Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt

Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt July 5, 2013

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?

Stay tuned. Please help us find the best coverage of what is happening in Egypt.

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