, which was then continued during the Mursi administration in much the same way. There may have been new Brotherhood faces filling the offices of Egypt’s media outlets, but the practice of media acting as a regime mouthpiece continued. Since January 25, the media has instigated strife and ideological discrimination among Egyptians by referring to some as “remnants” of the old regime, to others as “thugs,” and to liberal revolutionaries as blasphemous and anti-religion.
But none of the aforementioned labels were as dangerous or destructive as the recent smear campaign on what is left of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters. The rhetoric of the “war on terror” is now being methodically employed against Brotherhood supporters, in a fashion similar to that employed by George W. Bush. The army has used that rhetoric to practice unrestrained violence against the Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Square sit-ins, fueled by the cheers of many. The term “terrorist” has now become a common insult, hurled at a peer in a heated political debate while smoking shisha in one of the city’s coffee shops.
Arguably, many of the Brotherhood’s protesters were, in fact, armed and dangerous, and something had to be done to prevent further violent clashes between the pro and anti-Mursi camps. However, while the Egyptian media insisted on depicting the emptying of the squares as a war between good and evil, the dispersion of the sit-ins was far from any black-and-white moral code. This vast oversimplification forced the majority of people to pick a side: good or evil. As a result, Islamists may even replace Christians as the number one victims of discrimination and violence in Egypt. “Terrorist” is now the new “feloul” (remnant): the only difference is that the norm was previously to politically alienate the feloul, whereas it is now the norm to kill “terrorists.”