Egyptians have been consistently accusing the West of wilfully misunderstanding them and their revolution. But how do Western perceptions on matters in Egypt, or for that matter in the Middle East generally measure up? If you ask people here in the West what they think of recent events in Egypt and Syria, most either give an opinion shaped by their own cultural experiences or admit that they haven’t a clue what’s going on.
News from the Middle East has featured prominently in Western newspapers and news bulletins, with the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi, and not long afterwards the chemical attack in Syria and its aftermath, making headlines for days in a row.
The attention the Western media is giving to the Middle East is far from exclusive, however. Westerners have their own issues to deal with, and even when the Middle East is in the headlines the angle is just as much what various governments are going to do about events as the events themselves. This has led to allegations that the angle presented by broadcast and printed media has been biased one way or another. Coupled with correspondents’ reports from the region presenting often conflicting versions of events, it means that what is going on in Egypt and Syria is a puzzle to most people, even seasoned observers.
While the Egyptian 2011 Revolution kept many people glued to their screens, recent events have brought on a strong feeling of déjà vu. Confusing information has left many people not only baffled but past caring. It’s not that they have no empathy with the suffering of people around the world—quite the contrary, just look at the huge sums the western public give to international charities. It’s rather that with so many catastrophes from floods to famine to forest fires they feel their compassion being tugged in several ways, and therefore spent in regard to a region where events lurch regularly from one crisis to another.
Recent events have left the average person totally confused. Should they back Mursi because he was an elected president, or should they back the people who wanted to depose him? Should they back the army because they want to keep the peace, or should they oppose them because they planned a coup to install military rule—which they didn’t? Should they support the Muslim Brotherhood because it is wrong to ‘be against’ Muslims, or should they be against them because they are allied to terrorists? Should Mursi be supported at all costs because he was elected, and how can an elected president flout the Constitution anyway? There must be a mistake somewhere.
The plight of Copts in Egypt has certainly not gone unnoticed. “Neither traditional Islamic tolerance nor a shared desire with fellow moderate Muslim citizens for reform have protected Egypt’s Christian community from murderous attacks by hardline Islamists who blame them for the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood from power,” wrote Trevor Mostyn in the UK Catholic newspaper, The Tablet.
As for Syria, if they support military action will the West be helping genuine pro-democracy Syrians or will they be backing al-Qaeda? Will they be ‘teaching Assad a lesson’ or becoming involved in a situation from which it will be impossible to extricate themselves? Is Obama’s real aim to attack al-Qaeda in Syria, and not the Assad regime at all? The US and others have grown tired of sending their sons off to ‘keep the peace’ and welcoming them home in body bags.
The British parliament has rejected a government proposal to take action against the Assad regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. This came as a disappointment to many who see such action as an obligation for the just and the good. Writer William Scott told Watani: “The decision [by David Cameron] to debate intervention in Syria to prevent further atrocities was Periclean. The right thing to do, just as intervention—and full scale is what is necessary: smothering the place with troops, doctors, nurses, aid in every form, from every nation with the courage and compassion to help: so that democracy will triumph—is the only moral response.
“But our democracy has failed,” Mr Scott added. “Our people and Parliament have failed the suffering millions of Syria. And now we, unaccustomedly, are sidelined, out of the battle for goodness. We have shown the white flag, washed our hands of it like Pilate, and are no longer the moral force of yore. Frightened off like children by the cost to our own pockets.”
So much contradiction
Mr Scott says he takes a Christian view, but other committed Christians see it differently. Fiona Bickerton, granddaughter of John Gordon Lorimer, who struggled to maintain peace between the Arabs and Ottomans before his tragic death in Baghdad in 1914, says she is definitely “not for going in with all guns firing”.
She adds: “Did we never learn from Iraq and Afghanistan? I cannot imagine my very highly qualified grandfather would have done anything other than diplomacy, especially as you are dealing with so many different sects.”
Thus some people say intervention works: just look at Kosovo and Sierra Leone, it worked there. No it doesn’t, say others: look at Iraq and Afghanistan. If we intervene in Syria, how can we know what will the ultimate outcome be? This seems to be the most prevalent reason for non-intervention. Either way most people view it as a moral issue, one coloured—or soured—by their own colonial past.
Speaking of colonialism, we are used to being labelled as ‘colonial’ and recognise that this influences the view of us, while being aware that it is easy to fall back on blaming others for one’s own shortcomings.
Western reaction is bound to be influenced by the mixed messages received through social media from Egyptians and Syrians, much of it almost wilfully contradictory. Many of those who berate Western powers for contemplating military action against Syria are the very ones who two years ago were screaming for the West to intervene to help the rebels.
Egyptians particularly have a fondness for conspiracy theories, and when these are fuelled by an underlying xenophobia, they can spread like wildfire. One thing observers have learnt is that whatever bad happens in Egypt, something worse happens next—and if any link in any new event, however tenuous, can be made to the US, then it goes without saying that it is the US’s fault.
Many Westerners no longer trust immediate news sources and are aware that disinformation is being spread through the media. Distrusting the political process, especially in relation to government and multinational corporations, they would like to see any assistance to Syria being channelled into the humanitarian effort, including medical aid and assistance to refugees. Westerners also see the current rhetoric as a sign that their own governments are imploding, and their scepticism is profound. One of many similar posts on Facebook goes: ‘Fix Syria? They can’t even fix Detriot’. Not much consensus there, then.
18 September 2013