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Sharif Abdel Kouddous on the Egyptian Military Regime’s Growing ‘War On Journalists’

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Egyptian courts have acquitted more than 60 people accused of violence during protests last summer. Among those are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Al Jazeera cameraman Mohamed Badr.

Yet a broader crackdown on journalists and opposition figures is ongoing. Last week, 20 Al Jazeera journalists were charged with terrorism-related crimes, and, as our next guest writes, the military regime is “arresting prominent activists, scholars, journalists and public figures who dare to speak out. Egypt’s jails are bursting with prisoners.”

We’re now joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s an independent journalist based in Cairo, Democracy Now! correspondent, a fellow at The Nation Institute. His latest piece in Mada Masr is Egypt’s war on journalists.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sharif.


NOOR: So, Sharif, you’ve written that in Egypt today journalism is equivalent to terrorism. Talk about the latest news and what you mean by that, about this ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent, especially journalism.

KOUDDOUS: Well, we’re seeing one of the harshest crackdown on journalists in Egypt for years, a harsher crackdown than we even saw during Mubarak’s time. And the latest news, as you mentioned, was that 20 journalists, most of them affiliated with Al Jazeera, have been referred to trial now on terrorism-related charges. Sixteen Egyptians are accused of joining a terrorist group, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist group on December 25 of last year, and four foreigners, who are accused of aiding and conspiring with this terrorist group.

And from what we know from the charges, from what the prosecutor’s statement says, they’re really guilty of doing nothing more than journalism, of filming protests, of editing their footage. And the problem is is that they’re being treated as terrorists. Two of the Al Jazeera English journalists who were arrested on December 29 have been held in solitary confinement for over four weeks now with no sunlight, no bed, no access to books. They’re held for 24 hours a day in solitary confinement, taken out only for interrogation. And they’re suffering the long-term consequences of this detention. Peter Greste, who’s an award-winning correspondent journalist, is being held in slightly better conditions.

But these are the first–this is the first time in Egyptian history that terrorism-related charges are being brought against journalists, and it really speaks to a wider crackdown against the media and against any outlet that gives a platform to opposition voices. We’ve seen journalists be attacked on the streets, journalists briefly detained, journalists beaten and assaulted, but not only that, but also activists who dare to speak out. Protesters are being rounded up by the dozens every week, sometimes hundreds every week, and thrown in prison. We’ve seen the regime crack down on academics and scholars who have spoken out or voiced any kind of dissent.

And so what we’re seeing is this regime that overthrew Mohamed Morsi on July 3 use this narrative of a war on terror–and people in the United States are very familiar with the war on terror narrative following 9/11–and using that narrative to crack down on civil liberties and to crack down on any opposition, and to re-empower the security state that took a heavy blow three years ago when this revolution began.

NOOR: And despite this crackdown, violence is ongoing. Just last week we saw a prominent general, interior minister, get assassinated. There’s been suicide bombings around Cairo as of late. So this crackdown has been ineffective in stopping these acts of terrorism and acts of violence.

KOUDDOUS: Right. We seem to be–it seems to be fueling a cycle of violence. A lot of these attacks have been claimed–the responsibility’s been claimed by a group called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which means the champions of Jerusalem or supporters of Jerusalem, a Sinai-based militant group that was founded just in 2011 that has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has denounced these attacks. Despite that, the government and most of the media have blamed and pointed the finger at the Muslim Brotherhood for these attacks. They have provided no direct evidence of this. In the most brazen attack, a bombing that killed 16 people on an attack on a provincial security headquarters in the Delta in December, the day after is when the Cabinet declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Again, they provided no direct evidence of this, but they’re using it to crack down.

And we’re seeing, for the first time, bombings occur in Cairo. A lot of times they were only in Sinai. And we saw a spate of bombings on the eve of the anniversary. We see assassinations against senior Interior Ministry officials. They seem to be very targeted attacks against the security forces, against the police. But there doesn’t seem to be any effect in this crackdown on any kind of opposition. It’s not really stemming this bloodshed and stemming this violence. So we seem to be entering into this cycle of violence.

And, frankly, the security state here and the regime benefits from these kinds of attacks, because it uses these attacks to, again, give it, you know, its whole reason for being, which is to crush terrorism, in its own words. And so it uses that to continue to throw its weight around.

NOOR: And it’s, of course, worth mentioning that the Egyptian military, security forces get major funding and backing from the U.S. But how much of this is sort of like a proxy war between or at least a rivalry between the Qataris, who were a major supporter of Mohamed Morsi, back Al Jazeera (it’s based in Qatar), and now Saudi Arabia, who’s backing the current regime, supplying them with weapons and money?

KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of speculation that this crackdown on Al Jazeera does have a lot to do with Qatar. As you mentioned, Qatar was the main funder of Egypt during Mohamed Morsi’s reign. It injected billions of dollars in cash into the economy to help prop it up. And we’re seeing now Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates doing the same with this military-backed government.

But I think it’s also important to note that when Morsi was ousted, on July 3, very quickly, the same day, the Muslim Brotherhood television station [mAsr@’hEmsrA’Sin] was shut down, and so were all sympathetic TV stations to the Muslim Brotherhood or to the Islamists. And across the spectrum now, across all state and private media in Egypt, you can only hear pro-military voices.

The one station where you could hear or Egyptians could tune in to hear the Muslim Brotherhood point of view was Al Jazeera. There was Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which is a local affiliate. And so, in many ways this is also trying to shut down the one place where you could hear a different point of view than the one that’s promulgated on the state and private TV, which is a very shrill, nationalistic, jingoistic narrative promoting a war on terror, demonizing any opponents.

So it has to do with the media landscape, as well as geopolitical reasons.

NOOR: Well, Sharif, thank you so much for joining us for part one of this discussion. In part two, we’ll talk about your reporting from the front lines of the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. Even there, throughout the Revolution, we’ll get your thoughts on what has changed and what’s the same, and more about what the future of Egypt may hold.

KOUDDOUS: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He is a Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute.