Saturday, May 24, 2014

Political ِِِِِِِAnalysis: Egypt as you should see it ..............

Have you ever had the experience of walking out of a movie theater and feeling like you’re still in the movie?

If it was a comedy, you may experience the noisy commotion and cacophony of the street as if it were a slapstick scene. If the movie was romantic, you may carry out that warm, wistful feeling in your heart of lost love, and lingering affection for the lead character you grew attached to during the movie.

On the flight home from Egypt last week I watched the new Matt Damon sci fi thriller “Elysium” with all its wild explosions, chase scenes, fights and murders. And when I mistakenly knocked the toothpaste off the shelf in the restroom and it crashed on the counter I jolted as if someone had attacked me.

Such is the hypnotic power of cinema, the power of the screen to suck you into the world it creates. The same thing happens in a way with TV news. It has a way of shaping the way you experience things. In the age of 24-hour news channels, it’s possible to stay in that frame of mind for as much of the day as you might wish to. The trouble is, there is also a world outside the screen. And sometimes in an online world with “all news all the time” we forget to pay attention to the world beyond the screen.

One of the greatest things about travel is that it takes you away from the screen and immerses you in the real world, with real people. I’ve seen remote lodges that actually advertise the fact that they are off the grid as an attraction. It’s hard to break the spell of the screen unless you are forced off it.

As a reporter for TravelPulse, I cover Africa and the Middle East. Both of these regions are depicted so dismally on the news that it’s surprising any American ever goes there. The ones who do are probably not the ones who spend a great deal of their time watching the news.
I just returned from nine days in Egypt touring with Abercrombie & Kent’s President’s Tour and what I experienced there was so radically different from its portrayal in our news it’s hard to believe it’s the same place.

There is a huge cultural gap between the way many countries see themselves and the way they are portrayed on the American news. Much as we may wish to be objective, we see things through a lens that is culturally biased.

When I was in Egypt I talked to many Egyptians, highly intelligent and cultivated people, as well as some Americans who are intimate with the region, and I got a very different image of what is going on there than what one sees in our news media.

I spoke informally to Marc J. Sievers, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in effect the acting U.S. ambassador to Egypt, and he said that much of the western reporting on the region, while probably not dishonest as such, is presented through a lens that distorts it.
Sievers told the group of A&K guest travelers that he hoped they would go home and spread the word from their first-hand experiences that Egypt is a safe place to travel, and offers a wonderful experience that they should not hold back from because of fears of security.
This was the view of an American, but one who has spent the last 30 years as a career diplomat in the region and knows it intimately. He is not subjected to the same TV news that we see at home.

In speaking to many people in Egypt, including businessmen, politicians and Egyptologist tour guides I received a very coherent, consistent view of what has been going on in Egypt since January 2011 with the beginning of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution.
The stories and explanations I received from a range of people were consistent among each other, yet fundamentally different from what I see when I tune into practically any western report on the same events.

It’s shocking and disturbing that there can be such a dislocation between these alternate views of reality. It’s a challenging task, and I am not an international affairs expert, but I want to try to pass on what I learned from those conversations to my countrymen back home about the differences between those two alternate perceptions of reality.
The basic story line in the western media seems to be that there was a nasty military coup in Egypt that pushed out a democratically elected president and is now ruling the country as a dictatorship.

In Egypt they see it differently. According to the Egyptians I spoke to, it went something like this. The people of Egypt rose up against the dictator Hosni Mubarak, millions of them demonstrating in the streets, effectively bringing the country to a standstill until the military stepped in and broke the stalemate, in favor of the demonstrators.

It should be noted that the relationship between the military and the people of Egypt is very different from how we experience that relationship in the U.S. The country has conscription. Virtually everyone participates in the military. Practically every family has members who are in or have been in the military. Practically all of Egypt’s revered leaders historically have been military men. This is a relationship that eludes the understanding of the casual western observer.
Another major difference between Egypt and the U.S. is that Egypt has no democratic tradition or history. There have never been political parties and no political ground operations. Although the population has expressed its aspiration to become a democratic country, this political infrastructure is something that has yet to be built.

What the country does have is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been around since the 1930s and does have ground operations. The organization, like Hamas in Palestine and Lebanon, has a close relationship to people in the towns and villages through having provided services to them that the government does not provide. So when the gauntlet was suddenly thrown open for democratic elections, the Brotherhood had a reach that no one else did, no one but the military.

In the first election there was a 46 percent turnout. The vote was split between five major candidates and some minor ones who split 2 percent of the vote. In spite of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only political organization with any reach in Egypt, Morsi only got about 30 percent of the vote. The way the system was set up, a runoff election was required if no one received a 51 percent majority.

So the runoff was set up between Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, the runner up. Shafik had two strikes against him from the outset because he had been Mubarak’s prime minister and the country had resoundingly rejected Mubarak. Morsi was declared the winner with 51.7 percent versus 48.3 percent for the Mubarak-stained candidate.

Long story short: in the view of the Egyptians I spoke to, Morsi slipped into power by a hair, and once he got into power, he went back on commitments he had made to govern in a moderate way and proceeded to rapidly dismantle the democratic mechanisms that allow opposition in a democratic society and to railroad Egypt into becoming a fundamentalist theocratic state.
Progressive women, who had been at the forefront of the revolution, were appalled when Morsi went so far as to try to legalize previously discarded archaic practices such as genital mutilation and marriage of girls as young as 9 years old.

The Egyptians I spoke to convinced me that Egypt is a modern, progressive country, and the majority were horrified by the possibility of being forced into primitive fundamentalist practices they had left behind long ago.  

The young people and the women who had demonstrated against the dictatorship of Mubarak had put themselves on the line for a more progressive society, more jobs, more economic opportunity, a more democratic say in the affairs of their country. What Morsi was giving them was the opposite. And he was dismantling the mechanisms through which they could express their opposition.

So they went out on the street to fight for their revolution again, and the way they saw it, they were fighting for their lives, or for their way of life.
Now they are bewildered that the west does not support them in their quest for a more democratic and progressive society. They reject the characterization of the second wave of their revolution as a military coup, and see it as, what former Senator Mona Makram-Ebeid called it, “a popular impeachment.”

Egyptians love and revere Americans, but are disappointed the Americans don’t seem to understand what is happening and are not supporting them in their revolution.
After deposing Morsi, the military did not establish a military government. Instead it moved toward the establishment of a new civilian government. Civilian leaders got together and re-wrote the constitution to correct the errors that would allow a religious fanatic to take power again and try to run the country as a religious state. They have taken precautions to keep religion and politics separate. They are on track for their presidential and parliamentary elections and will soon achieve at least the basis for the kind of progress they envisioned when the Arab Spring began.
And they want Americans to be with them.

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