Egypt’s independent media became a battleground in the months before November’s legislative elections. He was already in the spotlight after the broadcast of the controversial television series Al-Gamaa, which talked about the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood. The vigorous and rapid shutdown of some of the Government’s most ardent critics, as well as the arrests of members of the opposition party, point to a change in strategy after the 2005 elections. This time, the government did not want the Muslim Brotherhood’s success to be repeated in 2005, when they won 88 seats in parliament.
The two main targets were open media figures Ibrahim Issa of the newspaper and talk show Al-Dostour, Baladna Belmasri and Amr Adeeb, host of the Cairo Today talk show. Before his show was interrupted, Adeeb launched a critical campaign against the National Democratic Party (NDP) and its economic policies. The official reason for the termination of her show was that Orbit Channel did not pay its fees to the city’s media production company. However, Adeeb and his team insist on a conscious intention to end their controversial show before the election season begins.
The situation reached its climax after the suspension of Ibrahim Issa’s TV show on September 23. Then, on 4 October, he lost his post as editor-in-chief of Al-Dostor, a publication that is perhaps the government’s most constant critic. This came 24 hours after the official handover of the property of Al-Dostor to Sayed al-Badawi, chairman of the opposition Al-Wafd party.
Ibrahim Issa is arguably Egypt’s most famous opposition journalist and writer. He founded Al-Dostor as a platform for various opposition movements in Egyptian journalism and challenged the mainstream state media. In particular, Issa wrote a series of articles against the script of President Mubarak presiding over his son Gamal. He also opened Al-Dostor to articles from the National Assembly for Change, an organization that supports Mohamed el-Baradei. It was this last gesture, according to Issa, that caused his removal.
Although the government denies responsibility for what happened to Adib and Issa, observers of the Egyptian political scene firmly believe that the closure of independent media helped the NPD to operate with more freedom during the election campaign. However, this elimination of some of the most important voices in independent media should not be taken for granted. The events raise questions about the nature and seriousness of the opposition movements in Egypt. Issa accused Badawi of making a deal with the NDP that would allow al-Wafd’s party to win more seats in the election. In fact, after he fired Issa as editor of Al-Dostor, Badawi quickly sold the newspaper back.
If Issa’s claims about the Al-Wafd-NPD deal are correct, it leads to the conclusion that there is no real opposition bloc in Egypt other than the illegal organization “Brotherhood of Muslims”. Sayed Al-Badawi’s policy in Al-Wafda has led to the resignation of several Coptic and secular members, such as Kamal Saher, and he keeps the door open to contact with the NPD. It is implied that such deals could destroy the classic identity of Egypt’s oldest political party, Al-Wafd, and therefore destroy the already weak opposition bloc. There were even reports that the NDP planned to introduce its supporters into opposition bodies. Abdurrahman Yusuf, speaker of the National Assembly for Change, said they had found people in the assembly who actually work for the government.
Another interpretation of the situation – what is happening now, in the future will be used to promote the most important presidential elections. A year ago, Orbit Channel threatened to close its studios for the same reason that Adiba’s show has now been shut down. In this case, however, Mubarak himself intervened to record and broadcast the show. This allowed Mubarak and the government to present themselves as defending freedom of speech – a similar tactic used in the Al-Gamaa broadcast. For the same reason, Mubarak intervened and formally pardoned Ibrahim Issa when he was arrested after publishing “false information” about Mubarak’s health in October 2008.
This suggests that the government may have hindered the recovery of these journalists when the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood diminished after the parliamentary elections and propaganda would be needed to support Mubarak or possibly Gamal in the presidential election. This will allow the NDP presidential candidate to present himself as a defender of freedom of speech and democracy. In both scenarios, independent media have become a cynical electoral tool.
First published: December 9, 2010, Thursday.
Elizabeth Iskander is a research fellow in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Iskander holds a doctorate in politics and international studies from the University of Cambridge and regularly writes about Middle Eastern politics. Ms. Iskander works in conflict resolution, and her research focuses on identity politics and religion in the Middle East with a focus on Egypt.
Minas Monir is a journalist, translator and writer based in Cairo. He is involved in the politics, culture and religion of the Middle East. He is the author of several books, specializing in Egyptian affairs and political theology.