Cairo’s historic Institute of Egypt went up in flames at the weekend, along with most of its nearly 200,000 unique documents. The stories doing the rounds about who was responsible for the blaze say a lot about the PR tactics being employed by Egypt’s ruling military council and its opponents.
Initial media reports said the fire was the result of Molotov cocktails and that anti-government demonstrators had tried in vain to douse the flames. Now though, no one seems interested in what really happened and accusations are flying back and forth.
The military council has called on the people to help protect the country from ‘counter-revolutionary forces’. A YouTube video shows youths pouring petrol on rags, setting them alight and pushing them through open or smashed windows. Television footage has also shown people triumphantly dancing on the ruins.
The images and message are clear: these are rioters and vandals. We are protecting the people and their national heritage; that disorderly bunch on Tahrir Square wants chaos and instability.
Who set fire to the institute? Talk to the Tahrir Square protesters and you’re none the wiser. “It’s true we were throwing Molotov cocktails,” one boy admits, “but that couldn’t have started the fire because there was water everywhere.” An activist called Mahmoud says he was too far away to see what actually happened, but it wouldn’t surprise him if the army was behind it “because the scum on the roof were soldiers dressed as civilians”.
The incident has damaged the image of the demonstrators as far as the Egyptian public are concerned. “Why are the ‘protesters’ destroying Egypt?” asks one internet user. “Why are they burning their own treasures like in the Scientific building?”
Political activist Peter Talath says there’s something fishy about the army’s story. “How can you explain why the building burned from the inside out, while the demonstrators couldn’t get inside but the soldiers could?” he asks.
He surfs to a website, Truth and Evidence, where the debate rages. Why was the fire tackled so late when there’s a fire station just round the corner? If the military is so fond of Egyptian heritage, why wasn’t the building protected? Who are the youths shown on YouTube? If the video was filmed by soldiers, as is claimed, why didn’t they intervene?
An important point: even if the demonstrators torched the building – possibly by accident – does that justify assaulting civilians some of whom have died as a result?
The protesters have launched Twitter and Facebook offensives to counter the army’s negative publicity drive. Videos purporting to show abuses committed by soldiers have been published on pages bearing the less than subtle name of F*** SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). Each report comes in for scrutiny by opponents: “The man doing the kicking isn’t wearing army boots – is this real footage or have you faked it?”
“At the beginning of this year, the Mubarak regime was under threat and used various tactics to try to influence public opinion,” explains communications expert Hanan Badr. “The ideas spread both by the Mubarak regime and by the present demonstrators are designed to show the public how trustworthy they are.”
One of the ways Mr Mubarak’s regime tried to bring the Tahrir Square revolutionaries into disrepute was to characterise them as outcasts, a small group of rioters as opposed to the state, which stood for security, unity and patriotism. Dr Badr:
“I haven’t investigated the present incidents, so I can’t say that the military is now doing the same, but it would appear that comparable mechanisms are being employed.”
So far with success – while the demonstrators seem to be winning the international public opinion war, you don’t have to travel deep into the Egypt countryside to hear people saying that the demonstrators should pack up and go. As far as shopkeepers and people on the street near Tahrir Square are concerned, the image couldn’t be clearer: the army is protecting the people and those now occupying Tahrir Square are simply troublemakers.