Egypt and Iran: endless media wars

If we want to understand the political and media war launched by the Egyptian regime against its Shi’a citizens, it cannot be isolated from the regime’s stand vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah. The biggest mistake we can make is to separate what is happening with the Shi’a in Egypt from the trend followed with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt Nasrallah
Demonstrators in Egypt chant in support of Palestine, waving pictures of Hassan Nasrallah.

CAIRO, Aug 12, 2009 (MENASSAT) — “Iran is neither with us nor against us. It is against those we chose to be with, so we must consider it against us. Disregarding its motives, it is supporting some Arab parties, which our allies consider as against them and against us. Thus, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and all those with similar attitudes as the Muslim Brotherhood and others, are against us. Considering what we have learned from the genius of George W. Bush in the preemptive war, we must rush into open confrontation, on the security, political and media levels, against all those who are against us. Only then should we think of the exit ‘operation,’ or those who follow us can think about it.” This has been the political stance of the Egyptian regime.

A strategy or an improvisation?

A well-informed source who worked with the presidency for some time told MENASSAT that “the wise men” inside the presidential institution think that corruption is no longer under the control of President Hosni Mubarak, to the extent that he is currently incapable of addressing it, even if he wants to. Measures taken in the past as part of a systematic plan to allow for the provisional expansion of the  peaceful Islamists' movement, as opposed to the armed Islamists, to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood's power, are now part of a routine, even if they appear haphazard. 

From the 1990s until the beginning of the current decade, the Egyptian regime followed the preset policy of arresting “some” members of the Brotherhood to send a message to “all.” Now, the arrests take place before the regime even contemplates the message, or before accusations have been hurled. The funny point is that accusations against a group could change even within the arrest period.

The confusion of Iran, Hezbollah and the Egyptian Shi’a is therefore unsurprising. It has become common knowledge that there is a division between the so-called “moderate” states and the “pro-resistance” axis in the Arab world, and that the former is actively working to undermine the latter, which include movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

But we can’t understand when this open confrontation pervades every little detail, thus preventing the decisionmakers from following a methodology that could be studied by political specialists.

In confronting the Brotherhood, the regime banned the newspapers “Afaq Arabia” (Arab horizons) and “al-Sha’eb” (the people), which limited the group’s breathing room, and prevented their access to media outlets. And when silencing them proved impossible, the regime resorted to another technique -- wrongly pronouncing their names to prevent people from recognizing them.

In its confrontation with the pro-resistance axis, the regime attacked Al-Jazeera, and forbade Hamdi Qandil, Egypt's most popular and controversial TV commentator, from appearing on any Arab channel, including the Libyan channel. It then also seriously threatened to shut down al-Manar television if Qandil appeared on it. The latter move appealed to one of the system’s advocates who sued Lebanese al-Manar and Iranian al-Alam requesting that they be banned from NileSat, in addition to the ensuing attack campaign, which official newspapers excelled in with the start of the Hezbollah cell case.

As the international pressures and extraordinary measures against the Brotherhood spread confusion, as happened in 2005 and 2006 when the regime was forced to open the door wider than usual, one shouldn’t exclude the possibility of new developments that would push the regime to retreat and cool the atmosphere with the pro-resistance axis. This is quite possible in the shadow of the dialogue tactics currently followed by Obama and the British Parliament and some European partners.

But the honeymoon between the Brotherhood and the regime, as some like to describe it, ended. With the rising likelihood that Gamal Mubarak will inherit the rule from his father and that the civil unrest which began in 2006-2007 will continue, the regime had to take a decisive stand on the “banned group.” For the first time in Egypt’s history, the Brothers were officially accused of terrorism and money laundering in a military trial against many officials and members inside and outside Egypt, resulting in the confiscation of Khayrat al-Shatter’s assets, the deputy authority in the group, and prison sentences up to 10 years, despite the fact that the main two charges were dropped. Now, a new case awaits others leaders of the group, mainly the General Secretary of the Arab Doctors Union, Abdul Menem Abou al-Foutouh, and the head of the parliamentary bloc of the Brotherhood, Sa'ad El-Katatni, with two accusations: money laundering and “Helping Gaza”, not to mention arresting bloggers and crushing the Brotherhood's presence in universities.

This means that one case against Hezbollah is not enough, nor is the plan to shut down the two channels representing Hezbollah and its ally, Iran. This should be backed up with a third procedure. What do we do? How about arresting 306 Egyptian Shi’a on the accusation of threatening national security and contempt for religion? That’s sounds like a good idea. God help us.

Is the motive religious or political?

Those who are well aware of the Egyptian regime’s hostility towards Islamic movements, won’t believe that Sunni jealousy is pushing the Egyptian regime to defend its Sunni Azhar, (which was built by the Shi’a Fatemites.) 

If some analysts see in the KSA’s animosity towards Iran nothing more than the hostility of a kingdom towards a republic that sought to export its revolution –– an argument that has been used to incite sectarian conflict, in addition to exploiting incidents by Iranian pilgrims–– it is very unlikely for observers to think that Sunni Egypt is in confrontation with its Shi’a rivals, inside Egypt or outside.

But, as is the Egyptian regime’s habit, there is no objection to using religious invocations as long as it is in its own interest. The same regime that sent the Muslim Brotherhood to trial for using the slogan “Islam is the solution” during the elections, on the grounds that it is a religious slogan, also had its candidates use passages from the Qoran in their electoral campaigns. It is also the same regime that allows the Salafist current to control some of the religious channels, which broadcast from Egypt using the Egyptian satellite. This occurs in exchange for three benefits: allowing the Salafists to spread their popularity to pull the carpet from under the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood; pulling high society away from any Islamic trend by presenting a hard-line speech; taking advantage of their animosity towards the Shi’a and attacking them around the clock, sometimes by “exposing” their doctrine and the mysteries of their books, and other times by historical citations.

New media outlets are not safe from sectarianism. It is known that the ruling National Party is hiring youth to comment continuously on news websites and forums under different pseudonyms. These youth don’t follow a specific line: if the aim is to glorify, they praise the president, even if with exaggeration. If they are asked to attack, they charge with all their power. In the case of Hezbollah, this annoying group can’t avoid a sectarian line.

The media war regresses after the parliamentary elections

Not to indulge conspiracy theories, but it couldn’t be a mere coincidence that on April 8th, the Egyptian regime hurled accusations against Hezbollah of preparing “terrorist” activities; on April 17th, the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades hurried to support Egypt by cutting ties with Hezbollah, before any accusation had been proven; then the Egyptian Foreign Minister refused the mediation efforts of the Head of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri to contain the crisis on April 18th, while France stood by Egypt against “foreign interference,” in the words of Frederic Desagnaeux, spokesman for the French foreign ministry on April 20th. Finally, Egypt summoned the Head of Iran's Interest section in Cairo, Hassan Rajabi, to object to the statements of Ali Larijani concerning the crisis. All of the above occurred amid a fierce media campaign deprived of the basic professional and ethical values, and in accordance with the projected plans of the different Lebanese parties for the parliamentary elections.

Journalist Eric Follath’s article in the German magazine Der Spiegel pointed to an international collusion, and carried a clear accusation against Hezbollah in the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri. To properly place this accusation, we should look with a critical view at the evolution of the media war, and its sudden lethargic shift:

Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah still wasn’t aware of the radical difference in the composition of the Egyptian people from that of the Lebanese people, when he sent his call at the beginning of the Gaza War, asking the Egyptian army to revolt against the regime. The Egyptian regime reserved this card to play it after the Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire. 

The real crisis wasn’t in Hezbollah's desire for resistance, nor in Hezbollah General Secretary's wish for Egyptian chaos, but in the use of the media. What is said in public can only be answered in public.

Since then, the Egyptian president hasn’t wasted any occasion to harshly address the “external (non-Arab) powers looking for supremacy and control, and exploiting the Gaza war and Palestinian lives,” according to the speech he gave during the Economical Arab Summit in Kuwait on January 19th.

The same pattern continued when the Egyptian authorities declared on April 8th the existence of “a conspiracy aiming to shake the stability in Egypt” led by the secret “sabotaging” cell of Hezbollah, which involved 49 suspects, including a number of Lebanese and Palestinians, along with Egyptians. 

Then, Nasrallah reappeared on al-Manar on April 17th to answer the accusations, and pointed to official Egyptian participation in the siege of Gaza, in concordance with the appearance of Esma Al-Irian, a leader in the Brotherhood, on al-Alam television who expressed his surprise concerning the accusations against Hezbollah.

Mubarak didn’t ignore this. On April 23rd, he spoke at the commemoration of the Sinai Liberation about “siding with the Arab nationality and not allowing for the regional interference from powers rejecting peace and pushing the region to the edge, aiming to spread its control and agenda over the Arab world, fueling the conflicts in the Arab and Palestinian scenes, and forcing their agents to threaten the Egyptian national security and shake its stability. I say to those: we are aware of your plans. We will uncover your conspiracy, and we will answer you back. Stop exploiting the Palestinian cause and beware of the anger of Egypt and its people.”

The Egyptian regime didn’t see all this as enough, before the Lebanese elections on June 7th. Hence, on Labor Day the President warned Iran, without mentioning it by name, “against an attempt to spread control over the Gulf and the Arab world”, for it “finds in our Arab World some supporting its plans and movements, and others who surrender from fear or greed to its agenda and directions.” Mubarak continued threatening “now that these forces and their agents dared to threaten Egypt’s security and supremacy, I say clearly that I will not be gentle with those who try to play here and there.”

The Lebanese parliamentary elections ended with the loss of the opposition and the victory of the pro-governmental parties, and the Egyptian media along with its President ended their attacks. Nothing is left but fog in the horizon.