x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Egyptian presidential debate reveals how consent can be 'manufactured'

The Egyptian presidential debate, far from historic, revealed how political consent can be manufactured, an Arabic language columnist writes. Other topics in today's Arabic news digest: Islamist democracy in Tunisia, and Annan's failure in Syria.

Framed by commercial media institutions, Egypt's presidential debate was a clear example of the manufacture of consent, wrote Maamoun Fandi in the daily Asharq Al Awsat.

"Contrary to what the accompanying commercial advertisements claimed, the debate was hardly a historic one," he wrote.

It signalled the commencement of a systematic process of moulding collective consciousness, two weeks ahead of the election.

The first debate was void of any governing measures because it was held by profit-driven institutions. Four commercial media outlets, all owned by interest-motivated businessmen, sponsored the debate. So it mixed politics and business, Egyptian-style.

The private institutions framed the debate in such as way as to influence voters' choices before the election date.

"Among 11 contenders for president, the channels and magazines behind the debate simply decided that two candidates, Amr Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, were the top vote-getters, and invited them to a televised debate accordingly," the writer observed.

Egyptians thus became sandwiched between two top contenders, while others candidates were reduced to "walk-on" roles.

This is a clear example of "a deception campaign in a silky apron of a popular consensus and fake opinion polls that claimed two competitors are superior to the others".

The writer noted that the event was an instance of falsely manufacturing consent among voters.

Against this backdrop, it would be no wonder if businessmen in Egypt approached one of the would-be presidents in a bid to curry favour or "make him according to their measure".

The wonder is for this to happen in a country just feeling its way to democracy. Also astonishing was the fact that the first post-revolution election started off on the wrong foot, the writer noted.

The false consensus was not the sole flaw marring the debate. Other aspects were incompatible with the normal principles governing the election process. These related to the type of candidates and type of journalists who moderated the debate.

The debate was devoid of any statistics about the Egyptian economy, and hence there was no mention of how a candidate could improve it, the writer observed.

"No mention was made of tourism statistics, Suez Canal revenues, population statistics, or per capita income."

No journalist asked Mr Moussa a single question seeking exact information about foreign policy. Queries revolved around Egypt's declining role in Africa, yet nobody asked for figures about the size of the decline.

The debate was limited to an exchange of accusations, with one candidate being accused about Muslim Brotherhood links and the other accused of being a remnant of the ancien regime.

Could Tunisia have 'Islamist democracy'?

The visit to Tunisia this month by Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, sparked a wide political debate in the country, as some parties protested his earlier support for the toppled regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Emirati writer Aisha Al Marri noted in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper Al Ittihad.

"It has indeed become a trend in Tunisia; you can expect an exchange of accusations every time an Islamic figure visits the country, because it is seen as an indirect show of support for the ruling Islamist Ennahda party," she wrote.

But Islamists in Tunisia and their foreign friends are all for democracy, or so they say, she added. During his visit, Sheikh Al Qaradawi told a crowd of Ennahda followers: "Democracy is not apostasy, as some would have it, it is actually repentance itself."

So is Tunisia poised to be a model for a healthy amalgamation of democracy and Islamism in the Arab world? The thought is not too far-fetched.

"Ennahda have been super-pragmatic when they decided that Sharia must not be the source of all legislation," the writer noted. They also found nothing wrong with seeking secular allies.

Time will inevitably separate the hardliners from the moderates within Ennahda, but for now, the party is full of promise, she concluded.

Annan's mission is just a title for a phase

So far there is no solution on the horizon for Syria, columnist George Semaan wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.

In fact, the renewed regional and international support for Kofi Annan's mission, despite the bloody developments on the ground, only proves that the ultimate goal at this point is to maintain a minimum degree of balance between the two sides.

"The UN-Arab envoy's mission does not aim to find a solution, or even lead to a compromise," he wrote.

"A compromise, by definition, hinges on both camps agreeing to concessions, but the facts reveal that there is no room for rapprochement between the conflicting parties."

The sectarian structure of the regime does not allow for the rotation of authority or for pluralism. Any plans for change would necessarily lead to the kind of fighting that is raging on today.

In this sense, it becomes evident that the main purpose behind Mr Annan's mission is to provide the required time for all stakeholders, regional and international, to tend to matters of a more pressing nature, such as the upcoming presidential elections in the US and the reshuffling of diplomacy following the presidential elections in Russia, he concluded.

* Digest compiled by The Translation Desk