The danger of an elected dictatorship in Egypt

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 By Osama Diab

The army is giving Egyptians a stark choice: choose freedom and endure anarchy, or choose stability and put up with us.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Last week, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reactivated Mubarak’s 2010 extension of the emergency law,  it suggested holding a referendum on the reactivation to give its decision a sheen of legitimacy. If the emergency law passes through legal channels, it will allow SCAF to silence its opponents while claiming it has popular support for its actions.

Where once authoritarianism was imposed on Egyptians, Egypt is now facing the risk of “democratically” choosing to be governed autocratically, where the people themselves call for or support authoritarian practices such as military trials, emergency laws, etc.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s de facto military rulers have cracked down on media outlets,allegedly tried 12,000 people before military courts, reactivated Hosni Mubarak’s highly unpopular emergency law , and outlined no clear time frame for the transition to a civilian government – things even Mubarak wouldn’t have dared to do in post-revolution Egypt. But what is perhaps most appalling is that a growing number of people is supportive of this.

After the defeat and withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, the lack of security and this anarchy-like state have driven many people to express their willingness to trade in their dream of democracy in return for ‘normalcy’ by supporting authoritarian practices in the hope of stopping the country from descending into the absolute state of lawlessness they fear.

As a result, many Egyptian have voted in favour of reactivating Mubarak’s emergency law. On the Masrawy news website, 59% of those who took part in a poll agreed that the emergency law should be reactivated. The figure of an al-Shorouk online poll was nearly half.

There is no doubt that the past seven months since Mubarak’s ouster have been so overwhelming that many are now ready to give up their dream of democracy. The perceived rise in crime and the struggling economy have shifted many people’s priorities to security and stability over human rights and democracy.

The SCAF has capitalised on this fear to boost its popularity – at least in comparison with the former regime. May be some Egyptians are still grateful for the army’s refusal to open fire at protesters, especially when compared to the savagery of other armies in the region, or perhaps people simply see the military as the last line of defence against anarchy. This is why their use of Mubarakist techniques has worked better than it did for the man himself.

Unlike the ousted president, they seem to have successfully managed to draw some public support for them and stoked up opposition against pro-democracy activists. On top of the relative credibility they enjoy, the public support expressed for arbitrary laws is a result of the SCAF’s relatively effective propaganda which links stability to their policies and their way of administering the country, whilst connecting chaos and instability to those who dare to oppose them.

The message the rulers are trying to send is simple: if you want freedom you have to endure prospects of a wide-scale war with Israel, looting and thuggery, a collapsing tourism industry, a struggling economy, and a security vacuum. If you want stability, all you have to endure is us.

The SCAF has tried relentlessly to link chaos and mayhem to human rights and political activism by accusing many key players in the revolution, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Kifaya (Enough) coalition, of trying to destabilise the country and serving foreign agendas.

Despite being accustomed to working under an authoritarian regime,and the smear campaigns and the heavy-handed security that come with the territory, rights activists now also need to grow accustomed to working under popular “dissuport”.

Political and rights activists are now slowly losing their status as “heroes” and are gradually being cast as the “villains” instead of the regime. Opposing Mubarak’s dictatorship was seen as a heroic act. Opposing SCAF is being seen by a growing number of Egyptians as a form of “treachery”. 

Intensive propaganda has associated human rights, in the minds of many, with vandalism, chaos, instability and conspiracy. The main danger to democracy that Egypt is facing is not the practices of the military rulers, but the public support for such practices.

The SCAF should not be deceived or lulled into a false sense of security by this support, which is probably going to be short-lived and is only a result of the horrors of recent months.

Once the memory of the chaos becomes distant enough and the revolutionary dust settles, people will again start realising the government’s failure to deliver better living conditions, to enhance the rule of law, to fight corruption and to push for greater civil liberties.

Rulers with a security-only mentality who fail to address economic, legal and social issues run the risk of sharing Mubarak’s destiny or even worse, because next time people will make sure not to go home with an unfinished revolution or trust anyone but themselves to take charge of the transitional period.

Employing tired, old narratives and displaying a severe lack of political imagination, which is a typical characteristic of military rulers, would only serve to remind Egyptians of the old regime they despised for long undermining the power, energy and creativity of the people.

Civil rights and genuine stability can only come together, and the Egyptian revolution proved that the heavy hand of security can no longer achieve stability on its own.

Soon enough, those Egyptians who believe that military strongmen are more capable of maintaining public order than democratically elected civilian governments will discover that this idea is nothing short of a myth. What we have is not really a choice between freedom and stability, but a choice between having both or neither.

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A tale of two media

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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s independent media have earned their revolutionary stripes, while the state’s mouthpieces have simply switched allegiance to the ‘new emperor’. But which model will endure?

Wednesday 17 August 2011

In his final 18 days as president, Hosni Mubarak looked increasingly detached from the rapidly changing reality around him. The contrast between the gilded cocoon in which he lived and the seething anger on the streets was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by his final speech.

The whole of Egypt was out on the streets or glued to their television sets – as were millions across the world – in excited anticipation that the dictator would finally concede defeat on February 10. When he appeared on air, a couple of hours late, he delivered a recorded message that was a study in mediocrity and cliché.

With the pallor of a made-up corpse in an ill-lit funeral parlour, he paid lip service to Egypt’s youth – whom he patronisingly referred to as his “sons and daughters” – but defiantly refused to step down, claiming that he would not succumb to “foreign dictations”. In Tahrir square, this was met with cries of disbelief, hoots of derision and quite a number of raised shoes.

A similar contrast in narratives was discernible in how the revolution was being covered by the Egyptian media. While intrepid journalists working for Egypt’s independent media continued their ever-bolder defiance of the regime of recent years to report on the historic events gripping the country, the regime’s tame mouthpieces mostly continued, right up to the eleventh hour of Mubarak’s downfall, to describe the protesters as “hooligans” and the protests themselves as being orchestrated by “foreign powers”.

This awoke memories in the minds of some commentators of the public media’s disgraceful performance during the 1967 war with Israel, when they broadcast fictitious reports of Egyptian victories until the bitter reality emerged a few days later.

“With the revolution in full force, few thought the state’s toothless and incompetent television would actually revert to Voice of the Arabs strategies of completely fraudulent reports of the protests,” wrote media scholar Adel Iskandar in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s best-selling independent daily. “In retrospect, the content from those 18 days has since become iconic – from fake foreign-trained protesters and KFC conspiracies to an empty Tahrir and massive pro-Mubarak rallies.”

Sawt el-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) was the Nasser-era pan-Arabist revolutionary broadcaster which was, despite it clear propaganda mission, was popular with millions of Egyptian and Arabs up until the 1967 defeat. In the early weeks of the current revolution, the state media reverted to old form with ludicruous reports that the protesters on Tahrir Square were only a handful of foreigners and foreign-trained agents whose allegiance was allegedly bought with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, despite the fact that the KFC restaurant on the square was closed down at the start of the protests and a makeshift clinic to treat protesters was erected outside it.

In a comically transparent real-life adaptation of Orwell’s “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia”, the state-owned media now endorses the revolution – and the vandals have become heroes.

Despite this, old ways die hard. “On the whole, I would say the changes we’ve seen to the ‘end product’ of the Egyptian media have been largely cosmetic – although that doesn’t mean that more substantive reform isn’t underway below the surface,” The Guardian‘s Jack Shenker told me.

“There has been no meaningful change in the state media since the revolution,” echoes Amira Mohsen, a young journalist who used to work for Nile TV, the state-owned satellite news channel. “It would appear that the self-censorship that had always been in place still exists and has only switched to suit the requirements of the new [military] regime.”

After two years at Nile TV, Mohsen resigned last September, months before the revolution, out of outrage, at the endemic corruption, nepotism and propaganda she witnessed at the broadcaster, she said.

“I was exhausted and disgusted by the level of corruption taking place at all levels in Maspero [the Nile-side premises of Egypt’s broadcasting building],” she explained. “I also felt Egyptian state media was not journalism but rather working as public relations for the regime.”

While defections of journalists disillusioned with the state-run media, like Mohsen’s, have long occurred, the trickle only became a flood in the wake of the revolution.

“For decades, conscientious media workers had suffered in silence as failed and corrupt government policies were promoted across the airwaves and in print,” wrote Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who replaced Mubarak loyalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed as interim secretary-general of the Egyptian Journalists’ Union, in the Guardian in February. “Therefore, when the revolution erupted journalists were among the first on the street and among those who gave blood for the cause.”

In addition to resignations, strikes and walkouts across the state-run broadcast and print media, at least one government-employed journalist paid for reporting on the revolution with his life. Ahmed Mahmoud, a photographer with the largest government newspaper, al-Ahram, was shot in the head while filming police attacking protesters from the balcony of his home.

Prior to the revolution, the state-owned media was not uniformly propagandist, and certain journalists on the government’s payroll sailed very close to the wind. One example is al-Ahram Weekly under the editorship of Hani Shukrallah. As it is published in English and hence does not reach a mass Egyptian audience, the regime kept less of a close eye on it.

But Shukrallah’s bold editorial approach eventually got his superiors within the Ahram conglomerate nervous and he was removed from the Weekly in 2005. He recently returned to head up the newspaper’s new English portal in which he has infused his trademark outspokenness. For instance, weeks before the revolution, when a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve, he penned his very own J’accuse.

“I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” he wrote. “But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced.”

Another example is Salama Ahmed Salama, Egypt’s archetypal non-partisan journalist, despite having worked for decades for al-Ahram, whose front page was dominated for most of the past three decades with Mubarak’s image.

Although he accepted that the newspaper he dedicated so many years to was the “façade of the system”, he is a strong believer in press freedom and tested the system constantly until he left the government flagship to help set up the highly respected independent al-Shorouk. “The reader will get a different taste of modern journalism,” Salama promised in his first editorial for the upstart paper in 2009.

And it seems to have kept its word.

“I think that al-Shorouk is the most professional and objective newspaper on the market in Egypt,” says Mohsen. Unlike some of the other independent Egyptian newspapers, especially the opposition ones, which are clearly partisan or sensationalist, al-Shorouk does not shy away from complexity or controversy, but, like Salama himself, it steers clear of political allegiances and polemics, even in the wake of the revolution. 

But al-Shorouk is not alone, and nor was Egypt’s newfound media freedom built in a day. One of the first newspapers to push the political boundaries to their limit was the opposition al-Dustour, which was set up in 1995 by Ibrahim Eissa in Cyprus, due to Egypt’s restrictive press laws at the time. The government banned the outspoken and oft-sensationalist ‘foreign’ paper in 1998 but it managed to resurface again in 2005.

The growing boldness of Egyptian civil society and the opposition movement has been mirrored in the independent media which, in recent years, has slaughtered most of Egypt’s sacred political cows. For example, the unspoken journalistic taboos which forbade, above all, open criticism of Mubarak in the media was demolished by an increasingly iconoclastic press which openly criticised the then president for refusing to step down, covered rumours of his ill-health and expressed its opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency from his father.

So successful has the independent media been that al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004, quickly overtook the stagnant al-Ahram to become Egypt’s most popular and respected newspaper whose official circulation figures may be a little lower than the government flagship but its actual readership is far higher, according to numerous independent experts. And despite an internet blackout and animosity from the collapsing regime in the early days of the revolution, the more open atmosphere has been good for the independent press. For example, al-Shorouk saw its circulation double to reach 150,000 copies in the first weeks of the uprising.

Although private television, which the government kept on a tight lead, was years behind the printed press, it has come into its own over the past few months. Private channels have developed a niche in prime-time talk shows with key figures in the revolution. One such interview, with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who set up a Facebook page which helped facilitate the revolution, became so iconic that it is credited with giving the revolution a “shot of adrenaline in the heart”, according to Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, at a moment of deadlock when it looked at risk of losing steam.

And state-run broadcasters have not been immune to this trend. “Amr Khaled and Mohamed ElBaradei on state TV. Regular phone-ins from the ‘revolutionary youth’,” observes Shenker. “There is a broadening of the parameters of debate, that’s undeniable.”

So, what does the future hold for Egypt’s media? It is difficult to say and a lot depends on the kind of Egypt which emerges from the ruins of the former regime. On the positive side, Egyptian journalists are enjoying perhaps unprecedented freedoms and a new freedom of information bill which is currently in the pipeline could empower them to do their jobs better.

However, a number of clouds loom on the horizon. One is the self-censorship practised by some journalists weary of getting into a confrontation with Egypt’s de facto interim rulers, the oft-fearsome Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). “The notion of a benign, paternalistic deity at the apex of Egyptian politics remains, except in place of Mubarak we now have SCAF,” reflects Shenker. “And the mindless repetition of regressive narratives designed to delegitimise those who challenge that deity… continues as well, in the realms of both state and private media.”

Although headless, Egypt’s formidable propaganda apparatus is still largely intact. Many Egyptians have called for the complete dismantling of the Ministry of Information and the State Information Service, as well as for the removal of subsidies to the state-owned media.

However, Egyptians should be wary of private ownership too, which is not always beneficial, as the News International scandal in the UK and US is proving. The revolution provides Egyptians with a golden opportunity to learn from their own mistakes and those of the West to redefine the media landscape in a way that promotes truly free journalism.

Government media subsidies can be kept in place but should be channelled through a firewall which ensures independence, while private media should be encouraged, as much as possible, to be set up through non-interfering trusts and foundations.

“Kalam garayed” (“newspaper speak”) has long been a derisive term in Egypt which reflects the intuitive distrust in which Egyptian hold the media. Perhaps in the wake of the tumultuous changes gripping the country, future generations will seek “kalam garayed” as a positive thing.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 12 August 2011.

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New Egypt, new media

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 By Osama Diab

Egyptians will no longer tolerate paying for the state-run newspapers that peddled Hosni Mubarak’s propaganda.

Saturday 26 March 2011

A few hours before the ousting of the former president Hosni Mubarak, the Tahrir Square protesters were described in Egypt‘s state-run media as “vandals” and “hooligans”. A few hours after Mubarak’s fall, the “vandalisers” had become “heroes”, and what was previously described as “chaos instigated by foreign powers” had suddenly become “a glorious revolution”.

None of this impresses young Egyptians who – unlike older generations – have become accustomed to seeking out more neutral sources of information. They are increasingly fluent in alternative media, whether it’s social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, or the newly emerging independent newspapers that suffered under the former regime and are seen as one of the reasons behind the 25 January revolution.

Sales of state-run papers have fallen quite drastically – partly because of the growth in independent media but also because of the way they sugar-coated Mubarak’s unpopular regime. One of the more outrageous examples came last September when al-Ahram doctored a photograph taken during the Israel-Palestine peace talks in Washington to suggest that 82-year-old Mubarak was leading the negotiations.

The most loyal readers of the state-run press come from older generations who have a nostalgic attachment. Meanwhile, the young people who now represent the majority of the market prefer independent media – even foreign media such as the BBC, al-Jazeera and The Guardian – to get a more accurate picture.

There are no reliable circulation figures for the state-run press in Egypt. Rafik Bassel, a media analyst and chief executive of Smartcomm advertising agency, says al-Ahram claims a circulation of 800,000 on weekdays and 1,000,000 on Fridays. He doubts this claim and suggests the real figure is 140,000 on weekdays of which 40,000 are subscriptions paid for by the government and distributed to officials around the country.

“Advertising in state-run newspapers has been mandatory for businesses close to the previous regime,” Bassel added. “Large companies, banks and services were ordered to publish ads … not to mention obituaries, ‘congratulation’ ads, etc.”

Mostafa Sakr, the chairman and editor of the independent al-Borsa daily (who used to work for al-Ahram‘s economic magazine) told me that not only has the circulation of all state-run newspapers plunged seriously, but their influence has declined too. According to Sakr, people want sources of information they can trust – which is why sales of the independent newspaper al-Shorouk doubled during the revolution, reaching a circulation of about 150,000 a day.

Even in the online world, independent media have proved more successful. Al-Youm al-Sabea news website was named as the Middle East’s top online newspaper by Forbes. Al-Ahram, the highest-ranking state-run newspaper on the list, came in 24th place.

Economically speaking, these increasingly unpopular media outlets have become a financial burden on the Egyptian treasury. Taxpayers were paying the regime to provide them with lies and propaganda. A report from the Central Auditing Agency in 2008 accused Rose al-Youssef newspaper of wasting public money, since 74% of its printed copies were returned unsold, making its actual sales less than 2,500 a day. Rose al-Youssef, like many other state-run media, has a long and proud history that was severely polluted by its affiliation to unpopular, corrupt regimes.

The future situation of these outlets is still unclear. However, the supreme council of armed forces, which is in charge of Egypt until a new president is elected in August, has ordered the dissolution of the information ministry – something the opposition had long been calling for. The ministry was regarded as the government’s means for controlling the media and limiting its freedom.

Many journalists have also demonstrated at the syndicate of journalists, calling for the dismantling of the higher council of journalism, a government body controlled by parliament which is in charge of – and owns – Egypt’s seven state-funded newspapers.

Whatever the future of these publications, the status quo should not be an option. Some of these papers, such as Rose al-Youssef, circulate in the low thousands and get funding in the tens of millions. With new, independent, credible and economically successful models of newspapers, the state-run press should be something of the past.

If they can be made profitable they should probably be privatised so they can break free from the government’s grip and develop a more independent tone. If they cannot be profitable (which is more likely) then there is no reason for them to stay and be the burden they are. “If the state stops funding [its] newspapers, they will collapse in a heartbeat,” Bassel said.

Egyptians have long paid a huge bill to be told lies. It’s time to do something more with this money. The era of communist-style propaganda is over in Egypt and the disparity between the content provided by state-run and independent newspapers has already narrowed since the fall of Mubarak’s regime.

Starting a new era in Egypt should come with a new set of media practices and allow trusted names to lead a less stagnant media scene, replacing newspapers whose editorial policies were developed secretly in state security offices on presidential orders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 10 March 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Egyptian government fears a Facebook revolution

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By Osama Diab

Talk of banning Facebook is only the surface of a greater crackdown on independent media by an insecure government.

2 November 2010

Many Egyptians, in what is still a police state, regard Facebook as a safe haven where they can campaign and express their opinions freely. But that could soon change following a crackdown by the authorities against various types of media.

In Egypt, many opposition movements have either started or grown significantly on Facebook, most notably the 6th April Youth Movement and the national campaign to support Nobel peace prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei as a presidential candidate.

Understanding the impact Facebook now has on Egypt’s political life, the Egyptian TV’s most popular talk show, Masr el-Nahrda (Egypt Today), suggested banning Facebook or passing a law to regulate Facebook activities in Egypt.

The show’s host, Mona el-Sharkawy, and her two guests heavily criticised Facebook and warned viewers against its evil and how it can be used by intelligence apparatuses all over the world to gather secret information about target countries.

Gamal Mokhtar, a technology expert and a guest on the show, said that Facebook has definitely revealed itself as a political tool used by foreign powers to obtain secret information about certain countries.

“We need to prevent problems, strikes and vandalism in the country by regulating it,” said the technology expert. el-Sharkawy also cited the 6 April Youth Movement as an example of how Facebook can be used destructively. She claimed (on no factual basis) that members of the group, which started on Facebook, had destroyed Tahrir Square in Cairo during one of their protests.

This comes at a time when a crackdown on independent media is under way in Egypt ahead of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Ibrahim Eissa, the former editor of the al-Dustour independent newspaper, predicted a crackdown on the internet following the attack on many other media outlets.

“Perhaps soon we’ll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians’ freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt,” Eissa wrote two days before he was dismissed from his post as al-Dostour‘s editor-in-chief.

Many other notable figures critical of the regime’s violations were also recently stopped from doing their jobs. Prominent political analyst Hamdi Qandeel and the internationally renowned novelist Alaa ElAswany have both had their columns in al-Shorouk newspaper removed.

Other pre-election measures have included stopping the broadcasting of four independent satellite channels and putting restrictions on the mass sending of mobile text messages (a practice widely used for campaigning by opposition movements in Egypt).

The recent media crackdown – and the talk of “regulating” Facebook in Egypt – is an indicator that the regime does not have the slightest intention of playing the political game fairly and freely. The crackdown is fed by the regime’s insecurity as it loses public support. With such lack of popularity, the regime has to choose between losing and cheating – and losing doesn’t sound like a viable option.

It won’t be surprising if the government tries to link some criminal incidents with the use of Facebook in order to gain support for regulation – for example, by making it a crime to start a political group on Facebook.

Worried by the fact that the state TV is only a tool for delivering the government’s message and that criticism of Facebook was probably not an arbitrarily chosen topic, a Facebook group entitled “together to stop the ban of Facebook in Egypt” has started campaigning and attracted more than 10,000 members in just a few days.

The suggestion of a ban on Facebook shows the regime is worried of any medium that shows real trends and statistics in Egypt, which they have no control over. It’s also because the regime is definitely losing the Facebook numbers game; it’s hard to imagine that Mokhtar would have still suggested control over the social network if it was President Hosni Mubarak who got a quarter of a million fans on his page rather than ElBaradei.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 October 2010. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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