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Media Help America Misunderstand Egypt

Americans are frequently accused of being clueless about the Middle East. But given the nonsense they’re fed by the so-called “serious” mainstream media, cluelessness is virtually inevitable.

Take, for instance, the explanation of last week’s Egyptian coup offered by a star columnist for one of America’s premier newspapers: According to the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, it was about the ousted government’s failure to satisfy the following cravings: “personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.” And on what does he base this conclusion? He quotes exactly two people–the director of Human Rights Watch’s Cairo office and former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei. In other words, two members of the same liberal elite to which Cohen belongs–but which is highly unrepresentative of most of the estimated 14 million demonstrators who thronged Egypt’s streets last Sunday.

Reporters who spoke to those demonstrators, like Haaretz’s anonymous (presumably for his/her own protection) correspondent in Cairo, got a very different picture. “There’s no construction in Egypt and no company is hiring workers,” complained an unemployed engineer. A small boat owner said he could no longer feed his children because the falloff in tourism had killed his livelihood, which was taking tourists on Nile cruises. A Cairo street vendor who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood last year said bluntly, “The city is dead. Dead. No work. No food.” As columnist David P. Goldman (aka Spengler) noted, “It is not that hard to get 14 million people into the streets if there is nothing to eat at home.”

This is not a minor misunderstanding. If you think last week’s revolution was primarily a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood’s undemocratic behavior, then you’ll think the West’s main goal should be “supporting the Egyptian people in their aspirations to democracy and inclusive governance,” as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton put it last week–for instance, by helping them draft a new and improved constitution. But if you realize that the revolution was primarily about economic distress, then you’ll understand the West’s main goals should be arranging short-term aid and pushing long-term economic reforms needed to stabilize the economy–because without economic improvement, even the best constitution won’t prevent another coup next year. Desperate people can’t afford to wait for the next election to bring about policy changes.

I’ve written before about how journalists’ tendency to talk almost exclusively with their counterparts abroad–i.e. members of the liberal elite–leads to gross misunderstanding of the countries they’re ostensibly enlightening their readers about. And the inevitable outcome is bad policymaking: It’s not possible to craft intelligent policy based on erroneous information.

But since the mainstream media isn’t going to change, policymakers urgently need to develop their own sources of information rather than relying so heavily on the media to understand foreign countries. As COMMENTARY’s Michael Rubin has frequently argued, ordering diplomats to spend less time hobnobbing with the liberal elite and more time learning what everyone else thinks might be a good place to start.



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