Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt

A few journalistic thoughts while I continue to watch the waves of news coverage rolling in from Egypt:

* Over the past decade or two, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars with scholars and mainstream journalists — Christians and Muslims — who work in Islamic cultures. Most of our conversations have centered on freedom of the press, but it’s hard to talk about freedom of expression in one part of life without getting into others, such as the protection of religious minorities.

Here is how I would sum up the main point I have heard from these journalists over the years: In the end, it doesn’t matter what your constitution says about your rights if the police will not step in and stop rioters from killing people and burning either newsrooms or religious sanctuaries. Take your pick.

* Until the Pew pollsters come up with new data, I will continue to point GetReligion readers toward those 2011 Pew Research Center numbers indicating, among other things (care of one of my Scripps Howard columns):

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. … About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran.

* Why do those numbers matter so much? When you look at what Egyptians say in polls and at the ballot box, it’s pretty clear that — when it comes to desires for an Islamic state of some kind — the military leaders (religious views never stated) just acted against the will of a majority of Egyptians. However, they may have acted in the economic interests of the nation by favoring the more tolerant views of the more secular and moderate urban elites. Think tourism. Think international ties.

We are back to an old, old question: Is it possible, in a land in which the majority of voters hunger for Islamic law, to defend the rights of religious minorities and secular liberals without the help of a military that is willing to oppress and jail Islamists? Think about that as you watch the unfolding campaign against President Mohamed Morsi and his followers.

* This leads me to note that, in the early coverage of the coup, The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper I have lashed on a regular basis lately for weak coverage in the Middle East — had the best short summary of key religious elements of the unfolding events. Want to see that?

What is the key action taken by military chief Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi that was almost certainly missing from stories in your local newspapers, as well as in early reports from elite American newspapers and television operations?

The opposition had accused Morsi and the Brotherhood of one-dimensional vision to create an Islamic state at the expense of fixing the country’s many ills, including poverty, power outages, plummeting foreign reserves, rising crime and dwindling tourism. …

The military, for decades one of Egypt’s most respected institutions, ruled the country from Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 until Morsi was inaugurated. But it was accused in that time of mass arrests and civil rights violations. It has said it does not want to return to power. To make its point, and show the face of an inclusive Egypt, Sisi invited Nobel laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to stand beside him during his national address.

ElBaradei’s appearance next to Sisi was a stark example of how much the political atmosphere has changed. ElBaradei, like other activists, was a fierce critic of military rule. But he was selected to represent the opposition in talks with the army and agreed on a coalition government after assurances that the country would be in the hands of civilians.

In other words, the military has the strong support of urban, pro-Western elites and oppressed religious minorities. But to build a coalition representing all of Egypt, it will need the support of some traditional Muslims, yet traditional Muslims who do not want to vote in a truly Islamic state. When has that not been the ultimate issue in Egypt (and elsewhere)?

* Or will there be a civil war or sweeping acts of terrorism on behalf of the Islamists who have seen their democratic, ballot-box victory nullified? The New York Times, in second-day coverage, offered this haunting passage:

In a tent nearby, a man who called himself Abu Mohamed said any coup would have consequences, hinting at the danger facing Egypt as Islamists saw their political gains thwarted, and some considered violence to regain their rights.

“There will be a strong reaction,” Abu Mohamed said, as he ate his breakfast and his friends warned against speaking too frankly. “It is either the ballot box, or the bullet box.”

And in the streets, Islamists faced the armed military:

At the protest, the army was the villain, for daring to challenge not just the president, but Egypt’s new civilian authority. Half an hour later, when the army descended, the balance of power between Egypt’s two most powerful forces, the military and the Islamists, was tested.

The confrontation was awkward and explosive. Protesters met the armored vehicles as they arrived, and shoved the commanding officer who had drawn his pistol. Soldiers fired their weapons in the air. A protester lifted his shirt, daring soldiers to shoot.

Then it calmed, as some protesters, desperate for an ally, tried to bring the soldiers to their side. “Take care of Egypt!” one man said. Some of the soldiers were distracted by the pleas, and seemed torn. Then the commander spoke, saying the army was there to protect the protest.

“I will not fire,” he said. “I don’t want to go to hell.”

Yes, in the end, will the police or the military stop a riot?

* A final thought: As I have stressed many times here at GetReligion, try to remember — as you read coverage from Egypt — the practical realities facing reporters there. How safe is it for reporters to travel, right now, outside Cairo and urban areas that tend, for obvious reasons, to lean away from the majority of Egyptian voters? When noting gaps in coverage, it’s important to pay attention to which news organizations are paying attention to the religious elements of these stories at all.

For example, most stories mention threats to tourism. What’s that all about? What are the practical, street-level actions taken by Morsi and his supporters (and Islamists much more extreme than the Muslim Brotherhood) that are linked to that? How is that affecting the economy?

Many journalists have paid close attention to the affairs of the young “secular” activists (religious views often unknown), yet appear to be blind when it comes to trends in Egypt that are affecting Coptic Christians, Muslim sects, Jews and others in minority groups.

So ponder this: Coptic Orthodox leaders are normally very cautious, after centuries of oppression, when it comes to picking fights with Egypt’s rulers. Were there events this time, other than the new Islamic constitution, that prodded Pope Tawadros II to step forward this time?

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  • tmatt

    Ah, GetReligion readers remain intensely interested in human rights and foreign news?

  • Mark Mathias

    Sorry to see so little attention to this article. I’ve been praying for Egypt especially during this crisis and especially for the Christians. Your comments shed a little more light on a very confusing situation. I was hoping that the people in the streets indicated a desire for greater freedom for minorities. This appears to be overly optimistic, and it appears that perhaps the Egyptian people themselves don’t know what they want.

  • Richard Mounts

    This is simplistic, but it may be, in part, that people are still involved in holiday celebrating. I know my sibs are all still away on short vacations to just “get away from it all.”

    Then, there is the “democratically elected” issue. It seems most msm outlets say Morsi was elected in a “generally” open, fair process. What they fail to follow with is that millions of Egyptians believe that he then set about undoing what they, the protesters, think of as democracy. The protesters are not protesting Islam; it seems that they want a democratic state more in the model of Turkey. Whether they can have it, and if they can have it without more bloodshed, ought to be questions even journalists should be asking.

    Run an update to your post next Monday or Tuesday. Maybe the usual suspects will have some thoughts to share then.

    • Kodos

      We should remember the quip some Egyptians would use to describe the Brotherhood’s “democratic” strategy last year: one vote, one person, one time.

      In other words, use the democratic process to come to power, then deconstruct that process in order to hold onto power.

      Many of the moderate Egyptians with whom I’ve spoken feel that this is exactly what happened. Yes, Moursi was democratically elected, but then he tried to undermine it.

  • OneLoneGuy478

    Alright, I’ll point out the 800 pound gorilla in the room:

    Egypt is F?çK´ed!

    There’s no nice way to put it.

    You have a country with 80+ million people, with an agricultural capacity that can barely feed half of that. The country’s main business, tourism, is practically non-existant, and will be getting worse with a civil war in the near future. You have a nation run by Muslims, a social, political and religious system that practically necessitates a violent, despotic and brutal dictatorship to prevent the whole façade from collapsing in on itself. I could go on.

    Egypt is going to descend into a third-world hellhole, and the best strategic position for the USA and the West in general to take woud be to take a “hands-off” approach and let them kill each other. Or better yet, sell guns and ammo to the losers to keep the fighting going on for as long as possible.

    We should also let in any and all Coptic Christians into the USA without delay, but that’s for another time.

    • Richard Mounts

      Seriously? So your philosophy is kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out? Dude! Do you know ANYTHING about the political realities of the the region as a whole? Do you understand the the role a politically stable Egypt can have for the stability of the Middle East? What journalism sources do you read?

      Besides, look at Turkey. Look at Tunisia, even. That country is getting ready to have an Islamic party leading the government but still with security and legal protection for women and minority religions. Egypt can have that too.

      If you are going to pray, include prayers for true peace in Egypt; for everyone in Egypt.

      (Sorry Terry. Off the topic here. Feel free to spike it.)