By Mordechai Kedar
Since the days of al-Tahrir Square in January 2011 all Egyptians agree that today democracy is the name of the political game in their country because for many long years of the regime of the officers –since July 1952 – it was dependent on the mercy of a dark and cruel military regime. One of the proofs that democracy has settled into Egypt is the freedom enjoyed by the media: journalists, broadcasters and owners. The right of the press to express and publish publicly anything that they want is protected.
However, reality is much more complicated than slogans. In the days of Mubarak’s dictatorship the Egyptian media enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom, and the foreign media could operate fairly freely in the country even if they did not sing songs of praise to Mubarak and were critical of him and the governmental system. Even the al-Jazeera channel in Arabic usually enjoyed the ability to operate freely in the media sphere despite the fact that its agenda was to promote Muslim Brotherhood matters at the expense of the Arab leaders. Only rarely would Mubarak close down al-Jazeera broadcasts and prevent its journalists from operating inside Egypt, and even this was for short periods of a few days.
The freedom that al-Jazeera enjoyed allowed it to incite the Egyptian public against Mubarak slowly over a long period of time, and there is a reasonable basis for the claim that the entire Arab Spring is the result of al-Jazeera’s constant incitement against the Arab rulers in this channel since it started broadcasting toward the end of 1996. It is true that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter played an important role in allowing Egyptians to organize demonstrations, but we must bear in mind that these sites had an instrumental but not essential role. They were the tool that allowed the public to organize the demonstrations while the local media – newspapers, radio and television – were closed to them and did not publicize the subject, time or place of the demonstrations. Al-Jazeera not only publicized the demonstrations, it also covered them live so Mubarak’s opponents had the opportunity to say whatever they wished against him for hours on end.
After the president of Tunisia fled, demonstrations against Mubarak broke out in Egypt on the 25th of January, 2011, and he was dismissed on the 11th of February. The military managed the state. On June 30th, 2012, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president, granting al-Jazeera its greatest achievement: they overthrew a sitting president and put a president from the Muslim Brotherhood in his place. One year afterward, on the 30th of June, 2013, huge demonstrations against Mursi broke out, and the military exploited them in order to get rid of Mursi on the 3rd of July, 2013. The Emir of Qatar – the spiritual father of al-Jazeera – knew ahead of time about the plan to overthrow Mursi and resigned one week beforehand, on the 25th of June, 2013. He could not bear the shame of failure.
Abd al-Fateh al-Sisi, the Egyptian minister of defense, became the most powerful person in the country. Mubarak II, but much more popular, for one reason: all of the Egyptians who don’t want Muslim Brotherhood rule cling to him like a drowning person to a plank of wood. He is putting Mursi on trial and accusing him of severe crimes, including the murder of demonstrators, and he intends to run for president in the elections that will be held soon. But how can Sisi succeed as president when al-Jazeera is breathing down his neck and spreading terrible propaganda against him? Sisi has taken the necessary steps from his point of view and during the second half of 2013 arrested approximately 20 al-Jazeera people who operate in Egypt accusing them of spreading false information. He confiscated the Egyptian branch’s photographic equipment and closed down its offices.
Qatar, the country that al-Jazeera belongs to, moved Heaven and Earth in order to have the journalists released from the Egyptian jail. It managed to enlist the aid of journalistic organizations, UN officials such as the human rights representative Navi Pillay, British minister William Hague, and even members of American Congress to help the channel’s journalists, but Sisi paid them no heed. He wasn’t about to take a lesson in democracy from anyone, because in his opinion freedom of the press is not a license to spread lies, and he would teach al-Jazeera how far it can go in taking down presidents. Saudi Arabia – which never allowed the al-Jazeera people to work in its territory – gives Sisi monetary support, but he can behave this way toward Qatar.
Meanwhile al-Jazeera continues to relate to what happened in Egypt in July as if it was an illegitimate and illegal military coup, and it seems that as long as the channel continues to regard Sisi’s rule as illegitimate he will continue to hold the al-Jazeera people within the walls of the prison. Their release depends on Qatar’s change of policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is in the hands of Tamim, the new Emir of Qatar. Even now, both sides are entrenched in their positions and the al-Jazeera people continue to pay the price of the cultural battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents.
Hamas is also part of the picture
What is the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas? There are common principles and ideology and some personal, organizational and financial connections, not much more than that. The goal of the Hamas movement is the liberation of Palestine – including Tel Aviv and Haifa – and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt works toward the liberation of the Egyptian people from the secular military elite that took over their lives beginning July of 1952. Both movements share an apocalyptic vision of one great Islamic state that will encompass all the Muslims in the world, as well as perhaps the imposition of Islam on all of humanity who have not yet seen the light.
Besides this there is not much in common between the two movements, and I do not believe many of the stories that have been told of Hamas in recent years. For example – that Hamas and Hizb’Allah operatives were the ones who broke into Mubarak’s prisons in January of 2011 and freed the detainees, including Mohamed Mursi, who is currently being tried for escaping the prison. I do not believe that the Hamas movement has organized the explosions and car bombs in Egypt recently, despite the fact that Sisi’s police repeat the claim that the Hamas people have joined up with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to take over Egypt once again.
There are reports about several explosives engineers who have gained their expertise within the framework of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other groups in Gaza who found their way to Sinai before Sisi ruined the tunnels, and taught the craft to their colleagues in Sinai and in Egypt, but I do not believe that Hamas, as an organization, had or has a policy to bring down Sisi’s regime in Egypt, because the heads of Hamas know well the price they would pay – personally and as an organization – if Egypt found out. The tunnels and the taxes that are imposed on smuggled goods, weapons, ammunition, fuel, food, cash, the Rafah Crossing and the logistical rear in Sinai – all of this would go down the drain if they took concrete steps against the military, the police the security forces or the governmental institutions in Egypt. They have too much to lose and too little to gain from the battle against a state such as Egypt with a regime such as Sisi’s, which began in the beginning of July, 2013.
However, the Egyptian regime needs an external enemy in order to explain its limited success during the past eight months: the economy is stagnant, terror in Sinai is flourishing (take, for instance, the Korean tourist bus), tourism is not returning, the Americans are angry, the Ethiopians are taking over the waters of the Nile and Israel – a state that has a peace agreement with Egypt - cannot be blamed for the Egyptian troubles. So who can be blamed? Fortunately, there is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood’s brothers, meaning Hamas.
And since we are already blaming them, why not confiscate their property? The impoverished Egyptian knows that the Palestinians receive support from UNRWA and the per capita income in Gaza is much higher than the per capita income in Egypt, so nothing would happen to the Palestinians if they shared their wealth with the Egyptians. This is why Sisi is sure that confiscation of Hamas property in Egypt will be welcomed by the Egyptian public, which objects to the Brotherhood, and his image will thus be improved as the elections for presidency approach. This is why Hamas must pay the price of Sisi’s rise in popularity among the Egyptian public.
The problem is that if Egypt behaves very harshly with Hamas and fights an all-out battle with it, the movement– as a movement – might retaliate using the terror techniques that it knows so well how to use, and may even turn to Iran to rescue it from Egyptian pressure. And if the Egyptian pressure on Hamas is accompanied by Israeli pressure, the Iranians would be even more eager to go back to equipping Hamas again with the best of Iranian weaponry that has been undergoing a series of tests and experiments on the Syrian citizens lately. This will not help either Egypt or Israel.
Ukraine is here
The Arabic media is following the events in Ukraine with much concern. Putin is again teaching Obama a lesson and charges ahead like a bull without limits or boundaries. He doesn’t care at all about Europe, and Obama the pacifist doesn’t even move the tip of the last remaining hair on Putin’s head. The Arabic media see and present in live broadcast what we in Israel have understood for a long time: the West is nothing but a paper tiger, the United States has lost its power and the coalition led by Russia is taking over the world. And who is a member of this coalition? Iran.
The West has given up the economic sanctions that it had imposed upon Iran in the past, mainly in order to stand in line to sign business deals with the oil and gas superpower. The West averts its eyes so as not to see the Iranian military nuclear project that progresses secretly and with Russian support. The West isn’t interested in the fate of tens of millions of Iranians groaning under the dark dictatorship, yearning for freedom, because what drives the West is its own interests and money, not ideology, because if ideology was what motivated the West, it would not have allowed the Russians to trample over Ukraine and occupy parts of it.
After the Ukrainian story calms down, the Arab politicians, lead by Sisi, will stand in line to get to Putin, to congratulate him on his achievements and take inspiration from him about the way they should lead their peoples. The days of the Soviet Union are returning to Russia, and the officers’ regime has returned to Egypt: the organizational grandson of Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the ideological son of Mubarak will be elected soon as president. The media will be silent and dreams of democracy will remain theoretical. The invasion of Russia into Ukraine (2014) reconstructs the reality of the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956), the Soviet conquest of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979).
The important question for our purposes is whether the Ukrainian invasion will strengthen Russia as the invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia did or perhaps lead to the collapse of the Russian dream, as happened after the failure in Afghanistan. One way or another, the Arab world is watching the events in Ukraine with great concern, because the balance of power that will consolidate in the global arena will have an influence – and apparently a negative influence – on our area, which Iran is threatening with a very strong friend in the Kremlin. Netanyahu can speak and issue warnings in conferences such as AIPAC to his heart’s content, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah can tremble over his entire body, but the balance of global power is totally tilting toward the Russian-Iranian coalition, and this is what dictates the agenda of the Americans and the Europeans in the Middle East.
Dr. Kedar is available for lectures
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.
Additional articles by Dr. Kedar
Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.