CAIRO -- The unrest that has shaken Egypt for more than a month has generated a war of images seeking to lay the blame for hundreds of deaths on an unchecked general, a toppled Islamist leader and legions of young men firing homemade guns and hurling stones through clouds of tear gas.
Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, has been hailed by much of the media as the nation's savior. His nemesis, deposed President Mohamed Morsi, has been cast as murderer, spy and terrorist. The depictions border on caricature but they illustrate Egypt's passions and frightening divisions.
Until the military deposed Egypt's first democratically elected government on July 3, state-run news outlets were under the domain of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked political party. They are now in the hands of the army, which is competing with social media, increasingly relied on by Islamists to frame a narrative of the chaos. Internet videos are edited to suit each side's version of reality and sound bites are tweaked to illicit patriotism and rage.
"Egyptian media are all about mobilization," said Gamal Soltan, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "They are a highly politicized media, and they try to encourage supporters of the side they are on."
The truth is elusive, and many Egyptians are exasperated. They don't entirely trust state media but believe foreign organizations, especially the Qatar-based satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, whose Cairo offices were raided by the military, sympathize with the Brotherhood. They are left with conspiracy theories and twisted facts, punctuated by images of mothers wailing for dead sons or nationalist music playing behind montages of tanks and proud soldiers.
The battle to shape public opinion reverberated through European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's efforts Tuesday to end the weeks of violence. A day earlier, Ashton met with Morsi, who is being held at a secret military location, and said she had an "open and very frank discussion" with the former leader. She went no further in characterizing the meeting.
But it was reported by Ahram Online, the website of Egypt's largest state-owned newspaper, this way: "Informed sources [said] that Ashton's message to Morsi and his fellow Muslim Brothers would be one of 'concession.' "
The army and the Brotherhood have seldom courted the media; historically, those in power have intimidated and manipulated it. While the Brotherhood ruled, it moved to silence writers, satirists, bloggers and comedians. Today the generals are on top, and the Islamists are trying to pierce the army's public relations veneer, which includes flattering coverage by outlets owned by businessmen looking to impress the military brass.
In recent days, the military has held briefings and invited reporters for helicopter rides to view massive pro-army rallies. The Brotherhood, whose newspaper and television stations have been shuttered, has turned to social media and foreign news organizations to get its message out.
No sooner have the dead fallen than pictures of their bloodied bodies appear on banners and placards. Logos such as "Against Terrorism" flash on state and private TV channels, demonizing the Brotherhood and depicting Sisi as the new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered military-officer-turned-president who inspired the 1952 coup that led to Egypt's independence from Britain.
Sisi epitomizes the Arab strongman: hat brim pulled tight, sunglasses, chest full of medals. He is ideal for television, an inscrutable former head of military intelligence who projects strength for a country craving a protector after two years of political upheaval and economic ruin.
The media "all chant for the leader Sisi and slander the Brotherhood," said Alaa Sadek, a newspaper reporter whose Facebook posts have criticized news coverage. "They rally people to mobilize on Friday to give Sisi authorization to oppress and kill his opponents ... and open the door to civil war.
"Egypt has moved back 60 years."
Morsi supporters pilloried Sisi in a Facebook graphic that depicted him knee deep in a pool of blood and carrying a gun. The pro-military camp responded by challenging the Islamists' piousness in posts showing bottles of whiskey purportedly found at the monthlong Brotherhood sit-in at Cairo's Rabaa al Adawiya mosque.
One pro-military Facebook post sought to further vilify Islamists as agents of Israel -- the height of insult in the Arab world's most populous country -- for allegedly permitting Jewish reporters to cover the mosque demonstration: "Israeli television salutes you straight from Rabaa al Adawiya, with Jewish correspondents from the heart of the sit-in."
A journalist for a Cairo newspaper said editors told him not to file stories about security forces shooting Islamist protesters. The killings last weekend of at least 80 Brotherhood followers by security forces and armed civilians received minimal coverage from state and many privately owned TV stations.
The pro-Morsi camp was portrayed as "extremist groups" intending to instigate violence and anarchy. State media suggested that many of the deaths were caused by Brotherhood followers in an effort to draw international condemnation of the army-backed interim government.
Many talk show hosts and pundits resort to verbal and ideological contortionism to keep pace with the changing political landscape. When the military ruled Egypt for 17 months after the 2011 uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, Youssef El Husseini, a host on satellite channel ONtv, was a frequent critic of the generals' civil rights violations.
With the military again in charge, El Husseini has aimed his vitriol at Morsi and the Islamists. They are, he said, "a band of liars and criminals" who stole the 2011 revolution.
"It's a divided country and there is tremendous pressure to neutralize or exclude objective voices," said Soltan, the university professor. "There is pressure to take sides, and the media is a very important tool in this conflict."
Hassieb is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2015, CT Now