In 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The forcible removal occurred just one year into Morsi’s term, which had been characterized by political instability, mass unrest, and a stumbling economy. The coup came after days of mass protest in Tahrir Square, and el-Sisi justified his coup by claiming it represented the “will of the people.” Much controversy surrounded the validity the military’s act. Some celebrated the coup as a first step toward restoring Egyptian democracy, while others lamented it as a prelude to restoring authoritarian rule. El-Sisi instantly became a highly divisive figure, and that polarization of opinion is reflected in the media coverage he has received over the past three years.
A clear trend emerges in media portrayals of el-Sisi: their tone heavily correlates with that of the portrayals of his chief opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood. The reason for this dichotomy is simple: the legitimacy of Sisi’s rule is premised on the tyranny of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether or not media outlets believe that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were a genuine threat to Egyptian democracy inevitably informs their views on el-Sisi’s rule. Consequently, positive portrayals of Sisi tend to come from news networks that have an unfavorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and negative portrayals emerge from those with more sympathetic views of the organization. Furthermore, in the United States, these portrayals tend to line up along clear partisan lines.
More conservative media outlets like FOX News and the Wall Street Journal portray el-Sisi as an admirable leader, a valuable US ally, and even a reformer of Islam. Predictably, those same news outlets also present the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist terrorist organization, and often conflate supporters of President Mohammed Morsi with the Muslim Brotherhood, and members of the Brotherhood with terrorists. They paint with a broad brush that does not differentiate between anti-Sisi and pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, as if anyone who is against Sisi must be an Islamist. This type of coverage represents a powerful way of discrediting and delegitimizing any criticism of Sisi, since, the Muslim Brotherhood is portrayed as an inherently illegitimate terrorist organization, even when it works within the bounds of established political systems.
The left-leaning part of the American media, on the other hand, is highly critical of el-Sisi and his coup. Liberal media outlets like The Washington Post and the New York Times have no shortage of negative things to say about el-Sisi, condemning him as a repressive killer and expressing grave concern over his political and economic policies. They criticize the American government for continuing to provide his regime with billions of dollars in military aid. Likewise, they are (albeit with a degree of weariness) sympathetic to Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, at least compared to their conservative counterparts.
El-Sisi’s portrayal in the right-wing media aligns with the attitudes of similarly partisan politicians. Coverage of Fox News and other conservative outlets echo the overt praise that GOP congressmen have heaped upon el-Sisi. Mike Hukabee, the former Republican governor of Arizona, thanked God for el-Sisi during an interview with NewsMaxTV. On Fox News, Ted Cruz presented el-Sisi as a role model for fighting radical Islamic terrorism that the U.S. government should emulate, going so far as to criticize Obama for not demonstrating the “same courage…about the face of evil we are facing right now.” Indeed, el-Sisi’s popularity with many in the Republican Party appears to stem from the image he has cultivated as a strongman intent on stabilizing the Middle East by relentlessly fighting terrorism. Jeb Bush praised el-Sisi’s speech about Islam and terrorism at Al-Azhar University in January 2015, calling it an “incredible speech about Muslim extremism.” Donald Trump, too, appears to be fond of Sisi, praising him as a “fantastic guy.”
Meanwhile, the liberal media’s highly critical coverage of el-Sisi does not jive quite as well with the Democratic administration currently in power. The Obama Administration’s attitude towards el-Sisi has been chilly but inconsistent. President Obama froze military aid to Egypt in 2013 after el-Sisi seized control, but stopped short of calling his actions a “coup,” which by constitutional law would require the U.S. government to totally cut off aid to Egypt. But the administration’s stance did not appear to be uniform among its members. Secretary of State John Kerry ‘66 appeared to support the coup when he claimed it represented the army’s attempt at “restoring democracy.” Kerry’s personal stance has not changed, despite his own department’s scathing 2015 report on Egypt’s political situation to Congress, which accuses the current Egyptian government of unlawful killings and suppression of dissent. That same year, the Obama administration lifted its freeze on U.S. military aid to Egypt, acknowledging el-Sisi’s government as legitimate in the process. If the State Department’s report is any indication, the Obama administration believes el-Sisi’s regime to be repressive and anti-democratic, which renders its actual policy on Egypt one of almost willful ignorance.
At first, then, there appears to be a wide gulf between the liberal media’s el-Sisi coverage and the official stances of liberal Democratic politicians. But a closer inspection reveals the difference to be minimal. To be sure, outlets like the New York Times are utterly scathing in their assessment of el-Sisi’s rule. The New York Times editorial board has even penned several anti-Sisi articles. But such negative coverage ultimately leaves little impression on the American media landscape, because it appears so infrequently compared to other news stories about the Middle East. That is the crucial thing to note: el-Sisi receives little positive coverage from left-wing media outlets partly because he receives almost no coverage at all. Reports on el-Sisi’s regime, Egypt’s failing economy, and the rising mass discontent are few and far between, washing up at the shores of the liberal media every so often before receding again for months at a time. The silence is so overpowering as to drain the occasionally critical report on el-Sisi’s regime of any impact. In this strange manner, the mainstream left-leaning American media manages to both take a firm stance against el-Sisi while essentially giving him a free pass, which, interestingly, has generally been the policy of the Obama Administration and other leftist politicians. (As diplomatic relations with Egypt continue to be restored, though, even that stance gets less and less firm.) Left-leaning American media outlets, then, provide a fascinating example of simultaneously condemning and abetting a man they believe to be a military dictator.
But the apparently stark disparity in portrayals of el-Sisi’s by different media organizations belies a darker reality: that their depictions of el-Sisi are not so different after all. The depictions converge at one key point: the obfuscation of el-Sisi’s darkest political machinations.
Problems exist in the American media coverage of el-Sisi, ones that transcend partisan affiliations. Both conservatives and liberals tacitly accept the narrative that el-Sisi and his supporters have continually peddled to justify the coup and its aftermath: namely, that Morsi intended to destroy Egypt’s social and political fabric by imposing a self-serving Islamist agenda of theocratic dictatorship. Even the New York Times, which staunchly opposes el-Sisi today, published several articles in the immediate aftermath of the coup characterizing Morsi as a theocratic dictator. This narrative, which has been repeated so often that many uncritically accept it as fact, is riddled with problems as a distorted account of the Morsi presidency. It elevates incompetence to maliciousness, and imagines a reign of terror under Morsi that is simply not reflected in the facts. A study conducted by The Atlantic found that Morsi was actually more democratic than most other leaders who presided over a country going through a transitional phase, as Egypt was in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The Middle East Eye conducted an analysis of Morsi’s tenure and came to the conclusion that the most commonly cited criticisms of him, such as the argument that he granted himself extra-judicial powers and the alleged Islamization of Egypt’s new Constitution, are either exaggerated or outright false. And yet rarely do these reports receive coverage or acknowledgement in the mainstream media. Even those outlets critical of el-Sisi accept the supposed corruption of his predecessor. This premise significantly undermines their attempts to delegitimize the military general-turned-president, as his supporters can always claim that el-Sisi, whatever his faults, is preferable to the alternative. That “alternative” has recently morphed from Morsi’s rule to the more general boogeyman of radical Islamic terrorism.
Nowhere is the callousness about the lives of peaceful Muslim Brotherhood supporters and cynical exploitation of their deaths for political purposes better demonstrated than in the American media coverage of the Rabaa massacre that took place on August 14, 2013. Humans Rights Watch (HRW) has declared it the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history, and meticulously collected witness testimonies and records show that the Egyptian military and police fired indiscriminately into crowds of nonviolent pro-Morsi supporters protesting el-Sisi’s coup. The attack resulted in carnage on a scale that rivaled even that of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China, and yet Rabaa has attained nowhere near the same prominence or infamy. If anything, its barbarity has been buried in favor of a politically motivated fixation on the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle against the Egyptian army. American media coverage on both sides of the partisan divide has contributed to the gradual erasure of the Rabaa tragedy.
FOX News, as the most influential conservative news channel, serves as a good representation of broader right-wing media coverage of el-Sisi. FOX did indeed report on the massacre and the ensuing violence, but it framed the events in a pro-military (and so by extension pro-Sisi) manner. One of the network’s online reports is a perfect example of how the coverage achieved this seemingly difficult task through four subtle tactics.
The very first words an online reader sees have an enormous impact on how they interpret everything that follows. Headlines, therefore, are key. By calling the article “Egypt authorizes police use of deadly force after defiant Muslim Brotherhood protesters torch government buildings,” FOX frames the Egyptian government’s authorization of deadly force as a response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s acts of violence, which obscures the fact that those acts of violence were in response to the army’s crackdown on peaceful protests in the first place. Secondly, FOX conflates supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi with the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore frames the chaos as a two-sided battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. This narrative effectively purges the atrocities of their human component, as the ordinary Egyptian citizens protesting the removal of their president are transmuted into a violent and faceless mass. Secondly, in the article itself, FOX put an almost obsessive emphasis on the willingness of these protestors to die for their cause. This emphasis feeds into the typical narrative of mindless jihadists often associated with Islam. Invoking that narrative, in turn, subtly militarizes Morsi’s supporters, as it associates them with particular notions of Islamic radicalism. The conflict therefore ceases to be one of armed military versus unarmed protesters and instead becomes a more even-handed battle between Islamist fighters and Egyptian soldiers. This portrayal undermines the tragedy of the massacre, reducing the dead to casualties of war instead of victims of an unprovoked civilian-targeted bloodbath. The report casts the army in a more positive light, too, by softening the impact of their violent intervention. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, el-Sisi is totally omitted from reports of the catastrophe. Only the soldiers on the ground are ever mentioned. The omission of el-Sisi’s name disassociates him from his own military’s actions, and so inoculates him against any blood that may be on their hands, protecting his sanitized image from corruption.
FOX undercut the impact of the military’s crackdown in other ways, including by blaming the Brotherhood for the violence and by suggesting that claims of massacre were exaggerated by placing the word in scare quotes. Perhaps most significantly, Fox News has not reported on the massacre since it happened, content to speak of el-Sisi and Egypt without ever acknowledging that one of the worst slaughters of peaceful protestors in modern history happened on his watch. This omission, conspicuous in its absence, has characterized not just conservative media coverage of el-Sisi, but also Egyptians who defend him using American media platforms. Inevitably, supporters like acclaimed 1999 Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, who in 2014 argued against cutting off U.S. aid to Egypt in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, either gloss over Rabaa or don’t mention it at all. This exclusion is critical, as the Rabaa massacre remains the most damning indictment of el-Sisi’s rule and a challenge to any narrative that paints him as a champion of the Egyptian people. The easiest way to deal with it is to not.
One might expect, given the previously mentioned anti-Sisi bias that pervades American liberal media, that the Rabaa massacre might be constantly cited as evidence for the illegitimacy of the current military regime. Such expectations don’t match reality. While the massacre has certainly been brought up several times after the fact, these mentions constitute a narrow oasis of remembrance in a vast desert of deafening silence. A few articles about the massacre may be written on its anniversary once a year, but otherwise the killings are largely forgotten. Current criticism of el-Sisi tends to focus on the more recent woes of his rule, such as the worsening economic downturn and continuing repression of free speech. Mention of the slaughter tends to be either neglected or only alluded to through the impersonal statistics of casualties and imprisonments during el-Sisi’s reign. In short, the mainstream left-wing media denounces el-Sisi’s worst human rights violation and yet fails to capitalize on that denunciation, preferring to let their best case against the Egyptian president vanish into the fog of forgotten history. This odd practice amounts to a simultaneous condemnation and condoning of el-Sisi, and ultimately leads to the same results as the conservative media’s coverage: to let el-Sisi go.
El-Sisi’s portrayal in the media is a superficial one. News channels construct their images of him on the basis of their attitudes towards him and his enemies, which highly correlate with particular partisan affiliations. Ultimately, though, whether through omission or neglect, the mainstream American media and the politicians who run our government have adopted the same policy on el-Sisi: to abet the reign of the usurper of Egypt’s first democratically-elected government.