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Fox News-Style Fear Spreads

Fact-free journalism and dogged ideology are a disaster for democracy as Murdoch's model spreads in the Middle East.

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Here in the U.S., Morsi’s Egypt dropped from the news as dreary politics took over from the excitement of Arab street protests and power defiance. But if you followed Egyptian media in the past year, the venomous polarization the country is witnessing now might seem sadly unsurprising. Since Morsi’s inauguration as president in June 2012, Egyptian media became fractured along ideological lines. Morsi’s hunger for power and his crackdown on press freedom didn’t help and quickly turned secular media against his government and the MB leadership.

Pro-Morsi media, which included mostly religious television channels, now shut down since the coup, instantly morphed into a propagandist political pulpit with wacky punditry perpetually gloating over the ascension of an Islamist president to power. Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood were readily dismissed as infidels, mercenaries activated by the old regime, or even vampires seeking the blood of revolutionaries. As the chorus of criticism of Morsi grew louder, some MB leaders and supporters intensified their religious rhetoric and started to sound dangerously defensive calling for Shariah rule and equating Morsi with divine providence.

Nobody could verbalize the disenchantment with Morsi’s rule better than popular television satirist Bassem Youssef, who creatively made his weekly show “Al Bernameg” the epicenter for MB and Morsi mockery. EveryFriday, 30 million Egyptians tuned in to watch him lampoon journalists, politicians and what he called “merchants of religion.” Youssef’s skits exposed Morsi’s clumsy statesmanship and mocked his lack of charisma, his subservience to the MB spiritual leaders and his supporters’ obsession with Shariah. The jokes were so popular that they easily echoed in the streets, making a buffoon of Morsi and of his policies.

Youssef has indeed pioneered a new genre of daring television satire and managed to change the lexicon of cultural and political critique in Egypt. His witty jokes provided his viewers with a different lens to process difficult information at a time of painful and unpredictable transition in Egyptian society. But given the dearth of independent media, Youssef’s satire only deepened the ideological chasm between Egyptians and served as a dangerous spectacle of democracy. It is as if all mainstream news media in Egypt have turned into battlefields using rumor and reckless editorializing as armor against an inflated enemy.

There was high hope for the news media in a post-Mubarak Egypt, but Morsi was not interested in media reform as much as he was engulfed by a paranoid desire to amass more power. As a presidential candidate, Morsi promised, “No one will touch media freedoms. There will be no pens broken, no opinions prevented, no channels or newspapers shut down in my era.”

In fact, Morsi’s government constantly complained about blasphemous secular media, blacklisting more than 50 journalists and media personalities, and delegating press regulation to a media council made up exclusively of MB members. Shorty after the start of his presidency, a court order shut down a television channel over reports the Brotherhood mishandled a militant Islamist uprising in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. And according to human rights groups, there were four times more lawsuits for “insulting the president” in the first six months of Morsi’s term that during the 30-year rule of Mubarak.

But despite Morsi’s poor record on freedom of expression, nothing can justify the absurd political unraveling in Egypt over the last few weeks. The silence or cheerleading role of the national media as the massacre of Rabaa was underway must be one of the most demoralizing tales of the young history of post-Mubarak Egypt. Early in 2013, Liliane Daoud, a broadcast journalist with ONTV, told USA Today that despite Morsi’s press crackdown, there can be no return to the old Egypt. “What I’m seeing from friends, journalists, people around me – people are not scared,” she said. “It’s going to be a relatively long battle, but we are not going back.” It is hard to give Daoud the last word on this. I believe Egypt has gone back and maybe even to a darker place as ideology and vengeance continue to numb its media in the face of despicable violence and farcical prevarications.