Despite an intensifying media crackdown, Arab journalists are defying repression in the cause of freedom of expression.
Reeling from accusations of mass killings and mass arrests in the autumn of 2013, the Egyptian government hired a Washington-based public relations firm, Glover Park Group, to help improve its international image. By all accounts, the public relations efforts haven’t worked.
In fact, Egypt’s image crisis has grown worse over the past two-and-a-half years, culminating in a recent stretch that has been especially woeful. The Egyptian government’s public relations failures may not be the fault of Glover Park Group or any of the government’s other public relations advisers, however.
News broke last Tuesday that Egypt’s Interior Ministry had accidentally sent confidential instructions meant for Interior Ministry officials to Egyptian news outlets.
The instructions reportedly offered guidance on how to address ongoing protests being staged by journalists at the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, and how to best deflect attention away from Interior Ministry abuses.
The instructions also suggested that Egypt’s Prosecutor General issue a gag order on the murder investigation of Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student who was tortured and killed in Cairo in January.
Last week’s leaked memo highlights the government’s glaring incompetence. The fact that an internal memo detailing a plan to restrict the news media could be sent directly to the news media would be remarkable, except that it isn’t – the Egyptian government has, on numerous other occasions, done and said things that reflect a more general, systemic incompetence.
Within the past week, the Egyptian government has also carried out an elaborate raid of the Syndicate of Journalists, prevented commemorative International Workers Day protests, and put 237 activists on trial for illegal protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. None of these actions are likely to gain Egypt much favour in international diplomatic circles or with the Egyptian public.
If we are willing to turn the clock back a few months, much more evidence of incompetence emerges. In February, Egypt’s judiciary sentenced a three-year old boy to life in prison for crimes the toddler was alleged to have committed when he was 17 months old.
Rather than own up to the mistake, the government downplayed the court ruling and denied some of the realities of the case.
After ISIL (also known as ISIS) shot down a Russian passenger jet at the end of October, the Egyptian government denied that their air space had been compromised by terrorists and complained that the incident was part of a Western “conspiracy” against Egypt.
After Regeni was brutally tortured and murdered – most likely by Egyptian police – Egyptian government officials alternatively blamed his death on a car accident, gang violence, and an elaborate political conspiracy to undermine President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Rather than own up to human rights atrocities ... and seek corrective action, the government has downplayed or denied transgressions, and, perhaps more importantly, continued to make image-damaging gaffes.
All of these recent incidents follow absurd mass death sentences issued in 2014 – in one sentence, after a court hearing that lasted less than two hours, more than 500 Egyptians were sentenced to death over the alleged killing of a single police officer.
Another mass death sentence was issued against more than 600 Egyptians, including people who were either already dead or in jail at the time alleged crimes were carried out.
Also, in a case that gained significant international traction in 2014, Egypt sentenced Al Jazeera journalists to multi-year prison sentences on terrorism-related charges.
During that trial, the government presented bizarre evidence of guilt, including videos of one journalist’s European family vacation and a seemingly unrelated news report about Somalia.
Also in 2014, the Egyptian government claimed that an Egyptian military doctor had developed a cure for Aids, Cancer and Hepatitis C with a device that resembled a staple gun.
In a press conference attended by high-ranking Egyptian officials, including Sisi, Dr Ibrahim Abdel-Atti said he planned to “take Aids from the patient, and feed the patient… a skewer of beef… I take the disease, and I give it to him as food”.
Although the government appeared to subsequently distance itself from Abdel-Atti, a recent advertisement in state-owned EgyptAir magazine seemed to double-down on the cure. The ad read, “Hepatitis C cure… is just a flight away.”
This abridged list should make the point clear – the Egyptian government has been its own worst enemy.
Rather than own up to human rights atrocities and other mistakes and seek corrective action, the government has downplayed or denied transgressions, and, perhaps more importantly, continued to make image-damaging gaffes.
It is fair to question Glover Park Group’s decision to represent a government that has shown itself to be opposed to the most basic of human rights.
But to blame the public relations firm for Egypt’s image crisis would be misguided. No amount of public relations manoeuvring could have saved Egypt’s government from itself.
Mohamad Elmasry is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.