What did Pope Tawadros say? When did he say it? (updated)

At the pivotal event announcing the fall of President Mohamed Morsi, a number of symbolic leaders stood with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in a coalition backing this action, following days of massive public protests dominated by young, mostly secular Egyptians.

Yes, one of those leaders was Coptic Orthodox Tawadros II, who called the military takeover a “defining moment in the nation’s history.” Of course, Egypt’s grand imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, also took part in that press conference. So did the leader of the Constitution Party, Mohamed el-Baradei, Nobel Laureate Mohamed El Bareidi, Tamarod movement leader Mohamed Badr, former Morsi advisor Sekina Fouad and several others.

Anyone who has followed religion trends in Egypt for several decades knows that it was unusual for Tawadros to take such a public stand, knowing that Coptic Christians have always been a convenient scapegoat for mob violence in Egypt — no matter who is in power. Things were getting worse under Muslim Brotherhood control, but things were also bad under previous military strongmen.

The crucial point is that Tawadros did not stand alone, but as part of a coalition that included key Islamic players in tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, with that in mind, read the following chunk of a gripping New York Times report from David D. Kirkpatrick:

A tense quiet settled over Cairo as the city braced for new protests by supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, after the Friday Prayer. The new government authorized the police to use lethal force if they felt endangered.

Many of those waiting outside the makeshift morgue talked of civil war. Some blamed members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority for supporting the military takeover. A few argued openly for a turn to violence.

“The solution might be an assassination list,” said Ahmed, 27, who like others refused to use his full name for fear of reprisals from the new authorities. “Shoot anyone in uniform. It doesn’t matter if the good is taken with the bad, because that is what happened to us last night.”

So some blamed the nation’s 10 percent Coptic minority, even though the coalition that — in that crucial press conference — endorsed the fall of Morsi was much broader than that. But the Coptic-blame game is a statement of fact on the street. Kirkpatrick handles other references to the views of this symbolic religious minority with similar caution:

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Is ‘Palestinian’ a sufficient descriptor for Hamas?

YouTube Preview ImageOn Friday, we looked at media coverage of a new translation of a video from 2010 that was released by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaking against Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” One of the outlets to cover the story, albeit a few weeks after the release of the video, was the BBC.

One section of the BBC report, which has since been corrected, read:

The controversy erupted after the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) translated and released Arabic footage of interviews Mr Morsi gave in 2010, as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the clip from Palestinian broadcaster Al-Quds TV, Mr Morsi referred to Jewish settlers as “occupiers of Palestine” and “warmongers”.

He called for a “military resistance in Palestine against these Zionist criminals assaulting the land of Palestine and Palestinian”.

Of course, Morsi was not referring simply to settlers as occupiers. It has since been corrected to read:

In the clip from Palestinian broadcaster Al-Quds TV, Mr Morsi referred to Zionists, the term most commonly used by the Muslim Brotherhood to refer to Israelis or Jews, as “occupiers of Palestine” and “warmongers”.

It’s good to run this correction but it’s odd that the BBC changed what Morsi said to begin with. There is no need (nor any other journalistic reason) to downplay the comments to make them more palatable — or otherwise not be precise about the rhetoric Morsi used. It’s patronizing and bizarre. Far better, it seems, to follow the New York Times model of accurately quoting Morsi (although there’s no reason to wait a few weeks until public pressure to report the news grows so much) and explaining the context.

But I have another question.

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Got News? President of Egypt calls Jews apes and pigs

YouTube Preview ImageThe Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel reported on a video from 2010 that was released by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaking against Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” (Transcript here.) It took some time before the U.S. media developed interest. The comments were reported by the Jerusalem Post on January 4. By January 11, Forbes columnist Richard Behar wrote a piece headlined “News Flash: Jews Are ‘Apes And Pigs.’ So Why Is Egypt’s Morsi The Elephant In America’s Newsrooms?” He wrote:

Last Friday, the sitting president of Egypt – the world’s 15th most populous nation — was exposed for calling Jews “apes and pigs.” And he did it in a TV interview (in Arabic) in 2010, less than two years before he took office.

Needless to say, this was HUGE NEWS for American mass media! Only it wasn’t. (Knock, knock, New YorkTimes? Anybody home?) In fact, to be fair to the paper of record, not a single major outlet has covered it. Not AP or Reuters. Not CBS News or CNN. Not Time magazine or U.S. News & World Report. Not the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or USA Today. Etcetera. And therein lies a story, which this column can only begin to skin open here.

Behar goes into quite a bit of detail about Morsi’s comments and how they weren’t covered by media outlets. For instance, after the news broke, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer spent an hour with Morsi in Cairo in what the network billed as an exclusive interview. He never asked about it. And people without such access to Morsi didn’t even mention it.

Is my own Jewishness clouding my own news judgment here? For a reality check, I turned to Gene Foreman, one of the most respected editors in the newspaper business over the past half-century. (He also happens to be a Methodist, not that such things should matter in judging whether anything is newsworthy.) Foreman is the author of The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News – a 2009 book described as “a GPS for sound decision-making.” And his wisdom is invaluable for any fledgling reporters out there: Gene’s accomplishments include 25 years managing the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer — during the time the paper won 18 Pulitzer Prizes.

“I think you are onto something here,” Foreman reassures me after reviewing the Jerusalem Post’s front-page story about the Morsi Tapes. “On the face of it, this is newsworthy. These were interviews that Morsi made a couple of years ago, but they reveal his thinking — the attitude of a key player in the Middle East. It’s legitimate to ask the reporters who are covering the Middle East beat whether they knew about this story in the Post — and if they did know about it, why have they not pursued it on their own?”

I’ve been trying. So far nobody wants to talk with me about it on the record. And the off-record things they tell me just don’t add up. At least not yet.

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Some journalists waking up to Egyptian realities?

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Day after day the news from Egypt seems to get darker and more confusing. This morning, in The Los Angeles Times, things were summed up like this:

CAIRO – Anger between Egypt’s rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to antigovernment demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation’s proposed constitution.

Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.

Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists, shouting: “God is great! The people support the president’s decision!”

Through the years, I have heard journalists who work in these kinds of environments make one statement over and over: It doesn’t matter what a nation’s laws say about free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc., if the police will not stop a riot. Rioters often make their own laws and hold instant elections and the majority usual wins.

What we are seeing, on one level, is the collapse of the whole Muslim Brotherhood-as-moderate influence template that has driven so much of the mainstream news coverage in recent months.

While there have been stories that stressed the strategic differences between Morsi and the more traditionalist Salafis, the reports we are seeing now are united in their emphasis that, on the crucial question of Islamic law being codified into the new Constitution, the leaders of these two Islamist camps are merely arguing about a few details, not the big picture. Many journalists are responding with a kind of, “Oh my gosh, who knew?” wonder and awe.

It is also crucial for reporters and editors to realize that Egypt, as a whole, is not conflicted on the big questions. Believers in religious minorities are truly at peril, according to the numbers in a very important — but largely overlooked — Pew Forum survey a year or so ago. Writing for Scripps, I summed the numbers up like this, in the midst of a discussion of that vague and often meaningless term “fundamentalist.”

Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “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. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life — a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

So, how pragmatic and “moderate” has Morsi turned out to be?

Some mainstream journalists are starting to ask that question. This remarkable essay by NBC’s Jim Maceda stumbles through the wreckage and makes some rather bracing concessions to the reality of majority rule:

The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.

“President Obama is supporting a terrorist,” a man told me amid chants of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and “Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.” Before, it was “Down, down with Mubarak.”

Egypt was torn in half … when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.

And the bottom line? Read it all, including this sobering passage:

Protected by the president’s new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution “a jewel.” Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.

The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women’s rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.

Journalists and others involved in researching these topics need to parse the Pew Forum numbers again. Are the current events surprising? Is the reality that Morsi represents a powerful majority that, with no need for the approval of the West, can proceed to act on its convictions? How will the American press deal with these realities, including the clear threats now looming for the large Coptic Orthodox minority, secular liberals, progressive Muslims, feminists and members of other religious minority groups?

Is the existing news template being crushed under the feet of the rioters?

Sandra Fluke, Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and tender stories

Time magazine is doing its annual PR blitz for its “Person of the Year.” After I won the designation in 2006, I stopped paying attention to it. Since then the honor has gone to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “the protester.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the tradition of selecting a Man of the Year began in 1927 with Time editors contemplating newsworthy stories possible during a slow news week. We’ve all been there.

Among the nominees this year are Ai Weiwei, Bashar Assad, Felix Baumgartner, Joe Biden (fer real), Bo Xilai, Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Douglas, Roger Goodell, the Higgs boson, E.L. James, Jay-Z, Kim Jong Un, the Mars Rover, Marissa Mayer, Mohamed Morsi, Psy, Pussy Riot, John Roberts, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Undocumented Immigrants, Malala Yousafzai.

The winners, no matter how unworthy, tend to be from the United States. But we have a fair number of nominees from other countries. I’m a bit surprised Chen Guangcheng wasn’t on there. I might also note that the religious dimensions of the list are somewhat slight. Readers of our recent post on the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood may appreciate that the write-up for Morsi included this line, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity is moderate, or at least moderated by pragmatism; its politics are populist and likely the template for a number of other fledgling democracies in the region.”

The entry for Yousafzai was a nice tribute to her devout Muslim father who supports her and her educational goals. The last line is “It is among the tenderest of stories in the world of conservative Islam.”

But I bring all this up because of the write-up for another deserving nominee — Sandra Fluke. While I tend to think the prize is too American-focused, if it goes in that direction again this year, she should definitely win. I only wish she could win it in conjunction with the media that has been so supportive of her during her entire public relations journey. You could say their love for her is among the tenderest of stories in the world of mainstream media. (For more on that, you can see some of our posts on the coverage of Fluke here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And if/when Fluke does win, I hope she can accept the award with Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell and the whole Church of Planned Parenthood. They all had an amazing year and they deserve credit.)

Anyway, here’s the write-up of our Person of the Year:

The daughter of a conservative Christian pastor, Sandra Fluke, 31, became a women’s-rights activist in college and continued her advocacy as a law student at Georgetown. After she complained about being denied a chance to testify at a Republican-run House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control, Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut.” Democrats and many Republicans reacted with outrage, and the left made Limbaugh’s slur Exhibit A in what they called a GOP “war on women.” Fluke, meanwhile, weathered the attention with poise and maturity and emerged as a political celebrity. Democrats gave her a national-convention speaking slot as part of their push to make reproductive rights a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — one that helped Barack Obama trounce Mitt Romney among single women on Election Day.

Technically the hearing was on religious liberty, but the media have long decided that the issue is best framed otherwise.

But what I found interesting was that Time has described Fluke’s father as a “conservative Christian pastor.” We learned earlier that “The Rev. Richard Fluke, Sandra’s father, is a part-time licensed local pastor who shares the pulpit at Tatesville United Methodist Church in Everett, Pa., with two other pastors. Both he and his wife, Betty Kay, are proud of their daughter.”

I know enough Methodists to know that some are very conservative and some are very progressive. The leadership of the denomination tends to be liberal but Methodist polity and culture permits some significant variance. I would love to know more about his conservatism or how that descriptor was chosen. What does it mean in this context? Maybe when she wins the award, we’ll get some substantiation about Fluke’s conservative Christian upbringing.

‘Moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian power grab

Protests broke out in Egypt in recent days over President Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral decree assuming widespread powers that may not be challenged or questioned. The Associated Press carried a list of some of those powers, beginning with:

- All laws and decisions by the president are final, cannot be appealed, overturned or halted by the courts or other bodies. This applies to decisions he has made since taking office in June and any he makes until a new constitution is approved and a new parliament is elected, expected in the spring at the earliest.

- No judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the assembly writing the new constitution. Both are dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists and several cases demanding their disbanding were before the courts, which previously dissolved the lower house of parliament.

Cairo’s English-language paper Al Ahram reports that “the decree also protects the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) and the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) against dissolution by court order.” Al Ahram is a great source for news right now if you’re interested in what’s going on in Egypt. It was there I learned that the chairman of the Shura Council said Morsi went too far with his declaration. He’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Faith and Justice Party, so his disagreement was something of a surprise.

Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood activist and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state, says not to worry, that the decrees are totally temporary. Somehow the non-Islamists of Egypt aren’t convinced. I’m just wondering if dictators always insisted that their power-taking was temporary or if that’s just a 20th-century innovation.

Morsi’s timing for the power grab wasn’t totally off. He just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, leading to plaudits from a variety of leaders. Morsi has enjoyed significant support from the United States, ever since he ran against even stricter Islamists.

Which leads me a larger journalism question. I wonder if journalists have been led off their game a bit because Morsi is supported by the United States and/or because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed less strict in tone an substance than certain Islamist elements in Egypt. I first noticed this earlier in the year when some media types described the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” I noticed that others were resisting that description, even while acknowledging that the Muslim Brotherhood was less strict.

The New York Times has covered the Egypt story thoroughly throughout the year and I appreciate the way reporter David Kirkpatrick has focused on specific examples to define the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular niche within Egyptian Islamism. I had wanted to highlight this Q&A the paper ran between readers and reporters after a brief interview of Morsi was published in September. Kirkpatrick’s answers really show his reportorial style. It’s clear he has a good grasp of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, as evidenced in this weekend’s story about judge’s revolting:

What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.

As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.

“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”

Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.

If interested in an alternate view about which party has trouble with the difficulties of democracy, read this EUObserver analysis from Koert Debeuf. Reuters had more over a week ago about the Christian and liberal opposition within the Constitutional Assembly, leading to resignations. While only 10 percent of the population, stories this weekend seemed to give short shrift to the Copts in Egypt who have voiced significant concern about their fate under growing Islamist power.

What do you think about media coverage of the situation in Egypt, both from this weekend and throughout the year? Do you think media outlets have had blinders on about the Brotherhood or the ease with which Islamism blends with democracy? Have you seen any other good coverage worth highlighting?


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