Egypt’s Media Crackdown Can be Stopped
Thursday, November 28, 2019
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.
On Sunday, Egyptian security forces in plain clothes raided the last remaining independent news agency in Egypt, Mada Masr. They arrested its editor-in-chief and several others. Then they forced the staff to open up laptops and phones, searching for political materials in their personal accounts. While the raid was going on, the frightened staff members of Mada Masr didn’t know that activists, as well as journalists from international media outlets, were protesting outside the office even as the office was being raided. The widespread coverage of the raid worked. The arrested journalists were released, and their laptops and phones were returned.
Here’s a brief segment from a satirical video that Mada Masr, released three months ago, in which they pretend to be speaking about France so as not to be accused of criticizing the situation in Egypt.
ANDEEL: This reaction from French society confirms once again that the patriotic French citizen exists, and has a role in the events that take place in their filthy French reality, and that their political and spiritual leanings are translated into acts and pressure tactics, and contributes to forming the filthy reality in which they live. Many may observe the French political scene and come to the conclusion that the French citizen is wretched. They live in a situation in which they are a victim. The state sucks them dry, and keeps them scared of their own shadow, and there is no hope of changing any time soon.
So the French citizen is powerless. We shouldn’t blame them. On the contrary, if you see one, you should give them a kiss on each side and lean them against the wall. Yet it is important to remember that the French citizen is unlike the Egyptian citizen in their love and passion for melodrama, and their satisfaction with the idea that the suffering is caused by a higher cosmic power and that fate cannot be changed.
GREG WILPERT: All of this is happening while Egypt remains in the midst of protests and political instability for several months now. A leader of the protest movement is Mohamed Ali, who is an Egyptian expat and lives in Spain. He has been using social media to call for protests in Egypt and is pushing for a referendum to remove President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom Trump once called “my favorite dictator.” Meanwhile, President el-Sisi removed his son, Mahmoud el-Sisi, from involvement in local politics in Egypt and sent him to Moscow on a long-term diplomatic assignment in order to diffuse accusations of nepotism.
To discuss the situation in Egypt, I’m joined now by Angela Joya. She teaches at the Department of International Studies at the University of Oregon where she focuses on neoliberal globalization, or on how neoliberal globalization shapes social conflicts in North Africa. Her most recent book is, The Roots of Revolt: A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Thanks for joining us today Angela.
ANGELA JOYA: Good to be here, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: What is the situation with the protests in Egypt at the moment? Is the fact that the media coverage of the protests dwindled down to almost nothing, does that mean that the protests have quieted down, or what’s going on?
ANGELA JOYA: Well, in one of our earlier conversations in September, right around the sporadic protests that happened in Egypt at the time when these videos emerged about corruption by el-Sisi and some of the other members of the military regime, we discussed and I pointed out how the regime of el-Sisi had taken a very harsh approach to crushing protests in the country, especially in the bigger cities, in Cairo, in Alexandria, and some of the port cities. Now, sporadically there are small pockets of protest and resistance that are happening in the country. I mean those are on a daily basis that they take place.
But of the scale that we have observed in the bigger cities–in Cairo, in Alexandria, in the Sinai region–those have definitely, it seems for the moment, they have disappeared; they have come to an end. One of the main reasons was that around late September and early October, the government started sweeping basically the streets, the homes of anyone that they suspected of stirring any kind of social protests. For the first time, I think, it’s unprecedented in the recent history of Egypt, they have arrested professors from universities, journalists, scholars, activists in a massive scoop up basically any dissent voices we’ve seen. And around 4000 people have been put in jail in the recent couple of months.
GREG WILPERT: Now, given that President Trump once called el-Sisi his favorite dictator, it seems surprising though that el-Sisi cares about international media coverage on the repression of the media inside of Egypt. Why do you think that the protest was so effective in the case of Mada Masr so that they were able to continue their operations?
ANGELA JOYA: I was a bit puzzled as well given that the regime has not necessarily shown much concern about how other countries, or leaders, or people around the world, think about how they behave. So I was surprised that they actually released Mada Masr’s staff and their editors quite shortly after they had arrested them. But I think perhaps there has been a shift. Perhaps there are some elements within the Sisi government who are concerned about their public image. When I was looking through some of the government newspapers and what they’re trying to explain, the prosecutor’s website for instance had initially claimed that Mada Masr’s founders were linked to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
They were trying to find justification why they needed to do this. There is possibility that there are certain factions within the government who are clamping down on press freedom, and maybe there were others who were concerned about the global reputation of the regime, and so they tried to push and probably slow down some of the responses of the government in this instance. That’s the kind of feel I get from this very unique situation in terms of response of the government where they didn’t make these journalists disappear like they have done in the case of so many other journalists in the country.
GREG WILPERT: Now, for many human rights organizations, independent media channels, and opposition groups, there usually is a dilemma when they face repression from the government. Some organizations choose to tone down their criticism, to adopt a more moderate stance, and hope to escape the crackdown. Other organizations double down and take a principled stance in the hope that their resolve will inspire others to support them. Now, Mada Masr seems to have taken the second path. That is, since they did not tone down their message. Do you think that this is a lesson that other organizations can learn from them, or were they just being lucky?
ANGELA JOYA: Well, I think some of the figures within Mada Masr, the editors that I know of, some of the reporters that I know of, have very deep solidaristic networks in Europe and in North America. I think those networks definitely have proven very helpful for them. I’m not so sure about some of the other newspapers. I mean overall when I assess the state of press, the kind of coverage of topics that we get, my assessment is that the press freedom, but also the content and news coverage of topics in Egypt, has definitely gotten worse in comparison to even Mubarak’s time. I used to be able to read very detailed assessments and analyses on government newspapers about topics, very controversial topics, protests, economic reforms, housing issues, but now you can barely find anything.
They have definitely reshaped what can be covered, how much attention can be given to particular topics, and a lot of media are under pressure basically to follow the same pattern. I’ve also been reading and learning increasingly that the security intelligence, they are trying to take over a lot of private news outlets in Egypt. So Mada Masr in many ways is a very unique outlet I have to say. I myself have benefited hugely reading the content of what they cover, their investigative journalism since 2013 when they got established, and so I do hope that they will continue, and that there will be other similar outlets that would be established, or that they would expand and bring in other journalists on board.
GREG WILPERT: Looking ahead, how do you think that the situation in Egypt is going to develop? I mean considering especially of course this initial success of Mada Masr to remain available, is this going to encourage protests perhaps to flare up again, and to threaten the government’s stability?
ANGELA JOYA: It’s hard to predict in some ways. But getting a sense from speaking and having conversations with other activists in the region, scholars in the region, there is a sense of deep uncertainty and a sense of fear. Something that existed under Mubarak in 2010 and before. I see and I sense that again coming from conversations with colleagues in the region, that there is again that immediate sense of fear of things that could go wrong immediately at an instant to people’s lives, and safety, and security. I think that has taken a grip over people’s sense of freedom, and what they could express, what they could say. In that environment I suspect that we would see the kind of mass-scale protests. We might continue seeing sporadic smaller protests in the various ways that people continue on in different parts of Egypt, but I doubt we would see the kind of mass-scale protests that we saw before.
Similarly, I think the press freedom will continue to be probably crushed by the government. Egyptian government is in the process of negotiating a new term of a new deal with International Monetary Fund as they concluded one term just now. As I mentioned in one of the previous conversations, that the number of poor people in Egypt has dramatically increased. Four million people have been added to the rank of the poor under Sisi. While the IMF, if you just check their reports, and websites, and assessments, on Egypt, they’re celebrating that the Egyptian regime has been very successful in implementing the reforms. To implement the reforms in “successful ways” would require this kind of very deep repression by the regime. That’s what I anticipate that will happen if they succeed in signing another reform deal with the International Monetary Fund.
GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to definitely watch out for that, but leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Angela Joya, professor of international studies at the University of Oregon. Thanks again, Angela, for having joined us today.
ANGELA JOYA: Good to be here, Greg. Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.