Meet the Political Leader Who Appears to Be Campaigning For the World's #1 Enemy of Free Speech and Journalism
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is waging an all-out war on journalism. Since taking the reins of power in a military coup in 2013 and in an election the next year, Sisi has cracked down on the press with a vengeance. Conflating journalism with terrorism and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the leader of Egypt’s’ authoritarian regime has arrested a record number of journalists. 18 members of the media remain in prison today, with more than a third of them sentenced to life in prison, according to a June report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Repeated pledges by Egyptian authorities that press freedom would be respected and even strengthened have never sounded more hollow than they do today,” Sherif Mansour, the committee’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. “Under cover of anti-terrorism measures, the government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is using harsh methods to crush critical voices.”
But it’s about to get even worse. Against the backdrop of a growing and increasingly bloody Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Sisi’s government has unveiled measures the regime claims will staunch the fighting. In addition to measures the government says will dry up funding sources for insurgents and give harsher sentences to so-called terrorists, Egypt is taking further aim at journalists. The most contentious new law the Egyptian cabinet has passed (there is no need for parliamentary approval since there is no current elected legislature) prohibits journalists from reporting death tolls or other data at odds with government figures. Initially, the bill would have given journalists who violate the law up to two years in prison. After enormous outcry, the government revised the punishment to hefty fines of up to $64,000. The law is now awaiting review from Sisi. It’s one part of the Egyptian regime’s larger attack on dissent, with thousands of people being rounded up and thrown in jail and even killed.
The new proposed media law is the latest sign that Sisi’s war on the press is not letting up. And with U.S. backed military aid flowing, and rhetorical support from the West continuing, there’s no reason the Egyptian government will stop. Independent, combative journalism has become tough to practice in the Arab world’s most influential country.
Egypt’s press has always had to contend with governmental involvement and interference. The state-owned press has historically been powerful, acting as conveyors of official information. But in the 1980s and 1990s, independent media outlets “managed to gain some ground against the mainstream government newspapers, which remained steadily and unmistakably loyal to the government,” according to a 2014 report by Rasha Abdulla and published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Internet, with its blogs and social media, and Al Jazeera provided more sources of information for Egyptian citizens.
Indeed, some observers credit Al Jazeera, wildly popular in the Arab world, with helping to spread the spirit of revolt in Egypt with its nonstop coverage of protests in Tunisia, and eventually in Egypt itself in 2011. Internet activism and blogs grew popular among young Egyptians, and Facebook helped to mobilize the first demonstrations that grew into the revolt that overthrew long-time leader Hosni Mubarak. The aftermath of the revolt has seen some independent media outlets, like Mada Masr, thrive.
The government of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, was no paradise for the free press, with his regime going after journalists for “insulting” Morsi. But Sisi has made the situation for journalists even worse.
The most prominent example of Egypt’s attack on press freedom was the late 2013 arrest of three Al Jazeera journalists: Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy. Accused and convicted of spreading false information and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, they were held in harsh jail conditions for over a year. Greste was eventually deported from Egypt, while Mohamed and Fahmy have been let out of jail, but remain in Egypt. All three are facing a retrial after the original case was thrown out.
Local Egyptian journalists have fared worse, with less international attention and pressure being brought to bear on Sisi. Most of the journalists in prison are accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s main enemy and Egypt’s largest domestic social movement. When the military first deposed Morsi in 2013, they shut down a number of television stations they said had links to the Muslim Brotherhood and went after Al Jazeera. The Committee to Protect Journalists report on Egypt details the cases of the journalists now in prison. Some of them say they were abused while in custody.
One of them, Saeed Abuhaj, was arrested in November 2013, and remains in jail today. A journalist based in the Sinai, Abuhaj was charged with “inciting violence,” taking part in protests and taking up arms against security forces. The head of the Federation of Journalists and Reporters in Sinai told CPJ that Abuhaj “could have been targeted because of his coverage of Muslim Brotherhood meetings and protests in northern Sinai.” He has not yet been put on trial.
Events in the Sinai are subject to a near-total blackout, since the army denies entry to journalists seeking to travel there, which makes the work of people like Abuhaj all the more critical. The neglected Sinai has long been a restive province in Egypt, home to militant groups using violence against the Egyptian government. An insurgency against the Egyptian government has been raging since the 2011 revolt. It has intensified after the coup that deposed Morsi, and now there are frequent bomb attacks against the police and army. The insurgency has grown fiercer as the local Islamic State branch has stepped up its attacks and firepower.
It was a particularly brazen assault in the town of Sheikh Zuweid that led to the government push for the new law that would prohibit reporting that contradicted the regime’s official line. On July 1, militants from Egypt’s Islamic State branch killed dozens of soldiers and laid siege to the Sinai town. The official Egyptian line was that 17 soldiers died. But other media outlets reported much higher death tolls. The discrepancy lead the government to push for the media law that would outlaw “false news or data about any terrorist operations that contradicts the official statements released by the relevant authorities.” In addition, according to reporting by the independent website Mada Masr, the new law would criminalize the spread of “violent ideas” and the dissemination of information on the court system, including on social media, without permission.
The insurgency appears to be spreading, with bomb attacks in Cairo, the capital city, becoming more frequent. On July 11, a car bomb exploded outside the Italian consulate. When four journalists arrived at the scene soon after the bomb went off, they were detained. Although they were eventually released, the detention of journalists was just one more sign of the Egyptian government’s hostile attitude toward journalists.
With the insurgency in Egypt showing no signs of letting up, independent media that chronicle both militant and government action is needed more than ever. But with a leader like Sisi, doing that work is getting ever harder and more dangerous.