From plotting an arrest of an Islamist leader, triggering a raid against a proclaimed gay public bath, praising the destruction of an “atheist café”, and haunting evil spirits in poor Egyptian villages, the private media has been playing the role of “Batman” in an Egyptian “Gotham”.
Every day, Egyptian media outlets add a new item to a long list of public enemies including religious extremists, atheists, homosexuals, and proclaimed spies. However, for any follower of the Egyptian media, this comes as no surprise. Yet, the interesting observation is that, lately, there has been an increasingly strong emphasis on the “morality” of private Egyptian media. Shifting from informing the public towards judging and even setting traps for “deviant” members of society, the private media has gone so far beyond its designed role by claiming to be the “guardian of public security and morality”.
There is a possibility that this has always been the case. However, we cannot ignore the intensity by which this specific message is being repeated in a short period of time. Simple answers, like actors seeking financial gains, fame, or even moral satisfaction, do not explain the choice of timing or the way this image is being carved in Egyptian public opinion. Thus, we need to go a little bit further to understand the underlying incentives.
For Every Action there is a Reaction
If you asked a random group of Egyptians on who is responsible for their country’s political chaos in the last four years, you’ll hear all sorts of opinions. Yet, media will be strongly present in most of these responses. Pro-Mubarak members will blame the revolutionary media, the pro-revolution youth will blame the business-oriented media, and Islamists will blame secular media. Thus, for the average citizen, mass media is a troublemaker.
"We cannot ignore the intensity by which this specific message is being repeated"
After the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the composition of mass media lost the diversity it enjoyed during previous years. The closure of Islamist television channels allowed only one form of media to exist; the anti-Islamist. Labeling pro-Islamist society members as “terrorists” or “possible terrorists”, the survivors of private media assumed a homogenous anti-Islamist audience. These changes provided convenient timing for reacting to the previous charges of media irresponsibility. Simply put, if you want to please your supposedly homogenous audience, tell them what they want to hear and align your morality with theirs. If you want to win them, use your power to be their hero!
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Win an Easy War
After adopting the opinions of his audience, a smart mass media actor would fight on the behalf of them, while trying to minimize his own costs. The easiest way to do this is by choosing battles on the basis of traditional rather than political values. As tradition is more profound compared to the volatility of political values, fighting “deviants” with the help of traditional rhetoric is more likely to receive support from a larger audience at lower costs. Thus, the easiest way to be a public hero is by demonizing and fighting social groups that do not have political coverage, like atheists and homosexuals. These groups have almost no means to protect themselves, which makes them an easy prey and ultimately increase their physical vulnerability.
Islamists, homosexuals, and atheists have one thing in common: they are all perceived to be foreign to Egyptian culture. Political Islam is perceived to be a reflection of the Wahhabi doctrine which is considered alien to the Egyptian Azhar-based Islamic culture. Similarly, atheism and homosexuality are regarded as part of the “Western” plan to corrupt the Egyptian youth.
Given the exponential growth of conspiracy theories in the Egyptian society after the revolution, the xenophobic attitudes have reached unprecedented levels. The incident of arresting three metro passengers for discussing the events of the 25th of January revolution in English is the best example of how a once top tourist destination came to develop this fear of the other. Accordingly, with this rising xenophobia in the society, there will be more attacks on all ideas perceived to be foreign. In that respect, media is just a reflection of societal changes.
The bottom line is that the faults of the private Egyptian media throughout the previous four years imposed a necessity for finding a way to exonerate itself. By defining a mainstream media, rising vulnerability of some societal groups, and increasing xenophobia, the media is now trying to create its own heroes to appeal to public morality. Sadly, this is likely to increase social tensions and push more discriminated groups to hide from the public’s eyes.