On the Three Types of Arabs:  The Evil, the Good, and the Harmless

Since the summer of 2013, the public and private media outlets in Egypt has fashioned a trio of Arab profiles: the good Arab, the evil Arab, and the useless, yet harmless, Arab.  These three classifications have been heavily used in an attempt to manipulate public awareness, to legitimize the network of alliances supporting the current regime in Egypt, and to justify the regional roles that Egypt has played since July 3, 2013.

The Arab rulers in the Gulf (with the exception of Qatar), who have offered financial aid and in-kind assistance and supported the regime in Egypt, are presented in the discourse of the Egyptian media as the “good Arabs,” along with the rulers of Algeria and Jordan.  These Arab rulers and their peoples are welcomed, and their roles as donors and supporters of the regime in Egypt are held in high esteem.  The necessity of establishing alliances with these rulers and coordinating militarily (in terms of being prepared to “go the distance” to defend Arab states from external threats), strategically (in terms of counter-terrorism), politically, diplomatically, and economically is constantly propagated.

These Arab rulers are portrayed in the media and by state institutions and official bodies as the wisest and most senior of Arab leaders, whose stance in support of Egypt will never be forgotten.  They are depicted as wishing the best for us and as incapable of conspiring against us, as opposed to other governments and actors in the region.  Never addressed, however, is the undemocratic nature of the regimes in the Gulf, Algeria, and Jordan, and their human rights track record. Further left unsaid is that any real solidarity with the Palestinian people shown by these “good Arabs” – particularly those from the Gulf – is limited in nature, as is the support shown for Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and to free themselves from the Israeli occupation.

The Egyptian media discourse is silent about all of this, instead characterizing the actions of Arab rulers in the Gulf, Algeria, and Jordan as “a line of moderation and reason.”  Under this discourse, the lack of democracy in these countries is transformed into a “moderation” which stands against the forces of extremism and radicalization.  Rather than addressing the repression and violations to rights and freedoms that result from this lack of democracy, the priority is given to maintaining the cohesion of the state and achieving economic and social development.  Similarly, this discourse paints financial and material support for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah as supportive of the forces of moderation in Palestine and as evidence of a move away from the “extremists and militants,” who are portrayed as spending more time in Qatar than in Gaza, and who are never described as belonging to the resistance, even when they confront the Israeli killing machine (noting that the rulers in Algeria and Jordan are less likely to espouse this last point).  Under this discourse, the orientations and policies of the regime in Egypt are equated with this “moderate line” of the “good Arabs” and dissociated from the historically established regional role played by Egypt, which has long refused to be constrained by sectarianism and ideological divides when dealing with Arab issues, and which has never backed down from its commitment to the centrality of the Palestinian issue.

As for the “evil Arabs,” the discourse in the Egyptian media portrays them as including Qatar’s rulers, who support the Muslim Brotherhood and who are thus classified as “enemies of Egypt.”  These Qatari rulers (along with those of Turkey) are portrayed as having conspiratorial and criminal intentions.  The ranks of “evil Arabs” also include the Moroccan and Tunisian governments, due to their implementation of democratic procedures (more or less) and the participation of right-wing religious forces in governance (the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and Ennahda in Tunisia).  These are two examples in which democracy is being gradually established – a concept which has been rejected in Egypt – and in which all political and societal forces are included within the framework of rule of law and under the condition of peaceful engagement in the public sphere.  In Morocco and Tunisia, this has occurred without the exclusion of the religious right, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has become linked with terrorism, and groups and interests affiliated with the Brotherhood have been criminalized, repressed, and labeled traitorous.  It is not surprising, then, that the media has also begun attacking Morocco and Tunisia, as the hysteria with which it distorts the facts has gone so far as to violate the very meaning of Egypt’s Arab identity and belonging.  It is not surprising that the discourse in both public and private media has been transformed into a tool to produce “enemies,” including by associating the characteristics of “evil” with two Arab governments which represent positive examples of how to construct democracy and how to adopt a position of solidarity with the Palestinian people.  In reality, these two governments certainly have enough political, economic, and social problems of their own to deal with and have given no indication of any desire to interfere in other countries’ affairs.

The ranks of “evil Arabs” have stretched to include the Syrians who sought refuge in Egypt after fleeing the calamities of the war being waged in their homeland.  Syrians have been unjustly accused of treason, espionage, and conspiracy against Egypt “in collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood.”  This attitude has denied Syrians their rights and freedoms and condemned the few respectable, unbiased media figures and the civil society organizations who did defend Syrians’ inherent human rights to life and dignity.  These basic rights should have precluded the repatriation of poor Syrians to the ravages of war in Syria, the breaking up of families, and their subjection to other violations such as arrest, pretrial detention, and deportation.

The ranks of “evil Arabs” further include the Palestinians, who face unprecedented hate speech in Egyptian media today.  In addition, the manner in which Egypt is dealing with the Palestinian issue is reductionist and unjust, allowing the momentary, narrow considerations of the current regime to take precedence over the issue of Palestine as a fateful matter for Egypt.

Some examples of the phrases used in the media to spread hate speech against Palestine, as well as to promote limiting the Palestinian issue and criminalizing resistance and to justify allowing momentary concerns to outweigh such crucial matters as the Palestinian issue, include:  “We have no interests in Palestine; We have done much and received nothing in return; Hamas is a terrorist group just like the Muslim Brotherhood, and it allied itself with the Brotherhood against Egypt and Egypt’s national security; Hamas, who defend the Muslim Brotherhood, have been involved in the killing of Egyptian soldiers and in terrorism in Sinai; The leaders of Hamas provoke Israel through their attacks on civilians, and sacrifice the blood of Palestinians to achieve ignoble political goals; Egypt is wrought with crises and has little to offer in terms of humanitarian and medical aid; Opening the Rafah crossing would threaten Egypt’s national security.”

These phrases aim to manipulate public awareness and distort the facts.  Palestine is not Gaza, and Gaza is not Hamas.  The Palestinian issue is the issue of a people who have suffered, since the beginning of the 20th century, from colonization and occupation and who have not been able to exercise their right to self-determination to this day.  Although the links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have distanced the current regime in Egypt and Hamas politically, Egypt cannot – for the sake of momentary, narrow considerations – ignore geographic realities and its historical role to the point of classifying Hamas as enemy and Israel as friend.  Civil society groups and political entities in Egypt which are sympathetic to Gaza have not demanded that Egypt intervene militarily, nor does anyone wish to embroil the Egyptian army in wars or military confrontations.  Similarly, Egyptian nationalists have not refrained from condemning the terrorism which has led to the fall of martyrs from among the ranks of the army and the police.  Rather, the demand is for an end to our participation in the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the opening of the Rafah crossing lawfully and regularly, with the Egyptian authorities monitoring all considerations related to sovereignty and national security.  The demand is solidarity with a third Palestinian Intifada which brings peaceful resistance back to the forefront in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza and which puts an end to futile negotiations such as those of Oslo.

Through distortion of the facts and despicable attempts to manipulate public awareness of these issues, the Palestinian people have been included in the ranks of the “evil Arabs.”  Similarly, the importance of the Palestinian issue for Egypt has been reduced, and the continued participation of Egypt in the blockade of Gaza has been passed off, even as neo-fascism spreads hate speech against Palestinians in the media.

The third type of Arabs are those who are “useless, yet harmless.”  The discourse in the Egyptian media includes impoverished Arabs in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Mauritania in this category.  It also includes, for example, the Arab peoples in Iraq and Libya, whose circumstances at times cause serious alarm about the fate which could become reality with the collapse of the nation-state and the ascendance of terrorism and violence, and at other times call for empathy and even potential intervention in these peoples’ affairs, as necessitated by the policy of “being prepared to go the distance” to protect Arab countries, and as required by the interests behind this policy.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk 

Image: Photo: UN