On Being A Journalist in Egypt

I wrote something last weekend for the LRB blog, about journalism in Egypt these days.  We had to cut some passages, for length, that I'm adding back here on the blog. 

A campaign to show solidarity with jailed Al Jazeera English reporters and protest "the lack of freedom of speech in Egypt" Or, another instance of the vast Western media conspiracy against Egypt. 

A campaign to show solidarity with jailed Al Jazeera English reporters and protest "the lack of freedom of speech in Egypt" Or, another instance of the vast Western media conspiracy against Egypt. 

I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.

The trial began yesterday of three al-Jazeera journalists. On 2 February, the private satellite channel Tahrir TV broadcast a video filmed by the Egyptian security services of their arrest. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Thor: The Dark World, the video pans past the frightened face of the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and then over laptops, tripods and cameras in a room at the Marriot Hotel (the arrested men are known as the ‘Marriot Cell’ in the press here). To an ominous crescendo, it zooms in on cell phones, power cords, recording devices and notes on night stands. The off-camera policemen make Fahmy count out the $700 dollars in his wallet. Then they interrogate him and the Australian correspondent Peter Greste, badgering them for the names of colleagues and interviewees.

The al-Jazeera English crew was working in Egypt without official permits, after the authorities had shut down their offices. But the prosecutor filed much more serious charges against them: He claims they and 17 other journalists were part of a terrorist cell, intent on ruining Egypt’s image by broadcasting fabricated news. Al-Jazeera is reviled here, considered a mouthpiece of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (to whom the Arabic channel is, indeed, overly sympathetic). There are no al-Jazeera journalists left at liberty in Egypt, yet again and again someone in a crowds points and yells ‘Jazeera!’ at a reporter whose look or questions they don’t like, leading to a mass beating and citizen’s arrest. At the end of January, someone on an Egyptian TV crew posted cell phone footage to YouTube in which, as they attempt to approach clashes between protesters an police, an officer can be heard saying: ‘Get out of here. Get out of here or I’ll say you’re Jazeera.’

The arrested journalists’ real crime was meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the interim government has declared a terrorist organisation, and is intent on keeping incommunicado: Mohamed Morsi makes his court appearances in a soundproof glass box. Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was legally banned, but it was OK to visit the group’s offices in central Cairo, a modest place where middle-aged men padded around in their socks and delivered stentorian soundbites about political oppression and the Islamic project. After pressure from the foreign press corps to clarify whether it is a crime to interview Brothers (if any avowed ones can be found), the State Information Service issued an ambiguous statement that, while not coming right out and criminalising contact with the Brotherhood, fell short of offering any guarantees that communication with the group would be viewed as innocent.

Tahrir TV was created three years ago, and its first broadcasts were from the square during the 18-day uprising, featuring young stars of the revolution. It was backed by Ibrahim Eissa, the former editor of the independent newspaper al-Dustour, who clashed publicly and loudly with the Mubarak regime. He was taken to court several times, for publishing reports on the Mubarak family’s corruption and on the president’s failing health. I remember him giving an electrifying, defiant speech to a roaring crowd at the Journalists’ Syndicate in Downtown Cairo in 2005, calling Mubarak a would-be pharaoh who had reduced Egypt to a comatose body on suspended animation. During Mubarak’s first trial, he gave detailed testimony of the violence against protesters, saying he saw special forces shoot and hit many of those in the crowd around him as they made their way to Tahrir Square.

Eissa sold Tahrir TV in 2011 to Islamist businessmen. It has since been acquired by another businessman, Suleiman Amer, and is now a conduit for security services leaks and a strident supporter of the military. Eissa meanwhile has spent the last six months inveighing against the Muslim Brotherhood. At his recent deposition in Mubarak’s retrial, he said that ‘Mubarak definitely didn’t order to shoot at protesters, because he is a patriotic president who wouldn’t do that.’

Since Morsi was ousted, the Egyptian media has given the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is indistinguishable from al-Qaida, and that the revolution which the same channels celebrated three years ago was actually an Islamist, US-backed plot, in which the young revolutionaries were pawns at best and at worst foreign-funded conspirators.

Last August, the state newspaper al-Ahram ran a front-page story alleging that the former US ambassador Anne Patterson and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat El Shater had a plan to divide Egypt (‘with EU approval’). A TV presenter recently said that the peaceful Christian protesters run over by army vehicles in autumn 2011 were actually killed by Hamas. A guest on another show said the American are planning to assassinate General El Sisi. The presenter: ‘I won’t ask for your sources, but are you 100 per cent sure?’ Grave nods all around.

After the revolution, filul (‘remnants’) was a common insult for the hold-overs of the old regime. Today there is a TV channel called Filul, one of whose presenters, a belly-dancer known as Sama El Masry, first rose to notoriety by breaking a clay pot outside the American Embassy (the gesture demonstrates satisfaction at being rid of an unwelcome guest). She has also made a song insulting the Emir of Qatar’s wife and, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Mubarak’s laughing face, shook her breasts at a Mohammed El Baradei impersonator in a Grouch Marx mask.

On al-Faraeen, Tawfik Okasha, the glowering face of the counter-revolution, sits in front of a bank of television screens all tuned to a fluttering Egyptian flag, barking smears and threats and conspiracy theories. He recently announced there only two true revolutionaries in Egypt: himself and General al-Sisi.

Many journalists harboured a genuine and growing fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, which certainly was more interested in limiting that protecting freedom of expression. When Morsi was in power, sheikhs on Islamist channels issued nasty threats; Islamists held raucous sit-ins outside studios calling for the ‘purification’ of the media. The businessmen who opened TV stations and newspapers in the last decade did so largely to have a source of leverage with the regime; when they felt there was no room to manoeuvre with the Brotherhood, they launched an all-out war on them.

Now the Brotherhood has been routed; but almost all the public figures who denounced human rights abuses and attacks on freedom of expression under Islamist rule have fallen silent. Some have surely been demoralised by the propaganda, not to mention more practical forms of intimidation and censorship: when the newspaper El Watan ran a front-page story on Sisi’s personal fortune, the issue was stopped at the printer’s.

Many others have embraced the lure, and the safety, of speaking for power rather than to it. General El Tohamy, the director of military intelligence, reportedly gave a four-hour lecture on the ‘internal and external threats facing Egypt’ to a group of fifty media stars, telling them they were the ‘front line’ in the battle against the Brotherhood. Several months ago, a leaked video showed Sisi discussing with other officers how to persuade the ‘20 or 25 businessmen’ who own the country’s media to co-operate and report on the army in a favourable way. ‘It takes a long time before you’re able to affect and control the media,’ Sisi says. ‘We are working on this and we are achieving more positive results, but we have yet to achieve what we want.’

Much appears to have been achieved already. Take the case of Al Shorouq, a well-regarded newspaper that continues to print a significant number of critical view points. When the writer Bilal Fadl wrote a column gently questioning the complicity of the media establishment in the county’s 60 years of military rule, the paper chose not to print it, and it and the columnist parted ways. (The piece was later published by independent news site Mada Masr). 

Fadl had simply excerpted, from one of the famous journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heykal’s own books, an exchange he had with Field Marshall Montgomery, at the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency, in which the British commander raised the question of the military’s unwarranted politicization. Montgomery criticized the decision to give Abdel Hakim Amer the title of Field Marshall, which is usually reserved for those who have won a significant military victory (General El Sisi was just elevated in the same way, with the same lack of battlefield qualifications). Amer would go on to oversee Egypt’s naksa, its disastrous route by the Israelis in the 1963 war -- which Egyptian radio would deny for days, broadcasting false reports. 

Fadl concluded: “The people have generally been fully appreciative of the Armed Forces thus far, but the military’s intervention in politics could deepen political rifts in society, freezing democratic development and returning Egypt back to repressive times; a move that is supported by state media, its resources and its intellectuals. […] I am left to conclude that Montgomery's fears have come true and that the officers’ intervention in politics has left Egypt defeated.”

Heykal, who is 91 today and still monopolizes headlines whenever he speaks, was a confidante and ghost-writer for Nasser. He remains a greatly respected eminence grise and a model for a generation of journalists who consider proximity to power an asset -- a perk of the profession -- rather than a contradiction and liability. This is the journalist seen as a sort of elevated court scribe, protecting and defining the national interest, explaining things to the ungovernable, unreliable -- they voted the Brotherhood into power after all -- benighted people. 

But the Egyptian media is largely not on the same page as the rest of the world. Foreign correspondents (and a few intrepid local bloggers and reporters) who can’t be blandished or coerced into adopting the local narrative are a source of perpetual rage. The authorities lament the international media’s bias, but can’t seem to stop arresting journalists and photographers, and fomenting public opinion against them -- outsourcing censorship to angry mobs -- and therefore inevitably adding to the country’s “image” problem.

Today there are only a few hold-outs: a handful of principled columnists and presenters; the satirist Bassem Youssef, who skewers his fawning colleagues as much as the military authorities; and new online sites, staffed by twentysomethings and unencumbered by investors, that operate on the vulnerable, digital edge of press freedom. Recently they managed to highlight the plight of thousands of Egyptians who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained without charge and tortured since the summer. One of them was a 19-year-old woman arrested on suspicion of being a Brotherhood protester (she was eight months pregnant and on her way to a doctor’s appointment, she says). A picture of her handcuffed to her hospital bed after giving birth finally led to her release.

When I worked at independent magazines under Mubarak, we faced something close to an advertising boycott. Our publisher occasionally had to field inquiries from state security. An issue with a provocative cover was ‘lost’ at the government-run printing house. But we weren’t too worried about being raided, about being arrested, about people turning on us in the street for being journalists. We feared the state, but even so we felt there were limits to its power and abuses. Now the repression seems unpredictable and boundless; and we fear the citizenry.