The Egyptian media: Taking sides, not strides
“Peaceful freedom of expression should be guaranteed to everyone and the security forces must abide by international standards. We also express our deep fear of the return to the practices of the security state that deviate from the democratic path.”
Arab Social Democratic Forum on Egypt, November 2013.
In the above statement, the Arab Social Democratic Forum linked the fear of rolling back “peaceful freedom of expression” to the “practices of the security state” in Egypt – a fear that many have voiced since the ouster of Mohammed Mursi in July this year. The security state was never disassembled after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 – neither did Mursi’s government consider it a priority to do so. Indeed, there has been no party of power that sought to restructure the security apparatus, or indeed, to address the failings of the powerful. One would have hoped that the media, a ‘party of power’ unto itself, might have sought to do at least partially the latter. Unfortunately, the last three months have been full of signs to the contrary.
Bassem Youssef’s show is a political satirist show. It is not the end all and be all, therefore, of political expression. Indeed, there have been many others that have paid a much dearer price for their desire to voice their opinions in Egypt – including death. Most recently, on Oct. 6, as Human Rights Watch recentlyreconfirmed, 57 Egyptians marching in support of the ousted former president were killed by state security forces, without any corresponding fatalities in the police force, and with eyewitness testimony testifying to the fact that the protesters had no weaponry.
Nevertheless, there is something particularly unique about the recent shuttering (temporary or permanent) of Youssef’s show, “el-Bernameg.” Firstly, in where it came from – it was not the result of a direct intervention of the state, as exhibited through an arrest, such as the warrant issued for Bassem Youssef by Mursi’s prosecutor-general earlier this year. The vagaries of Egyptian law mean that anyone can lodge such cases with the prosecutor-general. But when the prosecutor-general refers such a case to go forward, it is a clear indication of political intent. This will always be the case until the prosecutor-general is appointed through a neutral, impartial process, separate and distinct from the executive.
None of this, however, ought to be taken as meaning that the shuttering of the program is separate from the prevailing powers in Egypt. The CBC network is not a government network – but it does not need to be. It’s not a military network – but it does not need to be. Such is the story of the contemporary, post-Mursi, Egypt – the prevailing paradigm needn’t always deploy coercive measures. The power centres, of which the media is one, are already in agreement. Or to put it another way: CBC didn’t need to be told by any authority to cancel Bassem Youssef’s show in order to defend the national narrative that prioritises lionising the military. They were perfectly willing, and entirely supportive, of doing that on their own independent initiative. This is the tragedy of the current situation – the media as well as parts of the organised civil society sector, is completely on board with the idea that the contemporary situation requires a security solution.
Against that background, it is very easy to see how Bassem Youssef’s show could be placed under pressure – not because it advocates a pro-Mursi line, or even because it advocates an anti-military one. But because it interferes with the tidiness of the dominant, pro-security state narrative. Under Mursi, such interference with the dominant narrative would have been far easier to maintain – because there were other forces at play that had power within state institutions and outside of it, which ran their own interference. Without such interference, it’s likely Mursi’s government would have taken more steps than it had in restricting the press. But, in the midst of such alternatives types of interference, room for manoeuvre is clear. Since July 3, such interference is minimal. This is because the power dynamics are now completely and utterly monopolised in favour of a single power: Those advocating for a security state backed by the military establishment.
The important question
The question ahead of Egyptians now is direly important. How will they ensure not simply the general freedom that relates to expressing one’s opinion –how will they do that when those opinions run contrary to the dominant discourse. This was precisely what Bassem Youssef’s show was all about – even when it did not satisfy everyone in terms of what it chose to cover, and what it did not choose to cover. The show provided a space for a voice that would indirectly, and directly, challenge the official, dominant narrative. Also, in making that challenge, in some ways, less powerful, others could also exploit the same space to make their own challenge. Youssef’s impact – and thus his absence – was, and is, particularly important, in so far as his show was being aired on a tremendously well-watched channel. With the closure of his show, even if it is to return next week, the message for others is loud and clear.
There are still others. Yosri Fouda, a famed television host who likewise has been relatively silent over the last four months, is due to return later in November – this episode will undoubtedly have repercussions for how he proceeds. Reem Magued, another TV host (albeit both on channels other than CBC), will undoubtedly also consider (when and if she returns): Is the space sensitive to any alternative voices?
The irony is that today, only a few days after the shuttering of the show, the state is now placing on trial the former president, Mohammed Mursi. The reason for this is clear: To display to Egyptians and the world that the state is solid, in control, and completely steadfast in its belief that the current arrangement is precisely what is needed. But the discourse that the state currently promulgates on the one hand, and is entirely permissive of on the other, does not project the image of confidence in the slightest. On the contrary – with the stigmatisation of even dissenting voices (let alone those who belong to the opposing side, the pro-Mursi camp), the state comes across as incredibly unconvinced of itself – which makes it harder for it to convince others. That, in turn, only makes it more likely that there will be an increase in contrarian voices.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a fellow at ISPU and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west.He was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published in Al Arabiya on November 7, 2013. Read it here.