Shafiq saga sheds light on Egypt's shady media

Shafiq saga sheds light on Egypt's shady media
Comment: Egyptian media has supported the Sisi regime, but when Shafiq, an old ally, threatened Sisi's dominance, the true nature of Egyptian media institutions was revealed, writes Gehad Quisay.
5 min read
06 Dec, 2017
Army convoy patrols Cairo in 2012, with Shafiq election billboard reading 'actions not words' [Getty]
Last week, Egyptians followed a nail biting drama - they called it  شفيق_فين [Where is Shafiq?].

Mubarak's last prime minister and 2012 presidential runner up, Ahmed Shafiq, announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential elections from his self-imposed exile in the UAE last week.

The drama began to unfold quickly. 

It started with his assertion that Emirati officials were not allowing him to leave, then came his hasty deportation the next morning, and his disappearance once he arrived in Cairo. Finally there was his bizarre phone call with talk show host Wael Ibrashy, but despite a few sightings in Zamalek's JW Marriott hotel, Egyptians still have no idea where Shafiq is, or why he is there.

Interest in the Shafiq saga was not solely down to the eccentricity of events, or the uncomfortable similarities with the Saad al-Hariri crisis a week earlier. The Egyptian media's ferocious attacks on a man they had once deemed a national treasure along with their peculiar access to highly sensitive insider information, were equally as intriguing. 

The real 'fake news'

News in Egypt rivals showbiz when it comes to entertainment value. Its surreal existence under the Sisi regime saw nightly talk shows - briefly lambasted as remnants of Mubarak era soft power - reinstated, and reassert their grip over the national narrative.

In a country where millions remain illiterate and tens of millions graduate from a sub-par educational system, over simplified rhetoric delivered with dramatic flair resonates.

News in Egypt rivals showbiz when it comes to entertainment value

Talking heads such as Ahmed Mousa, Amr Adeeb and Amany al-Khayyat occupy Egyptian evenings echoing talking points so carefully constructed and strictly preapproved, that in many instances they all end up discussing the same issues through the same analytics - the only difference being the language and style, each catering to a specific portion of society.

Journalists protest media law with sign that reads  "tyrants will perish, journalism will remain" [Getty]

Journalists protest media law with sign that reads
"tyrants will perish, journalism will remain" [Getty]

Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 161st out of 180 in its 2017 edition of Press Freedom Index and described the situation on the ground as "extremely worrying". The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported that 11 journalists have been killed since 2011 and 64 news outlets, including this one, have been blocked in the country. 

A year ago, parliament passed a controversial law establishing the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media. Through this body, the government is granted the authority to suspend news outlets or revoke their licenses - yet nightly talk shows are seemingly enjoying a gilded golden age.

Perhaps one of the most iconic Egyptian television moments came days after Mubarak stepped down, when talk show host Amr Adeeb wept as he recalled being pulled off air because he spoke about Gamal Mubarak.

Adeeb gave an account of the humiliation reporters and hosts received from government officials when they did not toe the official line. The pundit went so far as to describe the Mubarak era as "the worst possible time in our history and nothing worse could ever come" because according to him, media personalities felt that Mubarak was "more powerful than God".

Shafiq is a military regime insider of the first degree

Today, Adeeb joins his brethren blaming Sisi's shortcomings on a global Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to quell his rule, one they claim is aided by Turkey and Qatar.

Shafiq ya ragel

By Thursday, alliances that had been firmly in place since 2011 flipped. Activists who were once Shafiq's victims were calling for his rights to be respected, while talk show hosts who called on him to crush those they called "rabble" six years earlier were now committed to discrediting him.

Translation "UAE's actions, arresting and deporting Ahmed Shafiq
- despite our differences with him -
are without integrity or virility!"

Ahmed Shafiq was not just Egypt's prime minister during the January 25 uprising, he headed the Egyptian Air Force from 1996 to 2002 making him a member of SCAF decades before Sisi rose through the ranks.

Shafiq was also the Minister of Civil Aviation from 2002 to 2011 where he oversaw the modernisation of the national airline Egypt Air, along with the expansion of Cairo International Airport and Alexandria's Borg Al-Arab Airport.

Shafiq is a military regime insider of the first degree, which means that the ordeal he is currently enduring comes as something of a surprise. The perceived humiliation of a decorated war hero, who fought in all the Egyptian republic's wars, came easily to the media - a fact that gives pause to observers of the Egyptian political scene.

It has become common knowledge that the media is but another propaganda tool for the Sisi regime, though seemingly independent through private ownership. Yet the commentary on Shafiq's daring nomination against Sisi sent talk shows into collective meltdown; previously reserved for the unholy trinity rivalling Sisi: The Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey.

Amr Adeeb's coverage of the crisis as it unfolded was fascinating. Not usually one to shy away from theatrics, Adeeb refrained this time, soberly announcing information to the public before it had been officially released: 

On Wednesday, after Shafiq announced that Emirati officials refused to allow him to leave, Adeeb broadcast that Shafiq would not stay in Abu Dhabi, and would be sent to Cairo, which he promptly was. A day later, Adeeb seemingly predicted that Shafiq (whose whereabouts had been unknown for over 24 hours) would make a statement, an event which again, soon came to pass.

Under Sisi, Egyptian talk show hosts have become employees of the intelligence services, claims Hazem Abdelazim

Many, including Hazem Abdelazim - former member of Sisi's 2014 election campaign, made the assertion that under Sisi, Egyptian talk show hosts have become employees of the intelligence services.

Abdelazim claims that intelligence officers not only preapprove and set up guest appearances, that they also dictate topics of discussion and have final say over talking points. These claims are not far removed from the tales told by the teary eyed Adeeb in 2011.  

Egypt has entered a Sisian era, and the Pharaoh has erased all traces of those Pharaohs who came before him.

Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, who graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.

Follow her on Twitter: @ghqsy_

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.