Egypt's Press Syndicate resists Sisi's repressive regime

Egypt's Press Syndicate resists Sisi's repressive regime
Comment: Sisi's recent crackdown on Egypt's journalists does not bode well for the country's media, and is a worrying indicator of a regime slipping into old ways, writes Mohamed ElMeshad
6 min read
06 May, 2016
The police's unprecedented actions have all but united the media against them [Getty]

Much has been said recently about freedom of speech in Egypt and the state's generally repressive attitude towards journalists and newsmakers. As in the vast majority of Arab countries, the press in Egypt cannot be considered "free".

However, in contrast to many others in the region, Egypt has had a long-standing tradition of a relatively strong showing of professional journalism that has had a prominent and effective role to play in society. At the centre of this is the Journalists Syndicate.

Since 1941, the syndicate had enjoyed a somewhat protected status. It managed to expand and continued to provide services to its members, regardless of the affiliations of its steering committees or head figures.

The steps in front of the current headquarters of the syndicate in central Cairo have become an iconic location for protests and demonstrations. Although the syndicate was not necessarily able to provide a platform for enhancing all of journalism and the country's media system, it did prove to be a sanctuary of sorts for many of its member journalists.

That all changed on May 1 when Egyptian police raided the Press Syndicate for the first time since it's creation, in order to arrest two journalists who are wanted for investigation. The move is proving to be one of the most audacious and controversial on the part of the police, as police access to the Syndicate is strictly regulated by law.

For the regime, this is a public relations disaster coming at a particularly inopportune time. Just last week, mass protests erupted in reaction to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi transferring two Red Sea islands to Saudi sovereignty. Now, the unprecedented actions of the police have succeeded in uniting virtually all the media against them. Their actions led to a three-day sit-in at the Syndicate and an unparalleled turn out at the emergency general assembly for members, with at least 3,000 journalists in attendance.

The journalists are calling for an apology from the presidency and for the resignation of the Interior Minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. They have decided to refrain from using his normal image, instead using a black and white 'negative' one, which even many state papers have reproduced.

The political leadership and the iron-fist of their security forces are trying to reassert their supremacy on all aspects of life, just as Mubarak did

So far Sisi has had two opportunities to apologise while addressing the public. Instead used the speeches for singing his own praises. The reaction of the presidency will determine the extent of the fallout from the incident. Affairs like this that are having a tangible impact on public opinion of the regime, and seem to be occuring more and more frequently.

If the regime continues to focus on its self-described successes, it will fall into the same patterns that Hosni Mubarak's government was guilty of, that eventually led to its downfall.

When the 25 January Revolution came about in 2011, perhaps the most surprised group of all was the new leadership of the National Democratic Party (NDP) led by Mubarak's son and heir apparent, Gamal. The Egypt that they chose to see, was one where growth in GDP was increasing at over 5% and a new Smart Village was attracting multi-national tech companies. Real estate prices were sky-rocketing and the stock market saw a marked increase in IPOs.

Gamal was gaining international notoriety and appeared to be in control, as business was booming for his friends, many of whom were leaders in the NDP. Meanwhile, poverty levels in the country were reaching a dangerous high and income inequality was the lowest it had been in years. The social safety net was slowly being pulled from under a population whose need for it was steadily growing. To top it off, political repression and police brutality were rising markedly.

The problem with Gamal's NDP cohort, is that they were blinded by their own image of themselves as the political ruling class of the country, a trait that is very clear in Sisi, too. They thought they could convince the entire population of their own version of reality by only speaking at them, rather than listening to them. They refused to address issues of vital importance, and assumed that enough of the population was sufficiently depoliticised or passive to care about state repression.

This regime will not survive if it continues to antagonise much of the media and ignore the major problems it is facing

Crucially, they ignored the accumulation of factors that would ultimately lead to social upheaval. Their response to numerous instances of unrest - whether from different professional syndicates, human rights organisations, labour unions or political organisations - was to simply attempt to wipe them out or to put a heavily guarded lid on them. Eventually in 2011, it became clear their techniques were untenable. Five years later, it seems that the government is making similar mistakes; misreading social cues and believing in a version of events that lies heavily in their favour. One of their main outlets for doing so is by attempting to control information in any way possible.

A gagging order was issued on the case and prominent politicians and human rights activists were barred from going to stand in solidarity with the Syndicate, while security forces continue to barricade its offices. The political leadership and the iron-fist of their security forces are trying to reassert their supremacy on all aspects of life, just as Mubarak did, but it seems that they are doing so in a much less calculated fashion. As a result, they are losing some of their staunchest supporters, especially among journalists. This regime will not survive if it continues to antagonise much of the media and ignore the major problems it is facing.

In addressing the issue of the two islands, Sisi laid bare his blinkered attitude during his speech that ended with the words, "I do not want anyone to open this topic again".

If the incident goes unremedied, it will bode for a much more repressive future

Direct orders such as this and gagging orders will not be enough to maintain the sort of popular mandate Sisi (or anyone else) would need to maintain executive control. The media is increasingly unhappy with this regime, even though it was a major cog in the machine that allowed Sisi to consolidate power in 2013.

If the presidency apologises for the Press Syndicate incident, it will amount to a slightly embarassing admission it was at fault. But if it does not, this would be tantamount to annoucing is culpability. An issue as big and game-changing as this requires a response at the highest level. And given its high profile standing in public discourse, the pressing need for the topic to be addressed will only continue to grow.

For the journalists and activists hoping to force real change in the country, this will be a rallying cry. If the incident goes unremedied, it will bode for a much more repressive future for journalists, however bleak it may already seem. This is all the more true since a leaked memo from the Interior Minister came to light, showing - if indeed it is real - that it has an elaborate plan to silence any voices of dissent.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

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.