July 17, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 222

The Arabic Propaganda War From Istanbul

July 17, 2020 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Turkey | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 222

The struggle for supremacy being waged by various states and coalitions in the Middle East is mirrored, not surprisingly, in the regional media. Just like there are allied regimes, there are several contending Arabic-language media blocs: the Saudi Arabia/UAE/Egypt media bloc, and the Qatar/Turkey bloc, and the pro-Iranian bloc made up of Iranian broadcasters and those of their proxies and allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.

One of the byproducts of this political struggle over the past few years is the development of Arabic-language media broadcasting from Istanbul. Turkey's largest city has – despite recent Turkish threats to expel them to Greece – a massive Arab exile community that is overwhelmingly of Syrian origin but also includes Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, and many others. According to one account, there are 900 Palestinian journalists in Turkey.[1] Over 3,000 Arab journalists are working in dozens of online or broadcast media outlets based in Turkey.

There is, of course, a bitter irony here that opposition Arab journalists have found a refuge in Turkey at precisely the same time that many opposition Turkish journalists languish in jail. Turkey had been the world's largest jailer of journalists for several years running but in 2019 it lost its crown to China and settled for second place.[2]

The combination of an Arab exile community, Qatari money, and Turkish ambitions have made Istanbul a rival to London and Dubai as a center for pan-Arab regional media. Turkey's own TRT began an Arabic service in 2010 but has been joined by all sorts of other outlets. For some Arab journalists, Turkey is just a good, well-connected place to do business. But for others, Istanbul is a center for waging ideological warfare against regimes back home, a campaign very much in sync with Turkish (and Qatari) regional ambitions.

Istanbul has satellite television channels focused on Syria (Al-Jisr TV), Yemen (Bilqis TV), and Iraq (Al-Rafidain TV). Al-Rafidain is connected with Sunni Arab Islamists opposed to the Shia-ruled regime in Baghdad.[3] But even more interesting are those channels that focus on Libya and Egypt. At least two Libya-focused channels, Ahrar Libya and Naba', have a Turkish connection. They are, of course, very much in the camp of the Turkish supported Government of National Accord (GNA). Ahrar Libya in particular tries to capture a youthful, revolutionary vibe, with nationalist rap videos praising anti-Haftar fighters and poetry denouncing Egypt's President Al-Sisi, warning him from intervening in Libya further to support Haftar's LNA.[4] The channel even produces musical cartoon mockery of Haftar's supporters in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is pictured with a chainsaw, a jab at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.[5]


While the Libyan-focused channels combine nationalist and religious themes, the Egyptian-focused channels in Istanbul are direct descendants of Islamist or sensationalist channels that existed in Cairo before the Egyptian military removed President Morsi from power in 2013. The two most significant of this type are Mekameleen and Watan Television. A third anti-Egypt regime station in Istanbul is El-Sharq, connected to opposition politician Ayman Nour.

Mekameleen TV began broadcasting on June 6, 2014, from Istanbul, less than a year from the fall of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government. Like other anti-Egypt Islamist channels, they do not have access to satellites owned by most Arab states and so rely on European satellite space on Eutelsat 8 and on Qatar's Es'hail 2.[6]

Mekameleen attacks the Egyptian Government from the right. If negotiations on water and the Ethiopian Dam do not seem to be going well, the channel can criticize the Cairo authorities as insufficiently nationalistic in protecting Egyptian rights. When Egypt criticized the conversion of Haghia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque, it was a perfect opportunity to slam Cairo's Islamic credentials.[7]

Mekameleen also has an active YouTube presence where one of their featured videos is an antisemitic exposition on how the Rothschild family controls much of the world, and destroyed gentile opponents from Napoleon to JFK, something perhaps not so unusual to see on a Qatari-owned satellite but strange on a French one.[8] The Rothschild "documentary" was hosted by Egyptian journalist Muhammad Nasr Ali, who heads the station and anchors its regular anti-regime newscast. Sentenced in absentia in Cairo, Nasr Ali is a particular thorn in the side of the Egyptian regime.[9]

Watan Television is much more the classic MB station than Mekameleen, with much more religious content but an equally strident anti-Sisi line.[10] It is the only one of several anti-Egyptian regime broadcast outlets officially endorsed by the MB.[11] A recent MEMRI clip of Watan TV host Hala Samir calling for homosexuals to be killed went viral.[12] This led Trump administration official Richard Grenell to issue a call for the condemnation of this lethal homophobia by the Egyptian MB.[13]

Content and personnel tend to overlap at times among the Istanbul Egyptian channels. According to one Egyptian regime media outlet (many regime outlets are controlled by Egyptian intelligence and any information from them should be treated with care) the head of Watan TV Islam Aql is married to the presenter on Mekameleen TV Nada Mahmud. Aql, the son of a former MB cleric and parliamentarian, got his start in journalism at Al-Jazeera, and initially worked at Ayman Nour's El-Sharq.[14]

Naturally, both of these Istanbul-based stations aggressively pursue any breaking or newsworthy issue – Coronavirus, Egypt's water issues, corruption – as tools to constantly hammer the Sisi regime.[15] Incendiary content is designed at reaching key demographics, whether women or Egyptian peasants or Egyptian nationalists.[16]

Some observers have noted the disparity: Qatari money plus a Turkish safe haven and exiled Islamist Arab ideologues have been successful, in relative terms, in fashioning an aggressive media offensive against their adversaries, especially Egypt, but also taking pointed swipes at the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Qatar/Turkey/MB axis has been able to enhance their messaging by using European satellites and American social media platforms to spread it further.

In response, the Saudi Arabia/UAE/Egypt alliance has, to date, not tried to mount any sort of anti-Erdoğan media counteroffensive in Turkish. One would think that a country like Turkey, beset with internal economic and ethnic problems, would be susceptible to a counter-narrative by their regional opponents. But that requires a commitment and vision the allies seem to lack. Certainly, Erdoğan does not lack for Turkish critics.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


April 22, 2020.

December 12, 2019.

[3], August 13, 2017.

[4], July 16, 2020.

[5], July 10, 2020.

[6], accessed July 16, 2020.

[7], July 14, 2020.

[8], June 20, 2017.

%D9%82%D9%84/4876755, July 16, 2020.

[10], accessed July 16, 2020.

D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7, April 25, 2020.

[13], June 28, 2020.

October 17, 2018.

[15], July 2, 2020.

[16], June 30, 2020.

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