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What's Up with Al Jazeera English's Egypt Coverage? (updated)

There's been an abundance of -- deserved -- criticism of CNN's coverage today, which spent much of the morning focused on the ongoing George Zimmerman trial while giving short shrift to the showdown between the military and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

But if CNN's ears should be burning right now - what about Al Jazeera English? Around noon, EST, just as tensions in Egypt were peaking -- as rumors swirled of tanks taking to the streets in Cairo and President Mohamed Morsy being held under house arrest -- the Qatar-based broadcaster was showing viewers in the United States ... a regularly scheduled special about undocumented immigrants in America? (The channel switched to live Egypt coverage a few minutes before 1 p.m. EST, but continued to intersperse other programming.)

It was Egypt's first revolution in 2011, after all, that first made Al Jazeera a must-watch network outside the Arab world. The broadcaster was widely praised, with some saying it was experiencing a "CNN moment" (evidently intended as a compliment). In particular, the New York Times admired its "total-immersion coverage or news events the whole world is talking about."

But the network -- and particularly its Syria coverage -- has come under criticism since, in part for reflecting the biases of its Qatari government sponsors. The network is "a shadow of its former self," wrote FP contributor Sultan Al Qassemi in 2012. Al Qassemi and others have wondered about suggestions of a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias in the network's coverage. That the same Qatari government that owns the network happens to also have been a major investor -- to the tune of $18 billion -- in Egypt under the Morsy regime certainly hasn't helped much with these perceptions.

There is still plenty of news to come out of Egypt as this apparent coup-to-be plays out; Wednesday's immigration special may not be a defining moment for the network. But for those used to turning to Al Jazeera for in-depth coverage of events in the Arab world, it has been a disappointing morning. As Twitter user Trey Menefee, wrote, "THIS IS WHERE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO KICK ASS."   

We reached out to Al Jazeera English for comment and we'll update if we hear back.

Update: We received this comment on Thursday from an Al Jazeera spokesman:

"It’s a bit much to judge our entire #June30 coverage on the basis of a documentary that aired before the military takeover. We were monitoring the situation closely, and as soon as events were in process, our coverage was rolling. We’ve had extremely positive feedback for the work our teams on the ground did last night."

Screenshot/Al Jazeera English

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Morsy's National Security Advisor: A Military Coup Is Underway

In Egypt, the deadline set by the military for embattled President Mohamed Morsy to form a coalition government has come and gone. Tanks are reportedly on the move outside Cairo, and the military has apparently seized control of state television stations. A slow-motion coup seems to be underway.  

Amid the chaos, Morsy's national security advisor, Essam al-Haddad, has penned an impassioned defense of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in English on his official Facebook page, noting dramatically that "these may be the last lines I get to post on this page." "For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let's call what is happening by its real name: Military coup," he writes in a rambling essay. (In profiling Haddad during a visit to Washington last year, the New York Times noted that he was "pretty convincing in preaching his vision of a well-intentioned Egyptian government that is committed to democracy and determined to play a constructive role at home and in the region.")

Remarkably, much of Haddad's post is devoted to parsing the historical record -- as if the Brotherhood's rule is already in the past. "You have heard much during the past 30 months about ikhwan excluding all others," he writes. "I will not try to convince you otherwise today. Perhaps there will come a day when honest academics have the courage to examine the record."

Here is the post, which is worth reading in full:

For Immediate Release, July 3, 2013

As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page.

For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let's call what is happening by its real name: Military coup.

It has been two and a half years after a popular revolution against a dictatorship that had strangled and drained Egypt for 30 years.

That revolution restored a sense of hope and fired up Egyptians' dreams of a future in which they could claim for themselves the same dignity that is every human being's birthright.

On Januray 25 I stood in Tahrir square. My children stood in protest in Cairo and Alexandria. We stood ready to sacrifice for this revolution. When we did that, we did not support a revolution of elites. And we did not support a conditional democracy. We stood, and we still stand, for a very simple idea: given freedom, we Egyptians can build institutions that allow us to promote and choose among all the different visions for the country. We quickly discovered that almost none of the other actors were willing to extend that idea to include us.

You have heard much during the past 30 months about ikhwan excluding all others. I will not try to convince you otherwise today. Perhaps there will come a day when honest academics have the courage to examine the record.

Today only one thing matters. In this day and age no military coup can succeed in the face of sizeable popular force without considerable bloodshed. Who among you is ready to shoulder that blame?

I am fully aware of the Egyptian media that has already attempted to frame ikhwan for every act of violence that has taken place in Egypt since January 2011. I am sure that you are tempted to believe this. But it will not be easy.

There are still people in Egypt who believe in their right to make a democratic choice. Hundreds of thousands of them have gathered in support of democracy and the Presidency. And they will not leave in the face of this attack. To move them, there will have to be violence. It will either come from the army, the police, or the hired mercenaries. Either way there will be considerable bloodshed. And the message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.

I do not need to explain in detail the worldwide catastrophic ramifications of this message. In the last week there has been every attempt to issue a counter narrative that this is just scaremongering and that the crushing of Egypt's nascent democracy can be managed. We no longer have the time to engage in frivolous academic back and forth. The audience that reads this page understands the price that the world continues to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Egypt is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Its symbolic weight and resulting impact is far more significant. Last night, demonstrators at Cairo University supporting the President were fired upon using automatic weapons. Twenty people died and hunderds were injured.
There are people in Egypt and around the world that continue to try to justify the calls for early presidential elections because of the large numbers of demonstrators and the validity of their grievances.

Let me be very clear. The protesters represent a wide spectrum of Egyptians and many of them have genuine, valid grievances. President Morsy's approval rating is down.

Now let me be equally clear. Since January and again in the last couple of weeks the President has repeatedly called for national dialog. Equally repeatedly, the opposition refused to participate. Increasingly, the so-called liberals of Egypt escalated a rhetoric inviting the military to become the custodians of government in Egypt. The opposition has steadfastly declined every option that entails a return to the ballot box.

Yesterday, the President received an initiative from an alliance of parties supporting constitutional legitimacy. He discussed it with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and all three of them agreed that it presented an excellent path for Egypt out of its current impasse. The initiative called for a full change of cabinet, a prime minister acceptable to all, changing the public prosecutor, agreement on constitutional amendments, and a reconciliation commission.

And let us also be clear. The President did not have to offer all these concessions. In a democracy, there are simple consequences for the situation we see in Egypt: the President loses the next election or his party gets penalized in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Anything else is mob rule.

In the last year we have been castigated by foreign governments, foreign media, and rights groups whenever our reforms in the areas of rights and freedoms did not keep pace with the ambitions of some or adhere exactly to the forms used in other cultures. The silence of all of those voices with an impending military coup is hypocritical and that hypocrisy will not be lost on a large swathe of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims.

Many have seen fit in these last months to lecture us on how democracy is more than just the ballot box. That may indeed be true. But what is definitely true is that there is no democracy without the ballot box.

AFP/Getty Images