Ahead of elections, Egypt's state propaganda machine rolls on

Egypt's government paper Al Ahram was the central arm of state propaganda during the reign of Hosni Mubarak. Ahead of elections, it's taking aim once again at Egypt's Islamists.

Last week, Egypt's state-owned newspaper Al Ahram helped kick up an international storm with a bit of dodgy journalism: It ran an opinion piece by Amr Abdel Samea, a former loyalist of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, that stated that Mervat el-Tallawy, the head of Egypt's National Council for Women, had complained that Egypt's parliament was considering a piece of legislation sponsored by Islamists to allow men to have sex with their wives after their death.

The story was translated into English by Al Arabiya, and was quickly picked up by outlets like the Huffington Post and the sensationalist British tabloid The Daily Mail, which distorted the original claim from a proposal to a done deal: "Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives," the tabloid claimed, apparently having misunderstood the original Arabiya translation. The story buzzed around the world, held up in blogs as evidence of the immorality of Islamist politicians. The current version of the Wikipedia article on necrophilia even has a section devoted to the claim.

The problem is that there was never any such proposal, at any stage of consideration, in the Egyptian parliament. Ms. Tallawy issued a statement today that says she's concerned about legislation that may harm the position of women in Egypt, but that there was never any "sex after death law" under consideration, let alone one she complained about. Arabiya followed up as well, quoting Parliament Secretary Sami Mahran as saying no such piece of legislation ever existed.

This is hardly surprising. Anyone who knew Egypt didn't believe it in the first place, since sex with the dead is a laughably extreme position that no Egyptian Islamist group has ever espoused but is exactly the kind of overheated scare-mongering that can be potentially useful for opponents of Islamist politicians as Egypt's presidential campaign heats up.

In the presidential campaign, former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade) is the old establishment's preferred candidate. His main rivals are former Muslim Brotherhood executive Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh and current Brotherhood member, Mohammed Morsi.

Ahram's reporting should be seen within its traditional framework – serving the interests of those in power. That was Mr. Mubarak for decades. Now, it's the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has run Egypt since Mubarak's ouster last February.

Ahram under Mubarak was much like Pravda in the old Soviet Union. Consider the former president's September 2010 visit to Washington for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. A photographer captured Mubarak, President Obama, Jordanian King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking the red carpet together. Mubarak trailed the whole group, just behind Mr. Netanyahu.

Ahram judged this not befitting a leader of Mubarak's stature, so photo-shopped the image to put the former president in the center of the frame, in front of the other world leaders. It was probably no coincidence that this came just ahead of parliamentary elections and at a time when many Egyptians were speculating about the aging leader's health, and his plans to install his son Gamal Mubarak as his successor.

NPR devoted a segment of its program "On the Media" in February 2011 to the role of Ahram in bolstering Mubarak's power, with the host explaining that "in the past five years, under the editorship of Mubarak crony Osama Saraya, Al Ahram has developed into a propaganda machine, devoting hagiographic and occasionally utterly fabricated coverage to the former president and his regime."

The paper says it has changed since Mubarak's fall, but appears to continue to serve the interests of those in power. After days of criticism of last week's necrophilia hoax, the paper sought to shift blame to others. In a news article it reported that a "number of newspapers and websites" had speculated about such a law, and cited a Daily Mail story in which the Mail quoted an Egyptian diplomat in London as saying that the claims were false. Ahram's story – soon pulled from its website – made no mention that all the reports of the claim originated directly and specifically with its story.

"Reporting the controversy" is an old journalistic trick. If there's some salacious story in a tabloid that the quality press wants to report, but doesn't want to be accused of amplifying, it reports the claim has "stirred controversy" and then reports reaction to whatever the claim is, notwithstanding the truth value of the claim. But a "reporting the controversy" approach when the false story originates with yourself? That's a new innovation. 

Last week Ahram carried another false report that cast Islamists in a bad light. The paper reported that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had tabled a law in parliament that would severely curtail Internet freedom in Egypt. The trouble? The FJP immediately denied seeking to advance any such legislation, and as a number of Egyptian reporters and activists pointed out, the draft law published in Ahram appeared to be a straight cut and paste of a piece of Saudi Arabian legislation; the word "Kingdom" was even left in Ahram's version of the story where "Republic" would have been used by an Egyptian.

There is plenty to worry about when it comes to women's rights and Egypt's Islamists. So far, the parliament is a paper tiger, with a new constitution to be written and most powers of government in the hands of the executive. And if the Muslim Brotherhood ever manages to translate its dominance of parliament into the power to actually legislate, I would expect legislation under the guise of protecting against pornography, or blasphemy, or "the dignity of women" to emerge that would be harmful to basic rights. The salafi sect, currently the junior partner in parliament, are particularly hostile to the position of women, and would probably favor laws mandating head scarves for women.

But speculation about the future is a long way from things that are actually happening in the present. Though much has changed in Egypt, it looks increasingly like Al Ahram has largely remained the same.

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