At a time when Egypt is facing many challenges, the country’s mainstream media has been either coyly silent about these problems or has rolled out the drums of celebration. Routinely ignoring human rights abuses, political and economic miscalculations, and presidential blunders, the media celebrates whatever the president says and does.
In short, press freedom in Egypt is in shambles. According to Reporters Without Borders’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Egypt ranks 161 out of 180 countries. As the report clarifies, Egypt “is now one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.” Indeed, the country has become the third biggest jailer of journalists worldwide, with twenty-five journalists currently behind bars. Since last May, Egyptian authorities have also blocked more than 100 local and international websites, for allegedly “supporting terrorism” and “publishing false information.” After elections at the Press Syndicate brought victory for a pro-regime candidate last March, Egyptian journalists have had little protection and support from their official representatives.
With journalists facing such unprecedented threats, serious political and cultural debates in the media have been disappearing. After public dissent was silenced, following the 2013 coup, many of Egypt’s satellite channels, newspapers, magazines, and radio channels switched their attention from issues of high politics to low politics and then to no politics. Fear has seeped into society, state censorship has bred self-censorship, and a deafening silence on critical matters has taken root.
Political talk shows, which mushroomed after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, have significantly receded over the past few years. Many were taken off air, while those that survived moved away from politics. Rather than debating Sisi’s economic and foreign policies, assessing the success of Egypt’s ongoing war on terror in North Sinai, or reviewing the candidates who might run in the 2018 presidential election, for instance, Egypt’s talk shows discuss trivial social issues, sensationalized crime news, and celebrity scandals. These stories include one about a jealous man who tortured his wife, female teenagers who dressed and danced “inappropriately” at a school event, a female dog that was raped by three young men, and many other absurd stories. While some shows still discuss politics, they are uncritical of the regime, even, celebrating its policies, and defending its mistakes with zeal and zest. Replacing facts with slogans and journalism with propaganda, they approach politics with a complete lack of objectivity and honesty.
In the vacuum created by a politically disengaged media, social media has stepped in, offering space for objective and analytical debate. Over the past few months, a number of highly important issues, considered taboo by state-run and private media, were widely discussed by Egyptians on Facebook and Twitter. In June, for example, the Facebook page for the military’s spokesperson, Tamer al-Rifai, hosted heated arguments between pro-regime and anti-regime camps. By activating the “review” option on his page, Al-Rifai gave government opponents the chance to express their grievances about Egypt’s decision to transfer sovereignty over the strategically-located Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Taking advantage of the opportunity, many people accused the army leadership of being complicit in the decision. Pro-regime users responded by vehemently defending the army and its role in safeguarding the country and combatting terrorism. A comparable debate, with the same intensity, would be unthinkable on mainstream media today.
In the same month, a video produced by an online magazine, AlScene, featured six food testers reviewing samples of kahk (Eid cookies). Their laughing comments about the army-made kahk created an enormous controversy on Facebook and Twitter. Online users debated the logic behind the military’s sprawling economic activities, its effect on the army’s professional readiness, and civil-military relations, in general. The incident also was not covered by mainstream media.
As these examples demonstrate, many Egyptians are expressing their opinions and resentments online, without fear of reprisal. While criticisms of President Sisi and top officials, debates on serious intellectual and political issues, and reflections on the past and future have been absent from mainstream media, they are commonplace on social media. As a result, the Internet has become a nuisance for the ruling establishment.
Indeed, last month, a number of parliamentarians called on the government to censor social media networks. In April, parliament reportedly discussed a law that would impose a subscription fee on Facebook users. The same law would give the government the right to restrict any user who disseminates fake news or “incites people against public peace and national unity,” according to an article published in the Egypt Independent. If approved, the law would effectively put an end to the last bastion of free speech in Egypt.
Without free speech, a nation cannot progress. The exchange of ideas, the clash of perspectives, and genuine debates about important issues are crucial to the functioning of any modern state.
The erosion of Egypt’s media landscape is not only holding the country back, but also dividing it into two worlds: the Egyptian state and its allies in the media and business circles; and Egyptian society, particularly educated youth. The first is rigid, stolid, lifeless, and out of touch with reality, while the second is colorful, vibrant, curious, and awash in energy and vigor. Whether the two worlds meet or collide will shape Egypt’s future trajectory.