Political censorship is back in the new Egypt. But hiding the truth is a losing strategy.
- By Robert Springborg<p> Robert Springborg is professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. government. </p>
On Dec. 7, Egypt’s largest-circulation privately owned newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, published an unsigned editorial under the title, "The British Independent Publishes a Fabricated Article About al-Masry al-Youm." In the editorial, the paper accused The Independent‘s Cairo correspondent, Alastair Beach, of being linked to Western intelligence agencies. It also alleged that I, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, was seeking to foment a coup d’état in Egypt.
Correspondent Beach was the target of these ludicrous assertions as a result of his coverage of al-Masry al-Youm‘s censorship of an article I had been commissioned to write by the editor of that newspaper’s new English language weekly, rather paradoxically named Egypt Independent. To appear in the second issue of that new weekly, scheduled for publication on Dec. 1, my article noted the favorable image of the Egyptian military as reported in various domestic public opinion polls since Feb. 11. It went on to argue that Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the country’s official leader since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, would nevertheless be unwise to interpret this data as support for the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The available polling data suggests that SCAF’s image is much less favorable than the military’s and in fact is in precipitous decline.
I concluded that the field marshal’s implied threat against civilian rule as embodied in the trial balloon he floated in his Nov. 22 speech, which referred to a possible referendum on military rule, could backfire against him. Not only would many civilian political forces in Egypt be dismayed by such an effort to prolong the SCAF’s rule, but so too might military officers disapprove out of fear that their institution’s reputation could thereby be damaged. This assertion was not just speculative, but based on substantial evidence to that effect. I also referred to Washington’s explicit disapproval of efforts to prolong the SCAF’s political role, for example, a Nov. 25 White House statement calling for Egypt’s new government to be "empowered with real authority immediately."
It was these observations that resulted in the article being censored by Magdy el-Galad, the editor-in-chief of al- Masry al-Youm. I do not know whether he did so on direct orders from the SCAF or because he anticipated General Tantawi’s negative reaction. What has been reported to me is that the editor in question is known to have close ties to the military and intelligence services. (The Egyptian Independent‘s brave reaction to the incident was to refuse to produce another edition of their weekly until it was granted editorial freedom from al-Masry al-Youm.)
Whatever happened behind the scenes, the censorship suggests marked sensitivity about the leadership and role of the SCAF and its relations with the broader military. General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak’s instrument to control the military. The measures he employed — including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution’s primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty — resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF’s mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities.
As the political pressure on the SCAF intensifies, the question becomes whether or not its members might seek to defend its and the military’s interests by dumping Tantawi, just as the field marshal dumped Mubarak. After all, the second in command is Chief of Staff General Sami Abul Enan, whose good reputation appears yet to be badly tarnished by Tantawi’s and the SCAF’s misdeeds. What could trigger an internal coup? Grumbling in the officer corps, combined with a growing fear of the appeal of Islamism among enlisted men — especially in the wake of the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis — are incentives for the SCAF to turn on Tantawi lest the military, possibly in some sort of alliance with Islamists, turn on the SCAF.
In sum, the political pressure on Tantawi, now heightened by the results of the first round of parliamentary elections and the SCAF’s immediate attempt to disempower parliament even before it is seated, is enough to make anyone nervous. That he was Mubarak’s manager of the military economy — a vast enterprise including factories, bakeries, and other businesses — for more than two decades, hence with plenty to hide, may cause him to wonder if he might end up on the wrong side of the dock with his old boss.
But clumsy censorship simply exacerbates his and the SCAF’s problems. One lesson of the Arab Spring is that news now travels very fast indeed. Within hours of the 20,000 copies of the second issue of Egypt Independent being pulped, the story had spread not only in Egypt, but globally, as the article in London’s The Independent attests. It did not used to be this way. A previous publisher of al-Masry al-Youm, Hisham Kassem, former chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, clashed several years ago with the owners of the paper over the issue of editorial freedom. He ultimately resigned. That the ostensibly liberal owners of the paper, including Naguib Sawiris, founder of the possibly misnamed Free Egyptians Party, were not then revealed as having endorsed censorship suggests the profound enhancement of information flow over the past three or four years, to say nothing of commitment to that flow. (Indeed, the bravery of the staff of Egypt Independent provides ample evidence of that.)
But there are some worrying implications here, too. That even Egyptians nominally on the liberal side of the country’s political spectrum drag out the old canards of foreign conspiracies and spies to discredit those whose views they fear might upset powerful actors does not augur well for a possible transition to a more liberal political order. And as far as the most powerful actor is concerned, the SCAF, its profound sensitivities, overreactions, and outright duplicity suggest that both its commitment and its capacity to orchestrate a successful transition are in grave doubt. Its misdeeds unfortunately threaten not only itself and its leader, but, paradoxically, the integrity of the military — to say nothing of the stability and well being of the country as a whole. This in turn poses a huge challenge to Washington, which is now caught between an incompetent SCAF and a potentially hostile Islamist government, with no obvious place to turn given the apparent political weakness of liberal secularists.
In sum, there is lots of bad news in Cairo, but censorship will not prevent it from getting out.