By Amr Khalifa
To be an Egyptian journalist on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), one must have a healthy sense of ironic juxtaposition. In Egypt, as most journalists and readers know, the words freedom and journalism, particularly under the harsh light of the Al-Sisi regime, in the same sentence elicit a loud and bitter laugh. Freedom of speech has never, in many years in this profession covering Egypt, been a mainstay. But in the past 20 months, while Al-Sisi ruled initially de jure and now de facto, holding a pen has become associated only with fear and oppression-especially if you write in the political/economic realm. Indeed, as respected Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda said, last week: “The current scene in Egypt is among the worst in journalism history.” I disagree – in 25 years of practicing, reading, watching and listening to Egyptian media this is, without equivocation, the darkest hour for Egyptian media. But the regime neglects an important detail, just as it plies the journalistic drink with fear it greatly fears the very pen it attacks.
There is little that is haphazard about the Al-Sisi stranglehold on all media streams. The regime comprehends reality: a profoundly professional journalist can be a political metre, measuring stick, indeed, a representative of the people in the parliament of public opinion. Immediately following the coup, the regime undertook a verbal battle, largely with western press, to shape public discourse about what had transpired: the naturally ultra nationalist stance of the regime pitched 3 July 2013 as a people’s revolution in contrast to reporting by many western outlets, and of course Islamist media, calling it a coup.
By the time this process unfolded, the military and the deep state had plenty of practice shaping discourse, and manipulating the media since days after a failed revolution unfolded in 2011. Initially, it was crucial for those wielding guns to convince, and in many cases control outright, how the press covered revolutionaries and the revolution. The difficult trick would be convincing the general population that the revolutionaries perceived as heroes by most in the days following the revolt, had become a danger to stability of Egyptian society. There is a popular Egyptian saying, loosely translated, that goes ‘’repetition to the ear is far more effective than magic’’. Employing this methodology, through radio, TV, print and electronic media SCAF, Mubarakists and Islamists conspired to colour revolutionaries as foreign agents, traitors, non-representative of main stream Egyptians. By the time Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came to power the counter revolution and its associated fear and repression were well under way.
Such is the state of things that, late last year, 17 editors-in-chief pledged a ‘statement of allegiance’ to the Al-Sisi regime and the army, for all intents and purposes, promising to politically self-edit. While a very small minority rose up to counter this obvious attempt to create a ‘one voiced media’, this has not stopped the regime from creating a, largely vacuous monolith that mushrooms its few victories while submerging its many frailties in a river of editorial silence. To see Egypt through the rose coloured glasses of mainstream Egyptian media is to see it through Al-Sisi’s infamous sunglasses.
Seemingly illogical projects requiring unrealistic sums of hard currency, The New Cairo project for example, requiring over $45bn, were welcomed with open arms by the vast majority of Egyptian media swimming in a sea of ultra-nationalistic molasses. Similarly, the Suez Canal mega project, revered by the government and its supporters as a big step in the right direction. But these supporters, and the vast majority of Egyptian media, make virtually no mention of ‘’poor planning and expensive mistakes at the design stage’’. To understand why things continue to unfold this way you need to understand the power of fear.
Fear is a two way street: government fear the pen for it understands its impact on public opinion and journalists, in turn, fear imprisonment, torture and death; all of which have occurred under Al-Sisi leadership and systematically so. You would be hard pressed to find anyone not aware of the injustice faced by Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed after their arrest by the State Security and the laughably politicised judicial proceedings that resulted in their incarceration for more than a year. But you probably have not heard anywhere near as much about the Al-Dostour journalist who wrote the following headline recently: “The Collapse of Egyptian police morally and security wise as never before.” The headline, in bold lettering with the word danger repeated three times in red, resulted in the arrest of the journalist responsible and a police raid on the paper’s headquarters; a raid which saw the physical assault of several journalists as well.
This news report was not a unique incident as it has become clear that something of a power struggle between the military and ministry of interior has developed. While nothing can be said with certitude about who is putting pressure on whom and to what end this much is clear: rampant repression utilised by all security forces, army, police or central security forces alike, is suddenly in Egyptian media’s view finder. By no means is this a sudden spurt of freedom of speech but rather, Egyptian press has become a weapon in the hands of the mega powerful lurking behind well protected doors. Shortly after the Al-Dostour piece similar discourse found its way into the highly pro government Al-Ahram: He who didn’t perish by torture died because of overcrowding. The article told of rooms in police precincts meant to hold 13 prisoners holding 380 resulting in the death of two prisoners within three days. The first day of May brought an equally surprising news item in El-Watan, a newspaper notorious for strong links to the security apparatus: 10 torture related deaths and 86 confirmed cases of torture in April say El Nadeem Center, a respected human rights group. But such pointed critique of the notorious State Security comes at a premium.
When Al-Masry Al-Youm, another pro -government Egyptian paper, spoke up about similar police abuses the five journalists behind the extensive report were turned over for investigation. Though news reports indicate the investigation was terminated in its infancy the threat of what may happen to your pen or neck should you report rampant abuses, torture or corruption is crystal clear. The plank of truth is potentially a plank to nowhere but prison or an early grave for many an Egyptian journalist.
Citizen journalists are, also, in severe peril in Egypt. Politicians, power brokers and the strong man himself are aware of how instrumental the Internet was in the revolutionaries’ fight against the regime in 2011. And go after those brave souls as the regime. Many Islamist and liberal Facebook page administrators have already been arrested and it rarely raises an eyebrow when filed under the ‘fight against terrorism’. Moreover, the past several months have seen an alarming rise in unconstitutional and illegal searches of mobile phones at police checkpoints within Cairo and without. The invasive and highly politicised searches are about to become formalised, ‘legal’ repression, say recent news reports as the new minister of interior institutes a ‘Widening of the circle of political suspicion’. Indeed, some in legal and human rights circles feel this step, allowing police to accost anyone at checkpoints for dissident political views, can lead to civil strife. ‘’Anyone can stop anyone in the street claiming to be with police investigations,’’ said Malek Adly, a respected human rights lawyer.
To complete the choke hold on citizen journalism the government is also introducing a law which will make illegal much of Internet radio, and the broadcast by citizens of mobile streaming such as Ustream and Bambuser, as confirmed by respected citizen journalist Zeinobia. The move is both draconian and Machiavellian as those very broadcasts uncovered many abuses and crimes by Supreme Command Armed Forces (SCAF) during the many clashes which followed the 25 January Revolution. One could say Al-Sisi’s fist never learned subtlety and seems to forget the obvious: countries can never be run through unitary military vision.
For those expecting better days ahead for journalism in Egypt reality says otherwise. With a struggle for power, surging insurgency, a summer approaching that will uncover glaring power shortages, no political solution in sight for the military Islamist dichotomy, turbulence will likely fuel an even harsher brand of repression.
To bravely hold a pen that sees all and writes all you risk all in Egypt these days. Just hours ago, in fact, six journalists for Al-Ahram were injured, three critically, when their bus was shot at by unknown assailants on Cairo’s outskirts.
For both government and press, fear has become repression’s companion.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, the Tahrir Institute, and Arab Media Society. You can follow him on Twitter @cairo67unedited