By Alex Baum
TUESDAY – 5/1/18
When comparing the media coverage in an independent, democratic nation such as the United States versus a nation with various undemocratic characteristics, such as Egypt, the vast differences as to how events are portrayed become clear. This proves to be evident when examining the American and Egyptian media coverage of the recent 2018 Egyptian elections. In the United States, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s almost uncontested victory faced criticism and condemnation. Conversely, Sisi’s silencing of critics in the media created an independent Egyptian media with a limited ability to debate the controversies of the election. Moreover, the state affiliated media outlets downplayed Sisi’s controversies, such as the arrest of opposing candidates, through their use of pro-Sisi propaganda. As a result of the different ways each nation frames the election, the critical American coverage provides a much more complex understanding of the controversies of the election and its consequences compared to the regulated, biased Egyptian media coverage, whose purpose is to emphasize the beliefs of their leader.
One distinct example of the different ways the American and Egyptian media frame the elections is evident when comparing the coverage of the case of Sami Anan. Anan, a former General and Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, was arrested just days after announcing his intentions to run for President. The majority of the American media portrayed this as a move by Sisi to curb his competition, arguing that Sisi is willing to go very far to ensure his victory, even if it means detaining a very renowned and respected senior official. After the arrest, Foreign Policy described the Egyptian political climate as being controlled by Sisi’s “iron fist,” in which “only one candidate is allowed to run.” (Foreign Policy) Overall, they condemn the undemocratic practices of the Egyptian political system, concluding that “if there was any doubt that Egypt’s upcoming presidential election will be neither free nor fair,” the arrest of Anan has made it clear. (Ibid)
The Egyptian articles not only lack criticism, but moreover any personal opinion about the arrest of Sami Anan. The articles are solely explanatory of the numerous violations that led to Anan’s arrest and don’t contain any political discourse, which is abundant throughout the American articles covering this story. At times the Egyptian media’s explanation of Anan’s arrest, such as his “foregory” of official documents, seem to aim to justify his arrest. (Egyptian Independent, Sakr) In addition to the political discourse, the American articles also provide crucial details of the arrest which cannot be found in neither independent nor state owned Egyptian media coverage. For example, the American media mention how Anan was “dragged out of his car by armed men” just days after his announcement to run. (Vice) They also include details about the rest of thirty other members of Anan’s campaign. Neither the details of Anan’s arrest nor the fact that thrity members of his campaign staff were arrested and being held in an unknown location can be found in most Egyptian media outlets. Unlike the basic reporting of the violations by Anan that led to his arrest by the Egyptian media, the American media, through interviews and personal opinions, explain how Anan’s arrest was unlawful and reflects Sisi’s authoritarian rule. Additionally, they present details about the arrest which simply can’t be found in the Egyptian media, further providing their readers with a better understanding of the injustices of the election. With the absence of these crucial details, the arrest of Sami Anan looks routine and plausible to the Egyptian reader, who is thus unaware of the injustices being committed by Sisi.
The difference in the way the American and Egyptian media frame the election is due to the lack of freedom of speech that Sisi’s administration permits, resulting from an ongoing attack on Egyptians’ human rights. Such attacks on Egyptian citizens’ rights have been condemned by much of the American media, including the Washington Post, who cited Sisi’s extrajudicial killings and the blocking down of “hundreds of websites deemed critical of his regime.” (Washington Post) The Post, describing his regime as authoritarian, mentioned numerous critical comments of the regime made by some very prominent Egyptians. For instance, one member of the Strong Egypt Party stated how “It is unacceptable for the regime for people to have even a hint of an alternative political force other than them. No one can replace them, and that is their message.” (Ibid) Even a former Presidential candidate, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, spoke out against the undemocratic election, calling it a “controlled democracy.” (Ibid) Although there is no consensus on the critiques of the Egyptian political system among the American media, as some call the regime “authoritarian” while others call it a “controlled democracy,” the criticism that is abundant throughout the American media cannot be found in the Egyptian media. This lack of criticism in the Egyptian media further reflects the American media’s more thorough understanding of the election controversies.
The acts of the Egyptian state to silence critics and regulate news have given Sisi the ability to downplay the criticisms of the electoral process through the media, which often serve as pro-Sisi propaganda. These news outlets often focus on other subjects to distract attention away from the controversies of the election. For instance, the state owned media heavily focused on the turnout of the election. Nile International described Sisi’s plea to the Egyptian people to vote, and “make their voices heard.” (Nile International) Even some independent media outlets served as propaganda as well, by refuting claims that the election process was undemocratic. For example, the independent news organization Egyptian Streets uses President Sisi himself to respond to the concerns of Egyptian citizens. One of the major concerns that he responds to is the lack of competition he faced in the election. Sisi responded to these complaints by saying that he was not at fault for the absence of other candidates, stating that the “country’s political scene” is not ready yet. “I was hoping to have up to 10 candidates in this elections,” he stated in response to his criticism. (Egyptian Streets) Sisi’s reassurances to his concerned citizens about the lack of competition is ironic, as he has arrested and forced his opposing candidates to resign. Yet, he expresses his “desire” for competition and a better political system. Sisi has in fact crippled Egypt’s democratic system through his attacks on his opposition and control over the media.
An article by Al Ahram Weekly newspaper similarly minimized the criticisms of the lack of democracy through various articles that include interviews with Egyptian citizens concerning the election. While Al Ahram Weekly mention several citizens who refuse to vote because the election has a foregone conclusion, they are quick to strike down these concerns. For instance, the government affiliated newspaper cites a citizen who gives a reason for the limited number of candidates, as he states that this is, “due to the massive popularity of Al-Sisi.” (Ahram, Turnout is key) He further insists that “people knew in advance that they would lose and so opted not to contest the poll.” (Ibid) Not only is the support for Sisi almost universal throughout their coverage of the election, but Al Ahram is striking back against claims that the elections were undemocratic, thus serving as another example of the pro-Sisi propaganda abundant throughout the state sponsored media.
The Egyptian media also heavily focuses on how Sisi’s victory strengthened Egypt’s connections with other countries. Nile International cited Sisi’s many congratulations by other Arab leaders on his Presidential victory, highlighting how the international community supported Sisi and the “democratic” process he used to win election. They then argued how the victory reaffirmed their alliances with numerous nations, specifically the United States, stressing how the victory “affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt.” (Nile International) While the White House did congratulate Sisi on his victory, it would be incorrect to say that Egypt’s electoral process is entirely endorsed by the United States. Although the State Department also stressed the partnership between the two nations, they also cited the “constraints on freedom” that the election posed, furthermore adding how they will “continue to encourage a broadening of opportunities for political participation for Egyptians, and emphasize the importance of the protection of human rights.” (Nile International) While the Egyptian media portrays their nation’s relations with the United States as being reaffirmed by Sisi’s victory, the American media yet again provides more details that truly explain the relationship between the two states. They do this by framing the issue as a multifaceted situation, by mentioning both the responses of the White House and the State Department, unlike the Egyptian media who biasedly and solely mentions the positive response they want to hear from the White House. This more thorough examination of each actor in this complex situation thus serves as an example of how the American media’s critical coverage provides a deeper understanding of the Egyptian elections, and the consequences they have, specifically with their relations with the United States.
The different coverage of the Egyptian elections by the American and Egyptian media result from the distinct ways each frame the election. While the American media criticizes and condemns Sisi for his undemocratic victory, the independent Egyptian media is unable to openly debate the election as a result of the Egyptian regulation of the media. Furthermore, the Egyptian media uses propaganda for Sisi to refute the numerous controversies in his electoral victory. Thus, a more complete and accurate understanding of the election is given by the more critical American media coverage than the pro-Sisi propaganda published by the Egyptian media.
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