When the protests in Egypt began last week, it did not take long for conservative pundits to sound the alarmist warning bell. Fox digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt cautioned on Special Report with Bret Baier, “If this is directed toward retrenchment of the Islamic forces, it could be difficult period for [the] Middle East.” Glenn Beck declared himself “no fan of Mubarak,” but warned, “God help [the police] if Egypt falls. God help them.”
This reaction wasn’t completely predictable. After all, for the past decade or so, Middle East democratization has been a cause that is mainly identified with the right. And some on Fox did allude to the idea that the protests in Egypt were, on some level, an outgrowth of Bush-style democracy-building. Fox political analyst Bret Hume, for example, credited the demonstration to “George Bush’s policy in the second term, democracy around the world.”
But by Friday of last week, Fox seemed to have coalesced around a very different approach: It was going to portray Egypt as a frightening development rather than a hopeful one. “Right now, it’s 5:00 a.m. in Egypt, and it is terrifying!” exclaimed Greta van Susteren. “A couple of dozen dead, at least,” Neil Cavuto announced to viewers. “Witnesses report seeing people flee the street.” This approach continued through the weekend and the following week. On Monday, van Susteren began her show by saying, “It is absolutely terrifying. Americans racing for safety, scrambling to get out of Egypt and get out fast!” Fox hosts have also zeroed in on the Muslim Brotherhood. “Right now,” said Bill O’Reilly, “the fear in Washington is that the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power.” Only a few hours after Fox’s own national security correspondent told Bret Baier that the Muslim Brotherhood “have been remarkably restrained,” Baier told van Susteren, “the biggest question in Egypt is the extremist element.” After all, he offered, “Ayman al Zawahiri, the number two in Al Qaeda, is an Egyptian doctor.”
Meanwhile, Fox and talk radio have portrayed Obama as a dupe of the Islamists. Comparisons to Jimmy Carter’s handling of Iran have been particularly popular. “The Obama administration,” said Dick Morris on Hannity, “is guilty of the same mistake that led former President Jimmy Carter to fail to support the shah, opening the door for the Ayatollah Khomeini to take over Iran.” Cavuto was more succinct: “Iran, Egypt, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, déjà vu.”
These sentiments have put Fox at odds with neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams, and Bill Kristol, who have sided with the protesters and condemned Mubarak. At least at Fox, the right’s enthusiasm for democratizing the Middle East now seems like a relic of an earlier political age.
James Downie is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.