Taken by Surprise

Perhaps the biggest protest in the Arab world took place yesterday in Cairo (and elsewhere in Egypt.) The group, Tamarod (“rebel” in Arabic), claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures, calling for the resignation of President Morsi, on the anniversary of his election. The goal of Tamarod was to obtain more signatures than the 13 million who voted for Morsi last June 30.

David Kirkpatrick and two other reporters for the New York Times reported on yesterday’s events, By the Millions, Egyptians Seek Morsi’s Ouster

So they didn’t downplay the numbers.

However there appear to be some troubling aspects to their coverage.

Clashes between Mr. Morsi’s opponents and supporters broke out in several cities around the country, killing at least seven people — one in the southern town of Beni Suef, four in the southern town of Assiut and two in Cairo — and injuring hundreds. Protesters ransacked Brotherhood offices around the country. In Cairo, a mob of hundreds set fire to the almost-empty Brotherhood headquarters, pelting it with stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks for hours. A few members hiding inside the darkened building fired bursts of birdshot at the attackers, wounding several, but the police and security forces did nothing to stop the assault or the arson.

Is this sequence correct? Elsewhere it appeared that the protesters on the headquarters were fired upon (and some number were killed) and then they started shooting. Is Kirkpatrick correct? Is the matter unclear?

A reporter on the scene reported:

In other words, according to this eyewitness, the physical attack by the protesters on the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo was defensive or retaliatory. It is the opposite of what Kirkpatrick reported.

Who did Kirkpatrick use as his expert?

Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who studies the Muslim Brotherhood closely, said: “The Brotherhood underestimated its opposition.” He added: “This is going to be a real moment of truth for the Brotherhood.”

Mr. Morsi and Brotherhood leaders have often ascribed much of the opposition in the streets to a conspiracy led by Mubarak-era political and financial elites determined to bring them down, and they have resisted concessions in the belief that the opposition’s only real motive is the Brotherhood’s defeat. But no conspiracy can brings millions to the streets, and by Sunday night some analysts said the protests would send a message to other Islamist groups around the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“It is a cautionary note: don’t be too eager for power, and try to think how you do it,” Mr. Hamid said, faulting the Egyptian Brotherhood for seeking to take most of the power for itself all at once. “I hear concern from Islamists around the region about how the Brotherhood is tainting Islamism.”

While Kirkpatrick, at least, wrote “… no conspiracy can brings millions to the streets,” Hamid’s use as an expert is problematic. He doesn’t just study the Muslim Brotherhood, but is sympathetic to them. This twitter exchange between Hamid and Eric Trager from last November is instructive.

From his past writing, Kirkpatrick has shown that he, like Hamid, believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for moderation. Perhaps, he didn’t think that there were any competing views.

The next paragraph is curious.

Mr. Morsi’s administration appeared caught by surprise. “There are protests; this is a reality,” Omar Amer, a spokesman for the president, said at a midnight news conference. “We don’t underestimate the scale of the protests, and we don’t underestimate the scale of the demands.” He said the administration was open to discussing any demands consistent with the Constitution, but he also seemed exasperated, sputtering questions back at the journalists. “Do you have a better idea? Do you have an initiative?” he asked. “Suggest a solution and we’re willing to consider it seriously.”

In this article, Kirkpatrick and his colleagues acknowledged that yesterday’s protests were larger than those that called for Mubarak’s ouster. Yet, the New York Times didn’t bother to send a handful of columnists into Cairo to cheerlead the protests as they did in 2011. It wasn’t only the Morsi administration that was “caught by surprise.” Furthermore, if you check the last month’s archive of the New York Times, do you know what word you won’t find? “Tamarod.” It’s like writing about American politics during President Obama’s term in office and not using the name “Tea Party.”

Finally here’s how the New York Times portrayed Morsi’s term in office:

The extrication of the military from power was the biggest achievement of Mr. Morsi’s first year in office. Last August, months after his election, the generals finally went back to their barracks and allowed him to take full power as president, although the military retains considerable autonomy under Egypt’s new Constitution.

But Mr. Morsi continued to battle institutions within his own government left over from Mr. Mubarak, most notably the judiciary, and some of those fights contributed to the protests that peaked Sunday. The protests began in November, when he tried to declare himself above the courts until the passage of a new Constitution, a move that reinforced the fears of his opponents and perhaps the general public that he threatened to become a new autocrat.

According to this, Morsi was beset by remnants of the old regime. But just because officials were appointed by Mubarak didn’t necessarily mean that they were tainted. And what does it mean “reinforced the fears?” It wasn’t just fears of his opponents, by any objective standard Morsi was an autocrat. He shut down newspapers he disapproved of, he intimidated critics, he attempted to impose his values on Egypt’s artistic community and he appointed a former terrorist as a regional governor.

We get to the end of the article.

The attackers used green pen lasers to search for figures at the windows of the Brotherhood offices, then hurled Molotov cocktails. They vowed to show no mercy on the members inside. “Their leaders have left them like sheeps for the slaughter,” one said. Two people were killed in the violence at the headquarters, medics there said.

Thousands of Mr. Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood had gathered at a rally near the presidential palace to prepare to defend it if the protesters tried to attack. Many brought batons, pipes, bats, hard hats or motorcycle helmets, even woks or scraps of metal to use as shields. They stood at attention with clubs raised and marched together. “We will sacrifice our lives for our religion,” some chanted. “Morsi’s men are everywhere.”

According to the reporter whose tweets were cited above, the protesters attacked the headquarters a few hours after they were attacked – is it possible that Kirkpatrick or one of his colleagues got to the scene only after the Muslim Brotherhood members had attacked the protesters? Furthermore, the dead, according to other reports, came from the ranks of the protesters, a point that that the New York Times leaves ambiguous.

But the view of the pro-Morsi protesters matches what I’ve read elsewhere. They did not appear to be bent on peaceful demonstrations.

The New York Times had an opportunity to report on history in the making. Unfortunately, aside from the headline, much of the report was distorted favoring the preconceived notions of the paper, its reporters and editors.

 
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