07/24/2012 03:25 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

The Torch of Misinformation Has Been Passed

Egyptians hotly protested Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit last weekend, underscoring the tense relationship between the United States and the fledgling democracy. Thousands condemned her visit Saturday outside the American embassy in Cairo. Others bombarded her motorcade with tomatoes and shoes in Alexandria the next day.

But what's interesting about the reaction isn't so much that it happened, but rather the misinformation and political spin driving it. Anti-American demonstrators last weekend -- many of them secularists or Christians -- were driven by a conspiracy theory: the United States' secret, pro-Islamist agenda.

Protesters criticized the U.S. for supposedly funding the Muslim Brotherhood, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Egypt's Glenn Beck, Tawfik Okasha, meanwhile, roused the crowd by suggesting American officials had helped rig the June presidential run-off in Mohamed Morsi's favor.

To be sure, Egyptians' wariness of American intervention in their domestic politics is not unfounded. The U.S.-led West has navigated murky political waters since the Jan. 25 Revolution, simultaneously promoting Egyptian democracy while trying to maintain its own regional interests through Egypt's real powerbrokers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

But the truth is that it doesn't matter who won the election. The U.S. will support any government in Cairo -- provided it keeps peace with Israel and unless Egyptians are dying in the streets.

Despite U.S. navigation through rough geopolitical waters the past 18 months, the idea of an American pro-Islamist agenda is absurd. Misinformation led to the tomato barrage on Clinton's motorcade Saturday, and the same paranoia will continue until a free, privately owned press develops.

The fire ignited after conservative American bloggers misreported that more than $1.5 billion in U.S. military and economic aid went straight to the Brotherhood. Islamophobes such as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann stoked the flames, but now the torch of misinformation has been passed to Egypt's state-run media.

Take Al Ahram, which has been particularly driven to link the Brotherhood to the U.S., capitalizing on fears of an American-backed Islamist takeover. After a Sunday opinion piece said the Morsi Administration was "under siege" by the Brotherhood, a Wednesday piece directly links the Islamist group to America's "one percent." Ahram ran two columns Wednesday, furthermore, denouncing Morsi as an American ally and applauding Copts' courage to stand up to Clinton.

The press should stand up to elected officials, especially in the type of tenuous transitional period through which Egypt is currently moving. But it should do so with sound reporting and facts, not baseless opinions and conservative American muckraking.

Other state-run publications have jumped on Ahram's bandwagon, and some private outlets have even joined the fray. Similar to how Fox News and other conservative media coalesced after the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic congressional majority in 2008, Egypt's weak journalistic institutions are capitalizing on the deepest fears of the political minority.

Blogger Issandr El Amrani writes that such rhetoric, embodied by "the current felool/secularist/Coptic alliance... is both moronic and incredibly unpatriotic and undemocratic."

The paranoid accusations indicate Egypt's media are still in the SCAF's back pocket. Mid-June's power grab, including dissolution of the democratically elected parliament, institution of martial law and confirmation of budgetary control, appear long forgotten. And that's not even to mention the military's $1.3 billion in U.S. aid annually.

Instead, the media have capitalized on popular fears to produce unfounded reports of a strategic U.S.-Islamist alliance.

With state-run media at its side, the SCAF is winning the war of information against Egypt's month-old presidency, writes David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times.

"Although wildly counterintuitive, that conspiracy theory" -- that Morsi is an American puppet -- "has tapped into the deep popular distrust here of the United States," he writes.

This isn't to say that there's no good journalism in Egypt. Newspapers such as al-Masry al-Youm -- Egypt Independent in English -- and the former Daily News Egypt -- now the Egypt Monocle -- are fighting the battle for truth. Numerous other outlets including both foreign and domestic media follow suit.

But the fear of a SCAF information coup still remains. The Brotherhood scolded state-run media Thursday for misrepresenting Morsi, and their grievances aren't groundless. Such outlets are only some of the many remnants of the former regime the SCAF is manipulating to play Egyptians against their newly elected officials -- others including the nation's intelligence apparatus and its courts.

If the foundation of choice is information, then it's also the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. As we've seen in thee U.S. the past decade, the party that wins the information war usually carries the day. But the SCAF's stranglehold on truth -- coupled with international influences helping to tighten its grip -- is leaving little room for Egyptians to pick their own winners and losers.