Last week, when Egyptian security forces violently dispersed activists rallying against a controversial new anti-protest law, Egyptian media was full of praise for them the following day. Instead of condemning the excessive use force by riot police who beat, sexually assaulted and detained scores of opposition protesters, newspaper editors portrayed the Interior Ministry as “the victor” in the confrontation over the new gag law.
“The Interior Ministry has passed the test on the anti-protest law,” read Wednesday’s bold red headline in the semi-official Al Ahram daily. The independent Al Watan, meanwhile, declared on its front page that the Ministry of Interior had “decidedly resolved the battle over the anti-protest law.”
Headlines, editorials and articles labelling democracy activists “anarchists and “thugs” signal that most Egyptian media has reverted to its old pre-revolution ways, siding with the military-backed government against the opposition. During the January 2011 mass uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian media had vilified the opposition activists, describing them as “foreign agents” and “hired thugs.”
Media discourse in Egypt today is reminiscent of the Mubarak era. Then, almost all media outlets had adopted the state line and carefully avoided crossing the so-called ‘red lines’. The only difference is that today, the media has voluntarily and ungrudgingly aligned itself with the military-backed government. During Mubarak’s tenure journalists were motivated by fear of falling out of favour with the authoritarian regime. Ironically, since Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests last July, the Egyptian media’s support for the country’s powerful military has come with little coercion from the generals who are riding a wave of popularity and ultra-nationalist sentiment.
Since Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian media has glorified the military while persistently demonising both the Muslim Brotherhood and the deposed Islamist President, continuing the vilification trend it had started when the former president was still in power. Morsi’s supporters have consistently been branded “terrorists” and “liars” by Egypt’s state-owned and private media alike. As Morsi’s supporters staged a sit in last July demanding “the reinstatement of the legitimate president”, Youssef El Husayni, a presenter on the privately-owned channel ON TV accused the protesters of murder, saying that they “deserved to be hanged.” Other TV talk show hosts also accused the anti-coup protesters of “getting paid to stay on the streets”. On November 4, the day Morsi’s trial began, the former president was labelled “hysterical” by several Egyptian newspapers including the independent El Youm el Sabe’e and El Masry El Youm for insisting he was still the country’s legitimate president and could not be tried by the court. He was also criticized by journalists for refusing to wear his prison uniform to court–a decision that drew unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor Hosni Mubarak who had previously appeared in court in the white garment.
Earlier this month, the privately-owned network CBC suspended satirist Bassem Youssef’s wildly popular show Al Bernameg (The Programme) after an episode that poked fun at the public fervour for the military and in particular, at the ‘Sissi-mania’ gripping the country. Egypt’s De facto ruler El Sissi earned the adoration of millions of Egyptians when he ousted Morsi, positioning himself as the “guardian of the people’s will” and claiming he had “saved the country from a looming civil war.” He has since been compared by some Egyptian media to Egypt’s former ultra-nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In recent months, there have increasingly, been calls for El Sissi to run in the next presidential election.
Surprisingly, the decision to take Youssef’s show off the air came from CBC’s senior management not–as many had initially believed–from strongman El Sissi. Youssef’s last episode met with a public outcry and almost immediately after the broadcast, CBC issued a statement distancing itself from the comedian’s views. The station blamed the suspension of the show on “technical” and “business” issues rather than on the show’s editorial content. CBC’s decision has led to fierce public criticism of the network which had previously given Youssef a free hand to mock former President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist group. Throughout Morsi’s one year term in office, Youssef had relentlessly kept up his attacks on the former President despite repeated threats of legal action against him. Many of Youssef’s fans have threatened to boycott CBC after the TV satirist quit the channel over the suspension of the show.
Meanwhile, the “red lines” are back at Egyptian State TV where show presenters and anchors have kept up the pro-military rhetoric in recent months for fear of being stigmatized as “pro-Muslim Brotherhood ” and “fifth columnists.” The latter is a term that is being widely used to describe sympathizers or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood whose activities were banned by a court ruling in November. Presenters who are suspected of being sympathetic to the outlawed Islamist group are being deprived of air time. Several presenters have faced investigations in recent weeks over “their shameful links to the enemy Islamist group”. Journalists have been repeatedly accused of “destroying the country and wreaking havoc to abort the goals of the revolution.” A list of names of so-called “fifth column TV presenters and activists” has gone viral on social media networks Facebook and Twitter after being posted on several local websites with the declared aim of “exposing and sidelining the traitors.” Those on the list–which includes reform leader El Baradei, revolutionary activists and prominent TV journalists known for their objectivity–have also being accused of receiving foreign funding.
Many journalists have again resorted to practising self-censorship for fear of being labelled “enemies of the state.” Ironically, the pressure on them has come from fellow-journalists rather than from the generals themselves. Those piling the pressure are journalists who were either appointed by the ousted Mubarak regime or others with strong links with the country’s notorious security services. In September, controversial talk show host Tewfik Okasha, who is also the owner of the private El Fara’een Satellite Channel, gave Defence Minister El Sissi “an ultimatum to purge the media of fifth columnists”. Abdel Rahim Ali, the chief editor of El Bawaba news site, meanwhile told Al Midan TV in September that “those who oppose the reinstatement of state security are from the fifth column.” He did not hesitate in naming the activists and political figures he suspected had links with the “Islamist terror organization.” Responding to a list of suspect-fifth columnists published in the state-owned Al Ahram El Arabi in September, veteran columnist Fahmi Howeidi warned that “such accusations only serve to further empower the country’s notorious state security service, the SSS.” The SSS, known in Egypt as “Amn El Dawla” was a symbol of police oppression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. It was disbanded in March 2011 only to return a month later, albeit under a different name–the National Security Service.
The “Fifth Column Campaign” targeting government critics with the aim of silencing voices of dissent, has succeeded in fulfilling its objective, lament rights campaigners.
“In this atmosphere of deep political divisions and at a time when anyone can be accused of espionage for merely mentioning such ‘taboo’ words as ‘coup’ and ‘reconciliation’, many in our profession have opted to play it safe by siding with the stronger power–the military. This is an indirect way of muzzling the press and unfortunately, it is working,” Sameh Kassem, Cultural Editor who works for the independent Al Dostour said.
In the ‘new Egypt’ –now once again under the tight grip of military rule — where scores of journalists have been assaulted and detained for covering the anti-coup protests, the critics are falling silent.