Saith the WPost: So what’s really going on in Egypt?

My cellphone chimed at me earlier this afternoon with a news bulletin from CNN that actress Lisa Robin Kelly had died. Millions of Americans would want to know this breaking news, I imagine, because of her work with the television comedy “That ’70s Show.”

I think it is safe to say (tragic but true, in other words), that the typical American newsroom executive can assume that the typical American news consumer will know the name of this woman and that most news consumers will want to know that she has died. Pop culture matters in America. Thus, her death is a news bulletin. We can expect quite a bit of coverage on cable TV tonight.

Pop culture matters. Does Egypt really matter?

There will be quite a bit of coverage tonight about the unfolding events in Egypt, where more people died in the latest clashes between the Muslims who lead that nation’s semi-secular military establishment and those who want to see Egypt evolve — through ballots or bullets — into a true Islamic state.

What can editors assume that Americans know about what is happening in Egypt?

Can the typical American editor assume that the typical American news consumer even wants to know the details?

If the typical American knows the name of Lisa Robin Kelly, how many Americans would know this name — Sayyid Qutb?

Qutb is a very important person in the recent history of the world, even though he was executed by the Egyptian military establishment in 1966. You see, it’s hard to understand what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 without knowing Qutb’s name and its even harder to understand what is currently happening in Egyptian streets, mosques and churches without knowing something about Qutb and his thought, especially when it comes to justifying bloodshed in conflicts within Islam, between Muslims.

Can the American news executive justify coverage that tells consumers about the history of the conflicts in Egypt? What can editors assume Americans know or even what to know?

Well, the Washington Post online team just ran a handy feature that offers quite a window into the thinking behind the coverage of these events. The title: “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.”

It begins with the assumption that many Americans do know even know where Egypt is. Honest. Question No. 1 asks, “What is Egypt?”

Question No. 2 moves closer to the issues that will interest GetReligion readers: “Why are people in Egypt killing each other?”

There’s been a lot of political instability since early 2011, when you probably saw the footage of a million-plus protesters gathered in Cairo to demand that the president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down. He did, but that opened up a big power struggle that hasn’t been anywhere near resolved. It’s not just people at the top of the government fighting among one another, it’s lots of regular people who have very different visions for where they want their country to go.

OK, there is a hint there about the ultimate issues. But this is a conflict between people who want military rule and those who want democracy. Really?

On to the next question, as the Post team explains what really matters: “But why are they fighting today specifically?”

Egyptian security forces assaulted two sprawling sit-in camps in downtown Cairo this morning and tried to disperse the protesters. The protesters fought back. So far, there have been dozens killed, a lot of them apparently civilians shot by live ammunition rounds used by security forces.

The protesters were there in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup in early July (the military is still in charge). Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group to which a number of the protesters in today’s clashes belong. He was also the country’s first democratically elected leader.

Ah, the crucial term “Islamist” appears. On to question N. 4: “Well, if the military staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, then all those Egyptians who protested in 2011 for democracy must be furious, right?”

So, how to explain that different groups of people inside Egypt wanted democracy for radically different reasons and they have completely different expectations about what democracy would yield?

Or, how does one explain that without getting into religion — specifically the conflicts inside modern Islam?

Well, the Post team is sad that Morsi did “precious little to include non-Islamists” in the government. He also arrested journalists and did other nasty things, including sending signals that it was safe — in the name of a true Islamic state — to crack down on religious minorities.

We need a question, in here, that sounds something like this: “Do most Egyptians say that they actually want an Islamic state?”

The Post primer finally jumps back into deep history, by American news standards. Here’s the deep stuff:

Look, all this stuff about ideologies sounds complicated. Can you just tell me why Egypt is such a mess right now?

I hear you, but the thing about today’s crisis is that, yes, it has do with basic stuff like the breakdown of public order and some really ham-fisted governance by the military. But it also has to do with a 60-year-old ideological conflict that’s never really been resolved.

Stay with me for a moment: Back in the years just after World War II, Egypt was ruled by a king who was widely seen as a British pawn. Egyptians didn’t like that. They also didn’t like losing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they wanted a way out of their long period of national humiliation. A lot of them were turning to a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which argued, and still argues, that Islamic devotion and unity are the ultimate answer. Their ideas, and their campaign for an Islamic government, are called Islamism.

Good, we’re making progress.

A group of Egyptian military officers had a different idea. In 1952, they led a coup against the king. A charismatic lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and promoted, as his answer to Egypt’s problems, an ideology called Arab nationalism. It calls for secularism, progress, Arab unity and resistance against Western imperialism.

Both of those movements swept through the Middle East, transforming it. Arab Nationalists took power in several countries; the Syrian regime today is one of them, and so was the regime headed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Islamism also expanded in many countries, and sprouted some violent offshoots. But the two movements prescribe very different paths to the Middle East’s salvation, see themselves as mutually exclusive and have competed, at times violently, ever since. That is particularly true of Egypt, and has been since Nasser took power in 1952.

And that’s why you’re seeing many Egyptian liberals so happy about a military coup that displaced the democracy they fought to establish: Those liberals are closely linked to secular Arab nationalism, which means that they both revere the military and hate the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe even more than they crave democracy. Old habits die hard.

OK, now it’s time — naturally — to say what all of this has to do with U.S. politics, so that readers know why the Obama administration is doing what’s doing (or not doing).

In the end, the bottom line is that this “ideological divide” is just going to get worse and worse.

But wait, what does religion have to do with all of this? Why are churches burning in this fight between Muslims?

The bottom line: Is there any real, practical religious content to that divide between the sort-of-secular Arab Nationalists and the true Islamists?

And what would Sayyid Qutb say, if asked that question?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    I went to the Commentary site. I tried to respond to a comment raising the question of why weren’t the MB attacking Catholic and Protestant churches. The site doesn’t recognize my FB identity and it was impossible to figure out how to sign up for Intense Debate – whatever that is. So I’ll answer here.

    Some Copts are Catholic and their churches and people are being attacked as well as the Orthodox. The Catholic patriarch did not make a statement supporting the military, but the MB is not making any distinctions. “Copts” means Egyptians. They are the indigenous people of Egypt and are not Arabs. Some are Oriental Orthodox and a smaller number are in communion with Rome.

    I hope some of the Commentary people read your blog.

  • Julia B

    In case you might wonder why I’m so interested in this stuff. I have a niece married to a Coptic Catholic from Egypt and a nephew married to an Assyrian Catholic with parent/family origins in Iraq. It is really painful to see these demographic groups being wiped out. So many are seeking shelter in the US. Another ancient group that is going extinct are the Farsi’s, originally from Iran and a few left in India; you might remember them as the Zoroastrians.

  • n_coast

    The “9 questions” appears to be an attempt at being hip like Minute Physics, http://www.youtube.com/user/minutephysics. However you can actually learn from Minute Physics.


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