Egypt’s liberal voices muffled amid pressures
One year after the military’s ouster of Morsi, a few liberal voices battle a growing wave of state and self-censorship.
On the night of July 3, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised Egypt a new way of doing media, claiming the transitional roadmap replacing former President Mohamed Morsi would bring a “media charter of honour…designed in a way that ensures media freedom; observes professional rules, credibility, and neutrality; and advances the homeland’s top interests.”
Many took this as a move against Islamist channels accused of preaching violence and religious conservatism – channels that were raided and shut down by the security forces, some of them at the same time as Sisi’s speech that night. But, one year later, the claim of free speech by Egyptian rights groups, journalists, and writers is being attacked, rather than honoured, more than ever before.
“The campaign we’ve seen against freedom of the press and free speech is the worst in over three years,” Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told Al Jazeera.
Eid futher compares the sentences between police officers charged with killing protesters and the three Al Jazeera journalists charged last week: “Journalists who haven’t carried out violence and without any serious evidence against them, for them to get seven or 10 years? We are now in a situation, in a regime, that hates press freedom and freedom of expression.”
Mohamed Hesham, head of Merit Publishing in downtown Cairo, says that while many writers and artists openly resisted Morsi’s government prior to this past July 3, the situation now is more ambiguous.
“Then, their battle with the political system was clear,” he says. An almost month-long sit-in inside the Culture Ministry by writers and other cultural figures in June 2013 openly challenged attempts at so-called government ‘Ikhwanization’ in Egyptian cultural institutions – a glimpse of what was to come weeks later.
“Now, many writers are relatively close to the new president and the new government so they haven’t faced any problems,” Hesham said.
Hesham’s office hosted writers, artists, and revolutionaries during the 18 days of the 2011 revolution. He suggests that while other cultural figures are satisfied with the new state of affairs, others like him are still following the ‘third way’.
“Some people, like us, see the battle very clearly as against the Islamic movement and the military side,” Hesham explains. “We are against both.”
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In recent weeks, censorship and self-censorship has reached Ramadan television, a world of opulent production budgets and star-studded casts that bring in millions of viewers during the Islamic holy month.
Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, Ramadan television has become more interested in telling stories with political undertones. Last year, you could have watched ‘Coffee Shop,’ about a group of friends who discussed social and political issues in their local coffeehouse, while ‘The Second Wife’ explored a dictator’s relationship with his society.
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And yet a censorship row surrounding one series has demonstrated the increasing unwillingness of the Egyptian authorities to tolerate criticism in public.
‘The People of Alexandria,’ written by renowned journalist and writer Belal Fadl, has been axed by two channels – Al-Hayat and Al-Mehwar – after the Ministry of Interior allegedly piled pressure on them over the depiction of a police officer.
The socio-political series, with a cast including actors and actresses (like Amr Waked and leftist Mohsena Tawfik) known among many Egyptians as sympathetic to the January 25 revolution, features an abusive, corrupt police officer. The story presents the intermingling lives of a group of people in Alexandria in the days leading up to the 2011 uprising. The officer is later rumbled and charged by his superiors. Still, the portrayal of police wrongdoing was too much for the channels concerned, Fadl said in a statement on his Facebook page.
Channel management deemed it “unwise to display a series offering criticism of a police officer, according to Fadl, even if that same series presents his exposure to punishment from his superiors”. This kind of censorship did not happen “even in the days of Hosni Mubarak,” he added.
A muddied series of claims and counter-claims followed. Security officials and channel representatives claimed the story was false – the series would go ahead. Said Hassan Hamed, chairman of Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), which co-produced the series, meanwhile said: “I tried to contact security leaders to resolve the crisis, but the attempts have failed until now.”
Fadl later announced: “The final verdict is that my TV series … will never see the light.” EMPC told him the reason was to avoid a stand-off with the government “since the series involves elements that could upset the police or stir a political crisis,” Mada Masr quoted Fadl as saying.
Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb later claimed on Dream 2 channel that the government had not intervened “directly” in censoring the show, but questioned its content, claiming relations between the people and the police had improved.
Either way, Fadl remains defiant: “I call upon all artists, writers and intellectuals, who have turned a blind eye to all the violations in the last period … against public freedoms and freedom of thought and expression; [they] must realise the seriousness of what is happening,” he wrote.
In February, Fadl was embroiled in another censorship scandal – this time in print – when Al-Shorouk, a newspaper seen to be on the more liberal end of Egyptian media, refused to publish a column deemed to be critical of military chief, Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
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Another leading figure in Egypt’s liberal intelligentsia, Alaa al-Aswany, was also silenced after tweeting that his Al-Masry Al-Youm column had been suspended. “Criticism and difference of opinion are no longer allowed,” the writer said. “Only praise at the expense of the truth is allowed.” Aswany offered his solidarity with Fadl.
Although best known as a novelist, and the man who wrote The Yacoubian Building, Aswany has written newspaper columns for years. After initially supporting Morsi’s election win, by June 30, Aswany had become a vocal proponent of the protests that would ultimately oust Morsi – with the help of a military leader that Aswany would continue to defend until fairly recently.
Aswany’s censorship is all the more surprising, precisely because of his reputation as an apologist for the crackdown, telling The Guardian in October: “I cannot defend killing … but in the end, there is a very big difference between when you use excessive force during a war – and when you use excessive force during an ordinary, peaceful situation. We are in a state of war.”
At the start of June, The Independent’s Robert Fisk interviewed Aswany when he was still hopeful for Sisi’s rule, despite acknowledging the military man’s blighted record as a democrat: “I hope he will be a good president … I hope he can do good, but I do not like these attacks against the  revolutionaries.”
Critics of Aswany say he was silent when Islamists were targeted, accusing him of a blinkered liberalism with eyes only for the secular youth of the revolution. However, his most recent columns seemed to represent a more critical position, appealing to Sisi himself and condemning torture and police brutality – including the deaths of 37 men, once all presumed to be Brotherhood supporters, in a prison transportation vehicle outside Abu Zaabal prison in August last year.
Now Aswany joins a list of artists, journalists and writers blacklisted by pro-regime forces in society, or the regime itself, for their work and opinions. Celebrated Alexandrian poet and novelist Omar Hazek is serving jail-time under the Protest Law, at least 14 journalists are currently being held in prison, while artists like revolutionary singer Ramy Essam recount episodes of harassment by security forces. Activists and human rights groups are still trying to challenge a regime which so far appears disinterested in relenting on attacks on free speech and press freedoms.
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Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently issued a statement in which they called on Sisi to end an escalating “rights crisis”. While international organisations try to find ways to reach Egypt and end human rights abuses, journalists, writers, and media figures inside the country are now, more than ever, being stopped from speaking out.
The day after a Cairo court handed three Al Jazeera journalists seven to 10-year prison sentences, a move that sparked unprecedented international outcry, President Sisi gave a speech in which he stated he would not “interfere with judicial rulings” by pardoning detainees.
Sisi referred to a telephone call with the justice minister in which he defended Egypt’s “independent and exalted judiciary.” The original decision had been intended as a “deterrent,” according to a statement by the prosecutor’s office.
By removing critical voices and airbrushing dissent in journalism, television and other media, through a combination of state and self-censorship, it is becoming ever harder for many to exercise freedom of speech in Egypt.