In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolutions across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the past four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation, other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.
Egypt has been unfortunate to see each change in leadership come with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude. As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever.
In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly for the media.
While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-optation.
Declining freedom of speech
In terms of repression, 2014 has been a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links to the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi supporters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.
The other RNN staff members in jail are Sami Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany, who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.
Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of al-Rabaa and al-Nahda protest camps – which led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.
This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal; the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with have since been released.
Some reporters have fallen victim of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on December 28, 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University; and Ahmed Fouad of the local news website Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.
Infringement on liberties
Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures“.
This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest against her brother’s incarceration.
Sisi’s regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshair. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial law on non-governmetnal organisations.
But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have thrown their support behind Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s leadership.
Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the lawsuit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest among artists.
Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any slight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions to the caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.
To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the January 25 and June 30 uprisings“.
The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, despite the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ cafe“.
Freedom of speech in context
Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity, and equality.
However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the deteriorating situation, Egypt, at its worst, is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best.
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In Egypt, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.
Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.
Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight in the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression has issued numerous scathing reports on the regime’s infringement on liberties, including one entitled: “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”
Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.
But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea