Coup and Revolution: Egypt and the Al Jazeera Journalists

Aatif Rashid

Tahrir_Square,_Cairo,_in_the_early_morning

Tahrir Square street lights. Photo credit: Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons.

In early July, two journalists from Al Jazeera’s channel in Egypt quit over alleged bias in the network’s coverage of the ouster of Muhammad Morsi. In doing so, they have not only brought negative attention to a growing world-class news agency, but also highlighted the important battle over how to represent the events in Egypt: as a coup, or as a revolution.

As Dubai’s Gulf News reported on July 8, 2013, 22 journalists from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian live channel resigned due to alleged bias, citing pressure from Doha, Qatar, the headquarters of Al Jazeera, to favor the Muslim Brotherhood in their coverage. In Doha itself, four Egyptian members of Al Jazeera’s editorial staff also quit, citing similar biased policy against the army and in favour of Morsi and the Brotherhood.

If these allegations are true, it certainly reflects poorly on a channel that has recently been heralded as one of the world’s premier news agencies, willing to deliver stories that many Western media outlets in the U.S. and Europe decline to address. It also reflects poorly on Qatar, the wealthy Gulf monarchy attempting to solidify its place as a world leader both politically and culturally. With its vast oil wealth, Qatar has been actively involved on the international stage, supporting rebels in Libya and taking the lead in condemning Syria’s Bashar Assad. It’s also expanding Al Jazeera into the United States, and even opening a world class art museum in Doha. These allegations of biased news coverage, however, reveal the sinister aspects of Qatar’s worldwide ambitions.

It’s no secret that Qatar, as a Sunni ruled and majority Sunni country, has interests in the Muslim world’s recent Arab Spring conflicts. Additionally, this is not the first time journalists from Al Jazeera have quit after alleging biased coverage. In 2012, the head of the Beirut Bureau, Ghassan Be Jeddo, resigned in protest to Al Jazeera’s biased policies against Bashar Assad and in favor of NATO intervention in Syria to assist the primarily Sunni-led rebels. Qatar was similarly in favor of intervention to assist Libya’s Sunni rebels, yet quiet regarding Bahrain’s Shiite Arab Spring rebellion, which received very little news coverage from Al Jazeera.

In light of these prior incidents, Al Jazeera’s Egyptian incident may not seem of such significance. However, as the most populous country in the Arab world, Egypt remains the benchmark for measuring and understanding much of the Arab Spring. Though the uprisings began in Tunisia, it was their rapid spread to Egypt that help influence subsequent Arab Spring revolutions. By presenting the ouster of Morsi and the Brotherhood as a coup rather than a revolution, Qatar is hoping to demonstrate that the Muslim Brotherhood and other such Islamic parties that have gained power as a result of the Arab Spring have not done so at the expense of the revolution’s ideals.

Of course, to paint Al Jazeera as unique in its attempts to frame the narrative is wrong, as all news agencies, including Western ones, have done the same. The New York Times, for example, has attempted to maintain neutrality in its reporting, while The Economist has been more willing to call Morsi’s ouster a coup. Nevertheless, the battle over the framing of Egypt’s second revolution/coup will be of immense significance in writing this chapter of the Arab’s Spring’s history.

Looking back on Egyptian history, it becomes evident that the line between coups and revolutions tends to be blurry. The Urabi Revolt of 1879 against the British-supported Ottoman Khedive was led by a military Colonel and can be interpreted as both a revolution and a coup. The Revolution of 1952 by Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers against King Farouk is today called both a revolution and a coup. And even the first Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, the revolution that began at Tahrir Square, ultimately needed a military coup to unseat President Hosni Mubarak.

The twenty-two journalists may have a point, and it is completely conceivable that Qatar’s Al Jazeera has a bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood and towards presenting the events as a coup. However, as Egyptian history shows, the line between coup and revolution is as unsteady as the seat of power itself.

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