I have been waiting to write about the coup in Egypt in the past week, because such an unexpected and confusing event makes for bad snap-punditry. (My word choice here — “coup” — is one of the central, but inane, controversies of this rough-draft-style analysis. I think we can call what has been happening in Egypt since January 2011 an ongoing revolution, which has included many many protests. But the event that concerns us this week is a military coup). Contrary to David Brooks and the WSJ, no this event doesn’t mean Egyptians aren’t democratic or require “a Pinochet.” Nor does this event spell “the end of political Islam.” For those looking for the best of different styles of analysis that deal well with the current ambiguity, please see essays by: Nathan Brown (on institutions and tactics), Ellis Goldberg (on the Muslim Brotherhood), Sarah Carr (on the pro- and anti-Morsi crowds) and Walter Armbrust (on the Egyptian media).
I have merely a brief note today along the line of Armbrust’s interests: the manipulation of the mass media. When protesters complain about the “deep state,” they usually mean the hand of the military or Ministry of Interior in electoral politics. But there is another institution that has not been overthrown since the Mubarak era and before: the presidential photo pool. Take for example:
This is brand-new Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi (on the left), a finance technocrat and former deputy prime minister under SCAF chairman Muhammad Hussein Tantawi (on the right), meeting today with “acting” President Adli Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who still has not spoken in public.
Here we have just-ousted Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party President Muhammad Mursi (right) and his Prime Minister Hisham Qandil (left), probably taken around a year ago. It’s the same corner of the President’s office, same bright white flat flash lighting, the same chair and couch (before reupholstering), different tree in the same place, same coffee table, same phone, same kind of flowers, same paunches and same postures (on which more below).
Just prior to Mursi’s election, the governing pair were Tantawi (right) as head of state and Kamal al-Ganzouri (left) as prime minister, in the first half of 2012. Al-Ganzouri had been Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister from 1996 to 1999. This is a different part of the room, plus Tantawi gets all the armed forces’ service flags (not to mention a tiny national flag on the table, just in case). Tantawi remains in uniform, as he never became a civilian president.
But the message is the same in each image: there IS a government and hierarchy withstands all shocks. The photographer poses the more powerful man on the right, with his hands apart, making a gesture or ready to do so. The less powerful man (the prime minister) is sitting with legs together and hands folded in his lap ready to receive a command. These carefully constructed images are a reflection of the Egyptian constitution, in which a strong president has the unilateral right to choose his prime minister, who merely carries out the president’s plans. In the 2013 scenario, the military has wised up and made a senior judge the nominal president, maintaining a facade of civil government probably while reserving close veto powers over Mansour’s decisions.
I’m not claiming this recent coup has set the revolutionaries back to square one. Nor do I think that this school of propaganda photography is enslaving Egyptians to an anti-democratic political system. But there are institutions of the Egyptian state that run deeper and attract less notice than the usual suspects such as the riot police. These photos are effective tools, in a media environment still dominated by state-owned organs like Al-Gumhuriya, Al-Ahram and Channel 1, for numbing the public to the exercise of power with their placidity and repetitiveness. Whether it works in the long run is another matter.
I was unable to find an image of Mubarak sitting with one of his many PMs like the ones above, but I will leave you with the image below. Yes, that’s Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s the same chairs and same coffee table, and the same bogus message: Mubarak was in control.