Ban, block, battle: Egypt's war with the truth

Ban, block, battle: Egypt's war with the truth
Comment: The Egyptian regime is seeking to reduce 'the truth' to its version of it. This counter-revolutionary strategy should be fought off by courageous and principled journalism, writes Amr Khalifa.
6 min read
04 Jan, 2016
More than ever, media in Egypt is in the tight grip of the regime [Anadolu]

With less than three weeks before the fifth anniversary of Egypt's uprising, the ruling regime is doing all it can to quell dissent, particularly that of the written kind.

Censorship is nothing new in Egypt and in post-1952 Egypt not one regime has not censored the press in one fashion or another.

Having said that, it would be criminal not to state the obvious: freedom of speech in Egypt is undergoing the harshest and most systematic of attacks under the leadership of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

While my proclivities, as a journalist, and an Egyptian, naturally, abhor the notion of an attack on journalism; as an analyst with an academic background dependent on the written word, I fully comprehend why Sisi and his cohorts fear the written word with such unending passion.

Words, you see, can tilt the political playing field to favour the underdog. Words can motivate those bombarded by injustice to banish the criminal element among the ruling class.

Fearing such a fate, the autocrat decrees, and more often than not, seemingly arbitrarily so, what will be deemed journalism and what will be denounced as an attack on national security. In recent months, the examples have been more numerous than a Cairo summer's sunny days.

Subtlety is viewed negatively, apparently, by the regime - and so it imbues its every move with a muscularity and a certainty of purpose. It's as though non-negotiable military orders are meted out, and it is up to the citizenry and functionaries merely to execute them. One would think Egypt was ruled by a military man. Oh, wait...

Dictatorial regimes, like the one ruling Egypt, understand the importance of the internet as a political tool. Just this past week, the latest censorship sonata played by the Royal Sisi Philharmonic targeted Facebook.

Ironically, "Free Basics", the Facebook application in the firing line, which brought limited, but free, internet service, was a partnership with the 80 percent government-owned Etisalat corporation.

To the current rulers, who are the very embodiment of the counter-revolution, any instrument or person calling for change is an enemy of the state

But having been burned once before by the "Facebook revolution" on January 25, 2011, the government is clearly determined to avoid a repeat. It also arrested three Facebook page administrators, accusing them of belonging to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

To the current rulers, who are the very embodiment of the counter-revolution, any instrument or person calling for change is an enemy of the state.

Sisi's regime fights such an online application because denial of information access is a central cog of the autocratic machinery. Why? Because one million Egyptians have recently accessed the internet for the very first time, and information is power. So the government, reported local papers, shut down the programme, saying that its license had expired.

How far did Egyptian censorship go in 2015? In its waning days, the year saw Egypt become the third Arab country, after the kingdom of Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to ban The New Arab website.

So, in all likelihood, if you are an Egyptian reading this article it is through one of three avenues: either you are abroad, using a virtual network to get around the restrictions, or reading a copy-and-pasted version on a blog.

In the Sisi age, to get much-needed information and provide a counter-balance to the official narrative, these are the technological acrobatics that must be performed.

To see the systematic attack by the aforementioned Arab autocracies one would think The New Arab were led by Arab writers simultaneously plotting coups where autocracy reigns. But that is far from the case. Those who write for The New Arab perform journalistic duties no different from those performed at Le Monde - or Al Ahram, for that matter.

Articles ranging from hard news to profiles, features and back to commentary are its mainstay. But, and I say this with intended bluntness, though it would be hypocritical to say that news sites do not possess editorial agendas, this much is certain: autocrats who fear information in the hands of the people should examine their own agendas.

Like it or not, banning certain media is a failing modus operandi as it forces readers to ask: what does the regime fear? Such moves may have the unintended side-effect of bringing more readers, rather than reducing a site's popularity.

Ultimately though, censorship is as subtle as being awoken from sleep by a tiger's paw. Writers feel it, newspapers feel it and electronic news outlets have traffic, more often than not, sharply cut.

Such draconian footsteps by government and its various deep-state incarnations are the rule, not the exception, in our region.

Using its stick widely and frequently to quell expression, the regime shows itself quivering - rather than in control

In the very same week, Ahmed Naji, a novelist and an editor of the prestigious arts magazine Akhbar Al Adab, narrowly escaped a possible jail sentence for "harming public morality".

The accusation has long been a go-to for autocratic Egyptian regimes seeking to gain credibility with conservative elements. Some would argue the move was, simultaneously, a reflection of a vicious double-whammy: a military with an underlying Islamist streak.

Attacks on freedom of expression this week also targeted publishing house Dar Merit and Townhouse, an art gallery. This is "part of a campaign to intimidate opposition voices" ahead of the upcoming fifth anniversary of the revolution.

In using its stick widely and frequently to quell expression, the regime shows itself quivering - rather than in control.

Perhaps most significantly, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), explained: "Belal Fadl, Seif Abdel Fatah and others… [have been] frozen out of publications for which they had written extensively".

This is no crackdown, this is forced paralysis under direct and indirect threat of jail. Look no further than the recent arrests of prominent journalist Hossam Bahgat and the continued incarceration of researcher and writer Ismail El Eskandarani to understand why even more prominent voices are silent - or, essentially, being made to leave the country.

To speak openly in or about Egypt, particularly if you are Egyptian, is to take your freedom into your bare hands. But again and again, the Egyptian state shows itself to be aware of the phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword". They have, accordingly, resolved to break all opposition pens.

Where to from here? Dante's eighth circle of hell does not await Egypt. There will be no heads twisted backwards, no burning of feet or bodies dismembered and bitten by snakes for either the government or the opposition. But for many journalists covering Egypt, the current reality is a close approximation of Dante's inferno.

Hell or not, to get Egypt where Egypt needs to be, the battle must be fought by those with pens in hand.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and the Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.