Al Jazeera’s recent fall from grace in Egypt can be seen as a case study in irony. The Qatari-owned television network was once considered a media darling as it played a cat-and-mouse game with Egypt’s military dictatorship. Subjected to arrests and government raids, Al Jazeera managed to dodge censors and satellite blockades put in place by the military regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak to broadcast the fervor of the revolutionaries. For this feat, the network was seen by many as an integral player in helping Egypt get on the road to democracy.
How times have changed. The recent ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, by the military in another popular uprising has shifted Al Jazeera’s standing in Egypt from golden child to pariah. While charges of pro-Morsi bias in coverage have been blamed for the network’s plunge in public opinion, the vehemence with which Al Jazeera has been reviled suggests a far deeper issue: the deep-seated animosity the Egyptian public has towards the Qatari government, which owns Al Jazeera.
Qatar has been a major contributor to Egypt’s struggling economy since the 2011 revolution, providing roughly $8 billion in aid. But rather than winning the hearts of the Egyptian public, its financial support has been viewed with skepticism, with many fearing that Qatar was using its vast wealth as a way of buying influence over the nation. Its closely-fostered ties with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party was seen as a threat to the nation’s hard-won democracy, paving the way for a theocracy.
And there is no denying that there may have been some legitimacy to that concern. According to a report in the Financial Times, the Muslim Brotherhood’s often controversial spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has lived on and off in Doha for decades. Qatar has also helped back Islamist rebels in Libya as well, indicating that Doha has been expecting political Islam to emerge as the dominant force in a post-revolutionary Arab world. That is of particular concern for secularists in Egypt who feared Qatar’s deep pockets would provide the Muslim Brotherhood significant freedom to reshape the country as a religious government, rather than a true democracy.
But Morsi has been deposed and with that Qatar’s influence, for the moment, has waned. Egypt is embarking on its next phase of power, with a new cabinet filled with liberals and not an Islamist to be found. To achieve true democracy, the new Egypt and its people must understand that the media has to be allowed to express itself without intimidation.
Familiar tactics once employed by Mubarak’s regime have once again been at play: security forces have raided Al Jazeera’s offices, an arrest warrant against Al Jazeera’s news channel director has been issued and Egyptian journalists demanded the removal of Al Jazeera’s bureau chief at a press conference on July 8. For a country that fought so hard to rid itself of media censorship as part of its revolution, this is a step backwards.
There may very well have been an agenda in some of the reporting, as stated by some of Egyptian Al Jazeera reporters who resigned in protest. But Al Jazeera is not the first major news organization in the world to have been accused by critics of having an agenda and it won’t be the last. Egyptians have a right to criticize if they disagree with an interview that is conducted or a phrase that is used. Or they can change the channel. That’s the joy of true democracy.
Yes, Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar and that is not going to change. But the network has broken down barriers that once seemed insurmountable in getting the voices of the Arab world out to the rest of the globe. Egypt is on a new path. It needs an established network that can tell its story from an insider perspective. Al Jazeera has the unique capability of doing that on a global stage. For Egypt to turn its back on Al Jazeera now, especially due to its mistrust of the network’s owners, seems counterproductive.