In today’s Egypt, even the giraffes and elephants have learned to hate the Muslim Brotherhood.
“A giraffe, an elephant and a deer are contemplating suicide,” reads an Aug. 18 story in Al Masry Al Youm, a leading independent newspaper, citing Cairo Zoo psychologists concerned about the impact of gunfire and chanting by protesters. The Brotherhood’s “violence hasn’t stopped at shedding the blood of Egyptians; it has extended to the animals.”
Egypt’s military-led government has spent the past month attempting to sully the image of the 85-year-old Society of Muslim Brothers, the organization that backed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the now-jailed Mohamed Mursi.
In addition to violent crackdowns that have claimed 900 lives in the past week and the arrest of thousands of members, the army has managed to paint the group as a terrorist organization despite the Brotherhood’s decades of largely non-violent resistance to Egypt’s secular government.
The terrorist label, forcefully rejected by the Brotherhood, helps the army justify its violence in suppressing its only major opposition, especially at times like the night of Aug. 19, when 36 Brotherhood members died during what police said was an escape attempt as they were being transported to prison.
“It’s been a non-stop media campaign that’s been very effective in tarring the Brotherhood as terrorists,” said Shadi Hamid, a director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “If you repeat something enough, it tends to stick, at least with some people, and that gives the army considerable popular support in moving aggressively.”
Though some protesters linked to the Brotherhood have taken up arms against police and vigilantes in recent weeks, the group has long advocated peaceful resistance. It endured a crackdown by Gamal Abdel-Nasser and periods of tolerance under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, ultimately building a grassroots charitable organization and contesting parliamentary elections as independents.
Secular Egyptians, though, have remained suspicious of the group. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have accused Brotherhood-linked groups of seeking to engage in acts of terrorism. Egyptian judicial authorities say Mursi conspired with the Palestinian militant group Hamas -- considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. -- in murders, abductions, jailbreaks and other violent acts in Egypt.
Activists in Egypt and abroad were concerned by anti-democratic measures imposed by Mursi while he was in power. And as a Brotherhood leader before his election, Mursi told television news channels that Egyptians should nurture their children on a hatred of Israel.
The Brotherhood’s fall from grace has been precipitous. Two years ago, its political front, the Freedom and Justice Party, won a majority in parliament. Yesterday, the interim government arrested the movement’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, whose son was shot and killed Friday in Ramsis Square.
“For the first time, the ‘street’ is willing -- even happy -- to see a section of the population brutalized,” said Ahdaf Soueif, a political commentator and author of Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. “There are sane voices speaking against this, and the hope is that these voices will gain traction over the coming days.”
For the past week, state television has constantly broadcast a banner on the top-left of the screen that reads Egypt Fighting Terrorism. On the radio, a woman’s voice breaks in during commercial breaks, asking citizens to be wary of “dangerous rumors” and to report suspicious activity. In press conferences and official statements, government officials have repeatedly said tanks and guns were necessary to put down what they describe as terrorism and have criticized foreign journalists for being sympathetic to the group.
“Egypt is feeling severe bitterness toward some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood and ignores shedding light on violent and terror acts that are perpetrated by this group,” the government said in an Aug. 17 statement.
The statement accused the foreign media of falling short in describing Mursi’s ouster as an expression of popular will. Also ignored last Friday, according to the statement: “More than five vehicles had entered Ramsis Square, in Cairo downtown, carrying masked elements carrying the black flag of al-Qaeda along with automatic weapons amid celebrations by the Muslim Brotherhood elements who were present in the square.”
Inside Egypt, the label has stuck. The brotherhood “is a traitor and terrorist group, and its members are living among us like a fifth column for the enemies of this nation,” read a front-page column by Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the Tahrir newspaper. “Eradicating their organization and breaking up the network all over Egypt is necessary and inevitable.”
The divisiveness has increased in the past three weeks as major television channels have justified the army’s actions by broadcasting footage of pro-Mursi protesters carrying weapons. In mid-July, talk-show host Lilian Daoud said that to provide balanced reporting, she needed to give more air time to pro-Mursi activists. Recent events have changed her mind.
“What is it if it is not terrorism?” she said. “Almost 1,000 Egyptians have died in the last six days, but how else can the military deal with the unrest?”
Human Rights Watch said Aug. 19 that security forces used excessive lethal force, under-reported the number of people killed, and used snipers to shoot protesters. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union considers the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The Egyptian media’s bias against the Brotherhood has been strengthened by recent violence by the group’s members and because many journalists were targeted by the Mursi government, said Hisham Kassem, a publisher and pro-democracy activist. Furthermore, there are fewer independent voices since all five Islamist TV channels were shut down after Mursi’s arrest in July, he said.
“Given that we’re still far from professional media after 60 years of systematic persecution,” Kassem said, “a lot of journalists have taken things personally.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Mehul Srivastava in Cairo at email@example.com; Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Fraher at email@example.com; Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org