Day after day the news from Egypt seems to get darker and more confusing. This morning, in The Los Angeles Times, things were summed up like this:
CAIRO -- Anger between Egypt's rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to antigovernment demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation's proposed constitution.
Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.
Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital's wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists, shouting: "God is great! The people support the president's decision!"
Through the years, I have heard journalists who work in these kinds of environments make one statement over and over: It doesn't matter what a nation's laws say about free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc., if the police will not stop a riot. Rioters often make their own laws and hold instant elections and the majority usual wins.
What we are seeing, on one level, is the collapse of the whole Muslim Brotherhood-as-moderate influence template that has driven so much of the mainstream news coverage in recent months.
While there have been stories that stressed the strategic differences between Morsi and the more traditionalist Salafis, the reports we are seeing now are united in their emphasis that, on the crucial question of Islamic law being codified into the new Constitution, the leaders of these two Islamist camps are merely arguing about a few details, not the big picture. Many journalists are responding with a kind of, "Oh my gosh, who knew?" wonder and awe.
It is also crucial for reporters and editors to realize that Egypt, as a whole, is not conflicted on the big questions. Believers in religious minorities are truly at peril, according to the numbers in a very important -- but largely overlooked -- Pew Forum survey a year or so ago. Writing for Scripps, I summed the numbers up like this, in the midst of a discussion of that vague and often meaningless term "fundamentalist."
Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”
Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”
So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.
To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life -- a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.
So, how pragmatic and "moderate" has Morsi turned out to be?
Some mainstream journalists are starting to ask that question. This remarkable essay by NBC's Jim Maceda stumbles through the wreckage and makes some rather bracing concessions to the reality of majority rule:
The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood's President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.
"President Obama is supporting a terrorist," a man told me amid chants of "Leave! Leave!" in Tahrir Square and "Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader." Before, it was "Down, down with Mubarak."
Egypt was torn in half ... when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.
And the bottom line? Read it all, including this sobering passage:
Protected by the president's new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution "a jewel." Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.
The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women's rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.
Journalists and others involved in researching these topics need to parse the Pew Forum numbers again. Are the current events surprising? Is the reality that Morsi represents a powerful majority that, with no need for the approval of the West, can proceed to act on its convictions? How will the American press deal with these realities, including the clear threats now looming for the large Coptic Orthodox minority, secular liberals, progressive Muslims, feminists and members of other religious minority groups?
Is the existing news template being crushed under the feet of the rioters?