Media matters: Egypt's revolution and its aftermath

Media matters: Egypt's revolution and its aftermath

Comment: The revolution was aided by the presence of a relatively critical media. But the media's trajectory since then reflects the path of regime politics and leadership, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
6 min read
25 Jan, 2017
Protesters in Tahrir Square read of the resignation of President Mubarak, 12 February, 2011 [Getty]

It's no coincidence that the 25 January revolution came at a time when, for the first time in its modern history, Egyptian mass media was permitting new levels of social commentary and critical reporting on government endeavours.

However, since this period it seems as though the media have not matured towards the creation of an institution, but a sector that is directly affected by the political situation.

It has been a prisoner of power, and observing the state of the Egyptian media is also a useful barometer for realising the nature of the state at the time. This seems especially poignant now, with the formation of less than a handful of media conglomerates, all with very strong ties to the current regime, forming an oligopoly controlling the sector.

Just 10 years before the revolution, the first privately owned television stations had been licensed, and it wasn't soon after, that primetime airwaves included talk-show hosts who were prodding at some of the country's problems. This all happened within clearly defined boundaries, of course, the president, his family and some of the more sensitive government organisations were strictly out of bounds.

In 2011, the talk-show hosts that controlled the airwaves had suddenly become superstars. Not only did they animate the uprising and bring its figures to life, but at a time when there was what appeared to be a genuine power vacuum, they were contending with fewer red lines and were able to probe more and more into the major issues of the day.

Between 2011 and 2013 the Egyptian population tuned into media outlets not just to be informed, but to have a choice between outlets of information

In the aftermath of Mubarak's deposal, the then ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chose not to counter the massive momentum of the revolution and granted 16 new television licenses as well as many more for print newspapers. The sector seemed to be heading into a golden age. It was suddenly desirable to pursue a career in journalism, and many individuals with cameras began trying their luck creating content for broadcast.

Despite the sector's faults and polarised nature - especially during the Muslim Brotherhood's rule - there was a genuine sense that the sector was opening up. What seemed like a gradual pluralisation of the polity, was also reflecting on the media. Between 2011 and 2013 the Egyptian population tuned into media outlets not just to be informed, but to have a choice between outlets of information.

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Unfortunately, some of the new outlets opened on purely political or religious lines, but they still gave viewers and readers a choice.

When the Muslim Brotherhood came into power, Bassem Youssef was famously shooting off biting satire, mostly in their direction. It gave their opposition an outlet to vent frustration at a public sphere that, from the outside, seemed to be shifting squarely in their direction.

At the same time, some clerics aligned with Islamist groups were trying to cement their influence on society through their television shows, which were more brazenly dogmatic than ever before. It seemed that the struggle for social and political identity at a time of transition was playing out before our very eyes. Then president Morsi, attempted to take Youssef off of the airwaves, and tried to exert pressure on the station owners to take him off air.

Within days, all of the pro-Morsi media outlets were shut down, some were raided and its management were arrested

As the fateful 30 June 2013 demonstrations were being organised, almost all of the television stations opposed to Morsi were more or less dedicated to doing everything in their power to call on people to join, with the ultimate aim of forcing Morsi to step down. Their success in bringing people to the streets was followed by the military taking care of the rest in deposing Morsi.

Within days, all of the pro-Morsi media outlets were shut down, some were raided and its management were arrested. Over the following year, media figures in favour of the 25 January revolution were gradually sifted out of public view, while a strictly pro-Sisi government cohort remained. 

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However, the events of the past three months have drawn an especially dismal view of mass media in Egypt. First the merger of two of the largest television networks, Al-Nahar and CBC meant that between them, editorial policy would be strictly consolidated.

Then came the emergence of Steel tycoon, Ahmed Abu Hashima - who has very strong ties to the regime - and his plan to buy up as many local media outlets as possible. His first order of business was to transfer the majority of the political programming to entertainment.

Then two weeks ago, a new television network launched, DMC, which many say is directly funded by branches of a security apparatus. The very same week, an announcement was made that a company named Sheri Media had bought out, Al'Assima, one of the new and known television networks.

The events of the past three months have drawn an especially dismal view of mass media in Egypt

Who would emerge as the CEO of Sheri Media? None other than Ahmed Samir, the former spokesperson for the Egyptian Armed Forces. A man who has become a household name, who appeared frequently in his fatigues all too often on television over a period that has featured military interaction with civilian life.

If rumors are to be believed about each of the major media conglomerates, the Intelligence Services or the military now have direct control over the majority of private media in Egypt. They reportedly exercised some of this control in the last parliamentary elections.

This expansion to directly control civilian life is being experienced in many different areas and commercial sectors. Last week the government issued a license to the military for manufacturing pharmaceuticals.

However, given how much the current president criticises the media for not always being on his side, there is a genuine fear that the media sector will be swallowed whole by the regime, and that the short-lived promise of a mass media out of the state's grip will be completely extinguished. Despite the intermittent censorship, the internet remains a valuable tool.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked 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 al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.