The Arab world was standing on the brink of enlightenment, declared the media with one voice - but a recent poll in Egypt suggests something frighteningly different
Just 20 years ago, on the eve of the first Gulf War, I spent a couple of hours in conversation with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egypt’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and later secretary-general of the United Nations. Stepping into the quiet, cool Foreign Ministry from the clamour and bustle of Tahrir Square was like entering a parallel universe. Nothing within this highly organised eco-system suggested the anarchy outside.
My interview with Boutros-Ghali focused on the imminent war, but towards the end I mentioned that he was the last man standing from the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the last of the leading negotiators – American, Egyptian, Israeli – still in office. The gloom of the past two hours lifted and a huge smile creased his patrician face. The peace treaty, he said, was the high point of his career, the highlight of his life.
Was his enthusiasm shared by most Egyptians? I asked. Nostalgia turned to dismay. It was impossible, he said, to answer such a question. He might guess at the opinions of the Egyptian elite – the top, say, 3 per cent – but he had absolutely no idea what the rest of the population thought about anything at all.
Not so the exuberant media pack which parachuted into Tahrir Square to cover the 2011 uprising. They quickly hailed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak as a “victory for democracy”. In the face of such febrile excitement it seemed churlish to remain po-faced. But I was clapping with only one hand.
True, young, educated and unemployed Egyptians, were in revolt against a corrupt and sclerotic leadership. True again, the Arab world was in ferment. But did this presage a New Age in Middle East politics? How could my media colleagues know with such certainty what a senior Egyptian politician had found unknowable? How could they declare that “the Egyptian people have embraced democracy”?
The answer, of course, is they couldn’t. And, as in much other coverage of the Middle East, the journalists – take a bow, BBC – did not bother to exercise the elementary functions of their craft: to be inquisitive, to question assumptions, to look beyond the overheated excitement. Having written the script, they were determined to stick to it in breathless, eye-moistening interviews – “live and direct from Tahrir Square” – with self-selecting, highly educated, English-speaking protesters.
The Arab world was standing on the brink of enlightenment, reformation, democracy, declared the media with one voice. Those who spoke of “Arab exceptionalism” – the notion that Arab world was unable or unwilling to embrace democracy – were simply wrong.
And just as the media made their bizarre extrapolations and re-wrote the script, they also changed their language. In less than a month, Mubarak had made the seamless transition from “moderate, pro-Western Egyptian president” to “corrupt, tyrannical dictator”.
Perhaps in the permafrost of northern Europe I had missed the dawning of this Arab Spring. But I was puzzled. Egypt had never known democracy, nor had it aspired to democratic systems. Democracy, after all, requires not only elections but also a complex network of institutions and values, rights and responsibilities, checks and balances. Was this the political ideal that inspired the clamour on Tahrir Square?
I consulted the Pew Research Centre, the reliable Washington-based global polling organisation which has developed ways of reaching places that were closed to Boutros-Ghali. Conveniently, a major Pew survey of opinion covering a slew of Arab and Islamic states was published in December 2010, just weeks before the January “revolution”.
A little box of statistics quickly popped up to reveal that no fewer than 59 per cent of Egyptian respondents believed that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. But as I dug deeper into the survey, my hand stopped clapping. Yes, Egyptians want democracy, but not the liberal, secular variety that is cherished in the West. Egyptian-style democracy assumes a specific form.
The Pew poll showed that 95 per cent of Egyptians believe that Islam should play a “large role” in politics, 59 per cent align themselves with fundamentalist elements (as opposed to modernisers), and 54 per cent favour gender segregation in the workplace.
But those were the relatively benign findings. Among others, 82 per cent of Egyptian Muslim respondents support stoning to death as a punishment for adultery; 77 per cent favour whippings or the amputations of hands for theft and robbery, and 84 per cent support the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion…
So what is the nature of “freedom” and “democracy” that Egyptians seek? One conclusion is that the majority of Egyptians – perhaps even the vast majority – want the freedom to democratically elect a fundamentalist Islamic regime that will strictly apply Sharia law – and then consign further reforms to the garbage heap of political history.
The gulf between perception and reality clearly demonstrated that the media in 2011, like Boutros-Ghali in 1991, inhabits a parallel universe. Unlike Boutros-Ghali, however, the media class of 2011 were arrogant enough to insist on applying their own preferred interpretation to events. Never mind the gulf; they were not even aware it existed.
In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist presents his editor with the truth about a long-running myth. The editor’s response is to spike the story with a simple explanation: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That single line explains a great deal about the media’s relationship with the Middle East – from Egypt to Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. And, yes, from Israel to the West Bank and Gaza, too.
Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post
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