Shades of Mubarak: Egyptian Journalists Chafe Under Media Controls

Mohamed Morsy’s appointments and restrictions have led to howls of protests from Egyptian journalists. Has the Muslim Brotherhood taken a repressive turn?

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Islam Afify, editor in chief of the Egyptian newspaper 'al-Dostour,' sits in his office in Cairo on Aug. 27, 2012

Sabah Hamamou recalls hoping for the best and giving Mohamed Morsy the benefit of the doubt when the longtime Muslim Brotherhood official became Egypt’s first ever elected civilian President earlier this summer.

For Hamamou, a deputy business editor at the state-owned flagship daily newspaper al-Ahram, it was an opportunity to finally fix the institution to which she has dedicated 17 years of her professional life. Hamamou is one of the hardcore dissidents inside Egypt’s state media machine. Halfway through the January 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak from power, she and a handful of colleagues launched an internal revolt to chase out the Mubarak-appointed editor. So when Morsy came to power, she hoped for a fresh start and a new regime that would return the historic paper to something approaching respectability.

That optimism crumbled on Aug. 8 when the Shura Council — the upper house of parliament controlled by Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood — announced dozens of new editors at a host of state-owned newspapers and magazines. The new al-Ahram editor, Abdel Nasser Salama, was just one of the hires that prompted a widespread revolt among Egyptian journalists.

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The criticisms over Salama’s appointment started before he could even move into his new office. A former midlevel editor at al-Ahram, he gained notoriety as an inflammatory Mubarak-era columnist. One column argued that women shouldn’t run for parliament for their own good; another, written in the final week of the revolution, claimed that cars bearing foreign-diplomatic plates were ferrying food and supplies to the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Hamamou can barely contain her contempt for her new boss, calling him “barely qualified” and a “totally closed-minded person.” Efforts to contact Salama to respond to the criticism were unsuccessful.

The day after the appointments, a handful of columnists (all at privately owned papers) ran blank columns in protest — objecting to both the individual choices and the idea that Morsy’s government was adopting the Mubarak-era levers of media control. That turned out to be just the opening salvo in a widening conflict that has Morsy’s young government accused of suppressing free speech.

A pair of prominent government critics now face charges of incitement to violence and the purely Mubarak-era crime of “insulting the President.” Tawfiq Okasha, a firebrand anti-Brotherhood television host, has had the channel he owns temporarily shut down. And police raided the offices of the privately owned newspaper al-Dostour, confiscated the Aug. 11 edition of the paper and charged its editor in chief, Islam Afify, with incitement.

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In fairness, both Okasha’s channel and al-Dostour under Afify’s leadership test the limits of reasonable public expression. Okasha is frequently compared to American television screamer Glenn Beck; al-Dostour’s editorial that provoked the raid warned that a Brotherhood-led Egypt would see “the destruction of the citizen’s dignity in front of his family and his children and the rape of his private property rights.” It concluded by stopping short of calling for a military coup.

Critics of the Brotherhood’s crackdown have often taken pains to distance themselves from the defendants in question. Independent newspaper publisher and human-rights activist Hisham Kassem has this to say about Okasha: “He’s hilarious. He’s cursed out half the country, including me a couple times. He’s completely crazy.”

Nevertheless, Kassem still warned that the Brotherhood had already proved itself too prickly and thin-skinned to rule responsibly over a raucous post-Mubarak Egypt. “They’re a quasi-military organization,” he said. “Internally there’s no such thing as criticism of your superiors.”

Spokesmen for Morsy and the Brotherhood have claimed that the prosecutions of Okasha and Afify weren’t ordered by his office and instead were the work of independent prosecutors and judges. Either way, Morsy’s Egypt has a very different atmosphere than Mubarak’s, and segments of the postrevolutionary population have no intention of giving up such hard-won freedoms. On Aug. 23, about 1,500 protesters gathered in a public square near Tahrir and chanted against the government’s recent media moves. One protester held up a sign in Arabic that said: “Insulting the President Is One of the Rights We Gained in the Revolution.”

And not all Egyptian journalists are pessimistic about the current media landscape. Shahira Amin, a state television anchor who famously resigned from her post in the midst of the revolution, said the situation at state television has measurably improved since Morsy took office. “I don’t see that there’s directives coming from above anymore,” she said. “You can’t say there’s no freedom of expression. We’ve come such a long way.”

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That optimism is not shared by Hamamou, the dissident editor of al-Ahram. She sounds genuinely defeated — not just by the naming of the new editor but by the fact that only a small handful of her colleagues were willing to join her in an office protest against the appointment.

She believes she has paid the price for her outspokenness, saying she has been professionally marginalized inside the newspaper — given a steady paycheck and nothing to do. She used her free time to write a book called Diary of an al-Ahram Journalist, but fears that title might not be accurate for much longer. “It’s the first time I’ve said to myself, ‘Maybe it’s time to leave,'” she said.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.