Not The Onion, but Egypt in 2014

Not The Onion, but Egypt in 2014

One finds it difficult to have much confidence in the state of Egyptian politics at the moment. Satirical publications such as “the Onion,” “Pan-Arabia Enquirer” and “ElKoshary Today” have stiff competition for bizarre reportage – from normal news sources. Such is the state of play in terms of factual developments in Egypt –some events do not require satire in order to appear peculiar. They might even be considered humorous – until one realizes that actually, the situation is quite serious. But serious, it seems, for reasons that few seem to realize and utterly different from what the public is being told by the mainstream media in Egypt.

Perhaps one can begin with the “recently uncovered Marriott cell.” Under the previous Islamist-led government of Mohammad Mursi, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that press freedom was under risk, due to abusestaking place. It seems as though someone decided that the record lack of press freedoms ought to be exceeded, rather than corrected.

Al-Jazeera English staff members were recently arrested from the Marriot hotel on charges of “spreading false news,” and being members of a “terrorist cell.” According to the prosecutor-general’s statement, the journalists were “tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad and harming its political position.” One imagines the detaining of these journalists in jail, as if they were dangerous criminals, might be tarnishing Egypt’s image more than the efforts of these journalists – particularly given the fact they’re award-winning members of the profession, with decades of experience between them in organizations like CNN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Of course, given the fact that one of those detained is famed on social media for being deeply critical of Islamism, and another is a non-Muslim journalist, the allegation that both are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be rather strange.

The bizarre becomes commonplace

These journalists – Mohammad Fadel Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Mohammad Baher – all remain in custody. They ought to be released, but it seems many are under threat of being prosecuted in Egypt due to the most abnormal of complaints. For example: an ultra-nationalist, who got his first television appearance on a channel run by the Glenn Beck of Egypt, Tawfiq Okasha, lodged one such complaint last week. Known in the press by an odd nickname – Ahmed “Spider” – he lodged a complaint with the prosecutor-general against Vodafone. The complaint did justice to the unconventional nature of Spider; he accused Vodafone of sending clandestine messages to Brotherhood supporters via an advertisement that involved a puppet. The bizarreness of this complaint is exceeded only by the fact that the prosecutor generally decided to investigate the veracity of it, as opposed to dismissing it as nonsense.

The puppet, however, has not been taken into custody – it seems some things are still beyond the pale. One continues to be surprised, however, by what might now be considered “normal.” For example, as of today, the security forces in Egypt have not been held accountable for the many killings of protesters over the last three years, appropriately detailed in a Human Rights Watch report. The courts, however, do seem to have sufficient time and resources to not only investigate the likes of Vodafone advertisements based on allegations about a puppet, but also deliver suspended sentences against the activists Alaa Abdelfattah and Mona Seif. The sentences were delivered in response to a case against them for allegedly setting fire to the electoral headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. That there was a case at all is strange, considered that Shafiq himself withdrew the initial complaint anyway – it is also rather odd that Abdelfattah would be sentenced without being permitted to attend court. Of course, that is precisely what happened – he was denied permission to attend by the prosecutor, and is being detained on charges relating to protests. For a state that removed its last president on the back of widespread protests (and the one before that), this one seems to be awfully sensitive about allowing non-violent protests to proceed.

Dark humor

All of this might be considered amusing. Certainly, it appears quite hilarious to the observer, for example, that a football referee refused to flash four fingers as a sign that there were four minutes left to the game. Rather than be accused of raising four fingers in a manner that might be construed to be similar to the four-fingered pro-Brotherhood symbol, he used two fingers on both hands. Suggestions that he was merely flashing the pro-army, two-fingered symbol twice have not yet been substantiated.

After the laughs are had, one begins to realize – none of this funny. There’s a mass hysteria at work in the midst of this “War on Terror,” and the environment it encourages is directly linked to the types of reactions mentioned above. Dissent is treason – even if it also deeply critical of the Brotherhood. Opposition to the government runs the risk of being considered seditious, and will then be lambasted as such in huge parts of the media. The 18th century literary Titan, Samuel Johnson, described patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel” – it actually seems to be the first refuge for many in Egypt at the present time.

It is incredibly unfunny to consider that such court cases and hysterical reactions are happening, while impunity for a swathe of human rights and civil rights abuses remains upheld over the past three years. The lack of accountability is certainly not humorous – not simply because of the cruelties that have already taken place, but as they are likely to send the signal that further impunity can be assured. The blood of hundreds has stained the altar of the state but the justice system is investigating complaints about a puppet, lodged by a man whose nickname is that of an insect.

It would be funny – but it really isn’t.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an ISPU Fellow and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Royal United Services Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

This article was published in Al Arabiya on January 6, 2014. Read it here.

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