With or against us
It's trite but worth remembering that an excellent barometer of political freedom is how a regime treats the media. Deposed President Mohamed Morsi attempted to shut critics up through clumsy litigation — charges of insulting him or the judiciary, and so on. It was a classic Hosni Mubarak technique, but Morsi used it far more frequently.
Another technique was tacitly approving Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abou Ismail and friends setting up shop outside the Media Production City in October 6 City — or at least not doing anything about it — in order to intimidate Lamis al-Hadidi and other vocally anti-Brotherhood television presenters who were beyond state control.
But just like the Muslim Brotherhood failed in everything they did while in power, they failed in this, too: The cases never had the chilling effect desired, and Morsi and company were regularly ripped apart in the press, by comedian Bassem Youssef and others. In fact, the Brotherhood themselves liked to crow about their critics being left alone as an example of their political largesse. They never understood that using underhand measures to intimidate your opponents does not make you a just leader, and that leaving the press alone is a positive obligation, not an act of charity.
The current regime, meanwhile, is combining the very best of pre-2011 media repression techniques with a classic February 2011 xenophobia campaign, combined with the force of an Interior Ministry stretching its sinewy muscles as it resurrects itself.
The xenophobia campaign began gently with allegations that Syrians and Palestinians were in the Brotherhood Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in. After the Rabea sit-in was broken up, the anti-West rhetoric intensified. Allegations that western media support the Brotherhood widened to include not only CNN, but almost every foreign news outlet. After Friday's clashes in Ramses Square, the propaganda machine revved up a few notches, and the media filmed bearded, detained men they suggested were foreigners.
Prior to this, on Thursday General Mahmoud "Polo Shirt" Badr from the Tamarod (Rebel) battalion of the Egyptian army urged citizens to form popular committees to defend their neighborhoods against the terrorist threat. There are many well-intentioned people in popular committees, but anyone who experienced the January 2011 revolution (uprising? brief glitch?) will tell you that they are also a vehicle for vigilantism and an excellent form of indirect control by the state. There was what seemed to be coordinated harassment of foreigners during certain days in 2011 from the top — state media — to the bottom — popular committees on the ground.
We are now seeing the beginnings of this again. After the detained "foreign" men were shown on television on Friday night, the next day in Ramses Square, foreign journalists were physically attacked and detained. Two had to be bundled into an army APC for their own safety. Another was marched to Azbakeya Police Station and told firmly to leave Egypt. He was subsequently the victim of a citizens' arrest on the same day. Another female journalist who works for a foreign outlet said that while in Ramses Square, a cop ordered men around her to beat her up, telling them that she was American. On Saturday, the interim presidency gave a presser in which Mostafa Hegazy, presidential advisor, repeatedly talked about Egyptians' "bitterness" toward international coverage of events. On Sunday, the Der Spiegel correspondent was detained for seven hours at Rabea al-Adaweya, and claimed that the main accusation against him was "bad reports in the Western press."
On Saturday, a colleague was detained by a popular committee for half an hour while they went through videos on her laptop. The curfew in itself is an excellent way of controlling journalists who know that moving about in a hostile environment after dark invites problems. Foreign journalists — and foreigners in general — are now at particular risk.
I have also heard about emailed threats against a foreign journalist (without going into too many details, because this victim doesn't want publicity) and events that stink of state security: Men lurking around their house, being watched and so on.
The latest development is that the authorities are going to review the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera's legal status.
It looks like we are heading towards media oppression that will be worse than under 2011. There is a public appetite for it, and the security bodies have apparently been given a green light to do as they please. Wars on terrorism rely on crude binaries: You are either with us or against us, and this is the constant message being relayed to us (Hegazy even said during the presser yesterday that Egypt is "taking note of who is with it and who is against it"). Attempting to steer through the choppy mess that is Egypt at the moment with such a simplistic approach is disastrous, and is intended to reinforce the fiction that there are only two camps in the country. This is about bolstering the military regime's strength, and its strength is dependent on the creation of an equal and opposing force against which it must pit itself. The Brotherhood has become its raison d'etre: There is no other reason to justify its current position and current actions.
The Brotherhood has shown that it has access to arms. It has not condemned the church attacks in any meaningful way (and remember that Morsi oversaw an attack on a cathedral), raising suspicion that Morsi's supporters are involved in the attacks with the Brotherhood's tacit blessing. Is it a full-on terrorist organization?
The issue is that whether it is or not is not as important as the fact that the military needs it to be, and has deemed it so; and the media are not only being force-fed this line, but are being forced to regurgitate it.
My question is this: If the terrorist case is so cut and dried, and is as clear as the sun, why does the regime need to constantly repeat it? Why does the presidency deliver statements in English first? Why has private satellite channel ONtv Live dubbed its transmission into English? Why is the international media being given “advice” by the State Information Service about its coverage, urging outlets to be “accurate in their coverage and not to rely on false information, and use only verified reports in a bid to convey an honest image without any distortion”?
I fear dark days ahead for media outlets that don’t see the same “honest image” as the Egyptian state.