The Middle East Channel

Bad news for the Brotherhood

You would never know there had been a revolution. Within the slightly grimy walls of Egypt’s state-owned media buildings, it’s business as usual. Observers would be forgiven for thinking the state television and papers are there largely as a public address system for whoever actually has their hands on the country’s steering wheel. Over the ...


You would never know there had been a revolution. Within the slightly grimy walls of Egypt’s state-owned media buildings, it’s business as usual. Observers would be forgiven for thinking the state television and papers are there largely as a public address system for whoever actually has their hands on the country’s steering wheel.

Over the 30 years leading up to the 2011 popular uprising, state media took its cue from Hosni Mubarak’s gatekeeper, the diminutive but terrifying Safwat el-Sherif, former minister of information. Post January 25, state media and papers backed the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the country’s ruling military council. Last week, in a nod to the democratic process, it was the turn of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Egypt’s upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, announced the appointments of the new editors, setting off a storm of angry protest among journalists, led by the Journalists’ Syndicate, who insisted that the Islamist-dominated council had essentially rigged the selection process and assigned their own men to do its bidding.

There are 55 state-owned publications in Egypt under eight publishing institutions. Since 1979, they’ve been the responsibility of the Higher Press Council, majority-owned by the Shura Council (51 percent Council to 49 percent employees). Previously, editors-in-chief had been selected by the minister of information who presented the names to the Shura Council which ratified them in session. The arrangement guaranteed a lack of any press freedom since the Shura Council, like the People’s Assembly, was overwhelmingly dominated by the National Democratic Party (NDP). The editors were political appointees and expected not so much to toe the party line, as to carve it into the ground for all to note. In March 2011, there was a shake-up, which saw most of these editors unceremoniously replaced by those who were perceived as supportive of the revolution. The appointments were understood to be temporary until the new ones, scheduled for this year, would be chosen from a list of candidates fulfilling preset criteria. Since the new Shura Council is as overwhelmingly dominated by Islamists — mostly the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — as the old one was by the NDP, the new appointments have been awaited with trepidation.

None of the signs boded well. The 14-member selection committee was headed by FJP member Fathy Shehab and included three other FJP members. Two of its four journalists dropped out protesting what they saw as a naked attempt by the Islamist members to force their own candidates and another seven syndicate board members dropped out of discussions with the council altogether. Magdy el-Maasarawy, a Shura Council member who resigned from the committee last month, told Egypt Independent that the original criteria, which drew heavily on what he referred to as professional skills as agreed upon by the journalists, were scrapped by the rest of the committee. Additionally, he said that the 234 candidates didn’t all fulfill the criteria, most notably Abd el-Nasser Salama, appointed head of Middle East’s most prominent newspaper, Al Ahram. Salama, said Maasarawy, was never at Al Ahram for the required 10 years. He’d been the Muscat bureau chief for three years before returning to Cairo in 2009 as columnist.

Gamal Fahmy, secretary general of the Journalists’ Syndicate, also told Egypt Independent that he thought the majority of the new editors were weak, professionally speaking, and certainly not qualified to lead the kind of large staffs involved in these papers. Professional competence is an especially sore point; Yasser Rizk, the former editor of Al-Akhbar is generally acknowledged to have worked wonders with the ailing publication. However, he has not been supportive of the Islamists and was replaced during the shuffle.

The new editors appear to fall into three categories: the cooperative, the Islamist, and the difficult-to-categorize.

Salama appears to fall into the first group. He is not an Islamist and in fact was a guest on the television program hosted by the controversial anti-MB Tawfik Okasha. Okasha, owner of the Faraeen channel, is currently under investigation for allegedly inciting people to murder President Mohamed Morsi. He is famous for having accused the late Pope Shenouda of inciting sectarianism in 2010 and, more recently, is know for his steady assault on the revolution. His columns and interviews claimed that the protesters were paid thugs and that "cars with foreign diplomatic corps license plates were seen distributing hot meals to people in Tahrir." Faraeen has just been suspended for a month.

The new head of Al-Akhbar El-Adab (the culture arm of Al-Akhbar), Magdy Afifi, falls neatly into the second category; he recently described Safwat Hegazy as "A revolutionary theologian glowing with mercy, lighting up the earth and sky." Not everyone feels the same way about Hegazy, a controversial sheikh who assaulted two female photographers last June at a Morsi speech in Tahrir and had issued a fatwa about killing Jewish men several years ago. The fatwa was promptly scotched by Al Azhar which unceremoniously stripped him of his right to preach in any mosque.

And then, of course, there’s Gamal Abd el-Rehim, the new editor of Al-Gomhuriya, who in 2009 screamed at a Baha’i activist that she was an apostate and should be killed. More notable than his sentiments was that he expressed them on live television on Al-Haqiqa, The Truth. Muslim villagers in Sharonya, Assiut seem to have taken his comments on Baha’is to heart and promptly burned all the Baha’i homes in the village to the ground. He has never been censured by the syndicate, let alone tried. Abd El-Rehim falls into the third category; it’s uncertain why he was chosen but the choice fails to say anything reassuring about the state’s commitment to religious or ethnic tolerance.

The appointments were followed by a rash of blank editorial pages in national newspapers, a favored means of protest. One of the most prominent protesters was Gamal Fahmy, whose column in in Al-Tahrir newspaper simply read: "This space is blank to protest the hereditary system that did not fall with the ousting of Mubarak and his son. It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to revive it after it was blinded by arrogance. This protest is against their control of the public owned media."

The appointments are especially worrying in light of the recent appointment of the new minister of information, Salah Abd El-Maqsoud, a MB member. Following the revolution, the MB had called as enthusiastically as other political players for the abolition of the information ministry. Apparently, the group has had a change of heart.

There are probably a couple of reasons for this. The first may be what the MB views as a sustained assault on the group in the media over the past several months. The second is more basic. Traditionally the ranks of the Brotherhood have held professionals including doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. They count precious few artists, columnists, or authors in their fold and as a result tend to be significantly more underrepresented than other political parties. Apparently, they’ve taken it to heart. Salah Eissa, the assistant secretary general of the syndicate told the Egypt Independent in June that the FJP’s paper had recently published several articles that spoke of "purging the press of liberals and leftists."

Journalists see the appointments as an aggressive step toward these purges but they aren’t the only signs of what is increasingly feared to be an Islamist domination of the media.

On August 9, Khaled Salah, the editor-in-chief of Al-Youm Al-Sabei, a paper that has been increasingly critical of the Brotherhood, was attacked by what he said were MB protesters on his way to his television program. The attackers, whom he claimed were holding pro-Morsi banners also smashed the windscreen, windows, and mirrors of his car, calling him "one of those who antagonized Morsi." Nor was he the only one; Youssef el-Hosseini, appearing on the same program, was also attacked. MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan categorically denied the charges but the banners were identified by independent witnesses. An investigation is underway.

The Brotherhood also seems to have picked up another favorite NDP tactic — suing an opponent into silence. The website of the virulently anti-MB newspaper Al-Dostour reported on August 11 that security forces had turned up at the offices and confiscated material. The paper is currently being investigated for sedition. While Al-Dostour’s staunchest defenders would admit the paper has a colorful turn of phrase, to say the least, press freedom advocates have condemned the move. Said Garhi of the Justice Center for Freedoms called it "an attempt to impose hegemony, domination and exclusion on those in conflict with the group."

Journalists in Egypt fear that the Brotherhood has already started clamping down on freedom of speech by ensuring that coverage is favorable and closing down the source when it isn’t. It is difficult to envisage a healthy democratic transition without freedom of speech. Journalists listened warily to Morsi’s comments earlier this week on supporting "the idea of forming a national council to oversee state and private media." In Egypt, the words "National Council" are usually synonymous with "Government Stranglehold." SCAF, while no bastion of freedom of any sort, had previously been seen as a bulwark against Brotherhood dominance. However, early August saw President Morsi make several vital appointments, which appear to have slashed at SCAF’s power, leaving control concentrated in the hands of just one party. Egypt’s journalists have been here before and they don’t like it one bit.

They’re not all worried, though. Louis Greiss, former editor of the state-owned weekly Sabah el-Kheir said the Brotherhood might not know what they’re up against. "Egypt’s press has had 200 years of government intimidation," he said. "There’s always a way around it. They always get tired before we do."

Mirette F. Mabrouk is a nonresident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution. Follow her at @mmabrouk.

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