Media key in Egypt’s political transition
World View: Egypt and Turkey are similar in many respects, including having a compliant media
Protesters demonstrating against Mohamed Morsi in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in June. The question of whether his overthrow was a coup or a revolution is still not resolved. Photograph: New York Times service
‘Turkey has to understand it is speaking to a big country with a great history.”
This was how Egyptian presidential spokesman Ahmed Elmoslmany responded to repeated criticisms by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of how the Egyptian army overthrew Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule on June 30th.
He described the criticisms as an interference in Egypt’s internal affairs – perhaps not surprising when Erdogan called Morsi “my president in Egypt” after his departure.
Understanding the similarities between the two states reveals a lot about the region’s politics, despite their different levels of socio-economic and political development. One can imagine future “compare and contrast” questions beloved of examiners on subjects such as the armed forces, Islamic parties, secular opposition, and compliant state and private media.
Turkey’s role as a possible model for regional political development looks more tarnished after Erdogan’s lurch towards authoritarianism following the Taksim Square protests, which obviously recalled for him the more dramatic Tahrir Square protests.
The role of both armies is central as powerful institutions with great popular legitimacy and special interests. The term “deep state” was coined to describe the manipulative and conspiratorial activities of securocrat groups with the Turkish army on display in the Ergenekon trial, which concluded this week with life sentences for 19 people. The phase is also freely used in Egypt by those sceptical about opportunist aspects of the alliance between liberal revolutionaries and the army that saw Morsi deposed.
Egyptian television comedian Bassem Youssef expressed this disquiet in a newspaper column, saying the “victory high” and “arrogance that you see in the private media is the same sort of behaviour that ended the Brotherhood’s era, and overthrew their popularity. We are now repeating the Brotherhood’s same mistakes. It’s as though we have the memory span of a goldfish.”
Now that negotiations on releasing Morsi have broken down, his warning about army rule seems more prescient as a potentially violent conflict looms. That would really test the ability of Islamic parties in the region to handle power, forge alliances and exercise pluralism, which Morsi’s government conspicuously failed to do. Army repression casts the Muslim Brotherhood back into the victimhood they are so used to. It upsets the Turkish model of Egyptian development on which much western policy and commentary has put such store. But in Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco, variants of the model live on, however much their failures in office offend opponents and disillusion followers.
Coup or revolution?
More farseeing Egyptians such as media scholar Rasha Abdulla believe the question of whether Morsi’s overthrow was truly a coup or a revolution will not be resolved until the political transition has been completed in six to 12 months. Its lessons must be learned during a revolutionary process that is inherently unpredictable.
“What happened was an ousting of an elected president (his legitimacy is a different matter) by the military at the demand of the people.
“You cannot straight out call it a ‘coup’ because it was at the popular demand of millions of Egyptian citizens; and you cannot straight out call it a ‘revolution’ because the final move was carried out by the military, who remain very much a part of the political scene today even with an interim civilian president in power.”
The challenge now is to get the military out of politics as fast and as much as possible. If that does not happen June 30th will be seen as a coup; if it does happen it will be seen as a revolution.
Confronted with this simultaneous inversion of his own power base in the Egyptian developments, it is not surprising that Erdogan has responded in such a hostile way. Hence the satisfied edge to his comments on the trial and the increasingly fractious attitude towards critics of his Islamic-based party, especially in the media.
More than 30 journalists have been dismissed from Turkish media since the Gezi Park protests in a shocking confirmation that it is controlled by “moguls who operate in other areas of the economy like telecoms, banking and construction”, as Yavuz Baydar, former ombudsman of the newspaper Sabah, put it in a New York Times article, leading to his sacking.
They are close to Erdogan and rely on him for business. A similarly compliant media in Egypt still has many lessons to learn about professionalism, independence and a public interest role. Its ability to do so could be a key determinant of whether this dramatic transition remains open to democratic change or gets captured by older interests.