CAIRO: Searching for meanings in the news — through digging, dissecting, forming juxtapositions and examining interrelationships — is a worthwhile exercise. What is between the lines is often more important than what is in the lines. Here is an easy task: What do the following news items, collected from the Egyptian press over the past month, indicate?
Sept. 18: Media Production City closed down Orbit studios stating that the latter failed to meet its financial obligations. As a result, the popular daily talk show “Al-Qahira Al-Youm” (Cairo Today) hosted by Amr Adib on the Orbit Satellite channel was stopped. Orbit announced that all its payments for the media city “were ready and available,” affirming that the city officials did not accept these payments. The problem has not been resolved until now.
Oct. 4: The Supreme Judicial Council issued a statement recommending a ban of media coverage of court cases. The decision/statement, member judges of the council said, was taken in the interest of the judicial process which has been recently corrupted by the intense presence of cameras and media personnel inside courts.
Oct. 5: Minister of Information Anas Al-Fiky cancelled the show “Zilal wa Adwa'” (Shades and Lights) broadcast on official Nile Sports channel against the backdrop of the criticisms leveled by its host, Alaa Sadeq, at the Interior Minister. Sadeq had asked the minister to submit a formal apology to two security personnel at Cairo Stadium who were savagely beaten by scores of Tunisian fans during a football match between the Egyptian Al-Ahly and the Tunisian Esperance.
Oct. 5: The Chief Editor and founder of the independent daily Al-Dostor, Ibrahim Eissa, was sacked by the newspaper’s publishers Reda Edward and Al-Sayed Al-Badawy. Eissa has for many years been a vocal critic of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government and the ruling party.
In 2008, he was sentenced to two months in prison after publishing an article on the health of Mubarak (who later pardoned him). In a surprising move, Al-Badawy, a business tycoon and President of the liberal Al-Wafd Party, bought Al-Dustur two months ago from its owner Essam Ismail Fahmy, reportedly paying LE 20 million in return. He promised then not to alter the editorial policy of the newspaper.
Oct. 11: The Minister of Communication and Information Technology imposed new restrictions on companies that send out mass text messages. According to the new regulations, licenses will be only obtained after paying bulky fees and each message sent to the public will be monitored first.
Oct. 12: The General Authority for Investment (GAFI) shut down four satellite channels and warned two channels of similar procedure for “violating the agreement with the Media Free Zones.” Head of the GAFI, Osama Saleh, said that “freedom of expression does not mean presenting content that causes controversy, rifts in society, and information that is ideologically, religiously and scientifically incorrect.”
The straightforward conclusion to draw from these miscellaneous news items is that the media in Egypt “is under fire,” as Rania Al-Malky wrote here in Daily News Egypt. It does not signal the “death” of free press in Egypt, as Foreign Policy magazine suggested two weeks ago, but it points out to a serious and systematic crackdown on the media and freedom of expression in a country that has for the past five years significantly widened the margins of “permitted” speech.
The timing of this crackdown leaves one with no choice but to doubt its true intentions. As parliamentary elections are approaching, some political circles within the regime probably thought that vocal critics should be muted or sidelined until the electoral storm passes. “Egypt’s crackdown on freedom of expression at this particular time appears to be a blatant attempt to limit the public’s access to information before an important election,” the executive director of Freedom House said in a press statement.
The message to critics of the regime and government is clear: Either you toe the government line, or you are in trouble. Distinguished novelist and writer Alaa Al-Aswani confirmed that the state, or at least some circles or figures within it, has become less tolerant of criticism. He said that he temporarily stopped contributing to the opinion page of the independent daily Al-Shorouk after knowing that his critical articles had caused the paper problems. “I know that the owner of the paper … had come under immense pressure from the authorities to tone down criticism against the regime. He was asked to stop publishing articles calling for change,” Al-Aswani told AFP.
The new state policy is an old one. The crux of the policy is: Soft opposition could be tolerated, but harsh anti-government criticism stirs anger among the ruling elite and provokes their retaliation.
That’s reminiscent of the attitude of former President Sadat. In the 1970s, Sadat launched Egypt’s multi-party political system and lessened the controls imposed on its press. But apparently these measures were taken out of charity, not conviction. As soon as the new freedoms touched Sadat himself and the totality of his policies, he retreated. “Democracy has fangs and claws,” he angrily retorted upon his critics.
History repeats itself. Like his predecessor, Mubarak’s “democracy” has fangs and claws too.
Nael M. Shama is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo. He can be reached at nael_shama[at]yahoo[dot]com.