If you’re a journalist covering the upcoming election in Egypt, your contacts in the security services may prove more useful than those you have in parliament. There have been more arrests than manifestos, and the candidates are dropping like flies.
Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh decided not to run against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi but was arrested upon his return to Cairo – three days after appearing on Al Jazeera Mubasher in London – and jailed along with six members of his political party.
Of the tens of thousands of Egyptians jailed since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power from elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Aboul Fotouh is among the most prominent.
Aboul Fotouh was a leading figure in the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood before splitting from the movement to run as an independent candidate in Egypt’s 2012 election.
In his interview with Al Jazeera Mubasher, “he [Aboul Fotouh] did cross what is considered the red line in Egypt because he questioned the relation between the Egyptian Army and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,” explains Omar al-Ghazzi, assistant professor of media, London School of Economics. “Because he insinuated in the interview that the relationship between the Army and President Sisi may not be as solid as is assumed.”
Al Jazeera has been banned from Egypt since 2013 when the authorities started jailing its journalists – accusing them of links to “terror” groups and for what the Sisi government called the network’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood coverage.
In the years since el-Sisi’s takeover, the government in Cairo has tolerated less and less dissent on the domestic airwaves. Thus, as a result, more and more news on Egypt is now coming from outside the country.
“Appearing on Al Jazeera is provocative in the current Egyptian climate”, says al-Ghazzi. “However, the issue goes beyond Al Jazeera. Because now there are Egyptian media that are opening in… in Turkey that can only be understood through the geo-political angle. It is not about, let’s say, Turkey or Qatar believing in the values of freedom of expression. It is more about using media in geo-political struggles with other countries.”
Of the four channels beaming out of Istanbul and into Egypt, the two biggest are Al Sharq and Mekameleen.
Al Sharq is owned by a former MP and party leader, Ayman Nour, who fled Egypt in 2013. Mekameleen’s ownership structure is more opaque, but its donors have clear links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes the network a sensitive issue in Egypt.
When Ipsos, an international market research firm, published a survey last year showing that Mekameleen was the country’s most-watched TV channel, the authorities closed down the firm’s Cairo offices. The official reason: concerns over health and safety in the workplace.
Travel restrictions on Egyptian journalists have recently been widened to include Turkey. Again, the Sisi government cited safety concerns, calling Turkey a ‘war zone’.
“The opposition, whether it’s politicians or journalists – all need to breathe, to have some fresh air. Politicians, journalists, citizens – we are all suffocating in Egypt. The media have only one thing, a paper and a pen, or a camera. And they are considered enemies of the regime. But the regime’s media, even with its strength, its dozens of channels and millions of dollars, cannot stop freedom of speech,” Mekameleen TV presenter Hamza Zawba says.
Beyond a media crackdown and a tightly controlled coverage, Egyptian authorities have enlisted celebrities and footballers as of late to echo the dominant narrative.
“This is no different to authoritarian states throughout the world. They will always find individuals who they will exploit, through the media, in order to portray their false popularity… But the vast number of people opposed to this regime do not have a voice. And they certainly do not have a voice, any kind of representative voice through the media in Egypt now,” says Maha Azzam, president of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council.