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Wednesday, August 14, 2013 

The wrong kind of protesters.

Cast your mind back a couple of months, and you might recall that there was much excited and deserved reporting on the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park. Initially in protest at plans to build yet another shopping mall, only this time in one of the last remaining green areas in Turkey's capital, it swiftly became a general stand against an authoritarian Islamist government. Described as looters and bums by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, in reality they were mostly liberals with a few Kurds and Kemalist hangers-on joining in.  Running battles were fought with the police, who responded brutally.  The park was however eventually cleared without major loss of life, with protesters turning to civil disobedience instead.

Compare this to what's happened in Egypt since the coup in June which saw the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president.  There were and are many valid criticisms of Morsi and his movement, including the possibility that they might have attempted to alter the constitution to remain in power indefinitely.  We have since learned though that the army and other state institutions in the weeks prior to the coup appear to have stopped working with the Morsi government in an effort to further boost the Tamarod movement, something that more than succeeded.  Accompanying the coup was the shutting down of newspapers and TV stations sympathetic to the Brotherhood, as well as the arrest of leading figures within it.  Despite this, the Brotherhood's supporters have continued to protest peacefully, resulting first in the massacre outside the Republican Guards' club in Cairo, then another at the sit-in near to the Rabaa Adawiya mosque.  Finally, today, in the bloodiest episode so far, it looks as though hundreds of unarmed protesters have been killed after the clearing of two protest camps in Cairo, with violence reported elsewhere in the country.

As for the coverage of these crimes, up till now it's been muted, with those commentators who had previously written ecstatic accounts of the initial revolution remaining silent.  Take Ahdaf Soueif, who wrote that the beating of the woman in the blue jeans and bra had "ruined the military's reputation".  A little over a year later, she entrusted that same military with continuing the revolution, supporting the overthrow of Morsi, and even now she puts the blame on the Brotherhood for err, the military killing its supporters.  Not that it's only Egyptian liberals that have decided to remain quiet or swallowed the state line as their fellow citizens, Muslim Brotherhood supporters or not, are shot down in the streets.  The Graun's Martin Chulov wrote an adoring piece on General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his likeness to Nasser, without so much as mentioning the military's attempts to silence journalists refusing to follow the line, or indeed how the state media has joined in, let alone just how sinister the attempt to create such a cult of personality is by itself.

One thing that never ceases to be remarkable is how the politics of the day always shine through in the reporting of foreign news.  We focus on Zimbabwe due to colonial hang-ups despite there being far worse heads of state in Africa than Mugabe, while our acquiescence to the Egyptian coup meant the plight of the country's Coptic Christians, while deeply concerning, ranked higher last night than the imminent bloodbath.  Just imagine if there had been a similar massacre of protesters today in Iran, or an equally well documented assault on unarmed civilians in Syria; the condemnation from ourselves and the Americans would have been unequivocal.  What we've had instead has been criticism and calls for restraint, but nothing that the junta in Egypt might take seriously.

Rather, as has now become the norm in the Middle East, we dance instead to the tune of the Saudis.  While we ummed and ahhed about the coup, the Saudis and the Emirate nations swiftly let go of the purse strings that had been tightly held while Morsi was in power.  The American decision to stay relatively above the fray, not properly denouncing or supporting either side has been rendered all but irrelevant by the Saudi endorsement of Sisi.  The same has been the case in Syria, where we find ourselves involved in a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, training and funding "moderates" in the same style as we did the "Awakening" groups in Iraq, while Saudi money and weaponry flows to the Salafis.  The irony is that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are probably among the "moderates" we favour arming, while we consider their brethren in Egypt not worthy of the same support.  Just as we long since stopped caring about the Syrian civilians caught up in their own personal hell, so too we wring our hands as the wrong kind of protesters are slaughtered, prepared to stomach bloodshed so long as the regional balance of power remains the same.

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