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Why Egypt's media has turned on President Sisi

Egyptian journalists gathered in front of the Journalists Union stage a demonstration to protest the detention of two journalists by the Egyptian security forces in Cairo, Egypt, on May 3, 2016.
Egyptian journalists gathered in front of the Journalists Union stage a demonstration to protest the detention of two journalists by the Egyptian security forces in Cairo, Egypt, on May 3, 2016.
Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When Egypt’s former defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ascended to the presidency in 2014, nearly all of Egypt’s media stood faithfully by him. That same media was vigorously opposed to the former elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi, whom the military under Sisi had forcibly overthrown following mass protests in 2013 — and rarely voiced criticism of Sisi in the first months of his presidency.

Almost two years later, the scene is quite different. Relations between Egypt’s media and the government have deteriorated so severely that, last week, Egyptian police were accused of raiding the headquarters of the Journalists Syndicate (the professional union responsible for protecting, defending, and accrediting journalists and editors for all private and state-run print media) and arresting two journalists, sparking substantial demonstrations.

And while the size of these protests is insignificant compared with the scale of the ones that brought down Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak, in the 2011 Egyptian revolutionary uprising, the demonstrations are nonetheless indicative of how much the relationship between the Egyptian government and the press has deteriorated in just a few short years.

From loyal supporters to increasingly vocal critics: Sisi’s troubled press relations

Egyptian media were extremely supportive of the post-Morsi establishment, and that continued through the presidential election of 2014 and beyond. Relations between that extant part of Egypt’s media arena (pro-Islamist media had been shut down immediately after Morsi’s arrest — he remains imprisoned to this day) and the Muslim Brotherhood had been mutually recriminatory for a variety of reasons during Morsi’s year in office.

Following his removal, a cacophony of ultranationalist voices dominated the discussion, seeing Sisi as a savior against what they identified as an existential threat from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the media’s adoration of Sisi gradually began to wane as the economic situation failed to pick up sufficiently. Egypt’s tourism industry, a cornerstone of the country’s economy, has suffered tremendously from the political upheaval that began in 2011, and many Egyptians supported Sisi in the belief that he would restore the order and stability necessary to revive the tourism industry and improve the economy more generally.

But security threats have continued to rock Egypt’s tourism industry — including, most prominently, the ISIS attack that brought down a Russian passenger airliner departing Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort town in late 2015. Many countries, including the UK and Russia (whose citizens represent a massive proportion of Egypt’s foreign tourists), suspended flights into the country’s tourist hotspots following that attack.

The government’s inability to address such problems quickly and effectively is likely to have disappointed many Egyptians — including those in the media — who’d hoped things would generally start to get better under Sisi.

The government’s relationship with the media further soured following the death of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni earlier this year. Regeni had been doing research on Egypt’s labor movements — a politically sensitive issue in Egypt — when, on January 25, he went missing. His tortured body surfaced more than a week later in a ditch just outside of Cairo.

Although one Egyptian state agency alleged a "criminal gang" that specialized in "abducting foreigners while posing as policemen" was to blame for Regeni’s murder, a number of Egyptian columnists who had formerly been generally supportive of the government began expressing suspicion that the state’s security establishment was involved in Regeni’s abuse and demise. In Italy, public opinion was openly and overwhelmingly convinced of that link, resulting in quite strained relations between Rome and Cairo.

In a country where police brutality had been an energizing factor in the 2011 uprising, a nerve had again been struck in Egypt. For many years, rights organizations inside and outside Egypt, such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, have highlighted the need for security sector reform. The lack of transparency in the handling of the Regeni case by the authorities further eroded the government-media relationship.

This latest crisis erupted over a couple of uninhabited islands in the Red Sea

But it was Sisi's decision to transfer control of two islands to Saudi Arabia — and the surge of nationalistic sentiment and anger that followed — that sparked the current crisis.

The sovereignty of these two uninhabited islands, located in the Red Sea between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, had been disputed by the two countries but had been under Egyptian control for decades. Then, during a five-day visit by the Saudi king to Egypt in mid-April, Sisi suddenly announced he was handing the islands over to Saudi control following negotiations.

Those discussions, however, had been wholly out of the public eye, and the public — including many in the media — reacted with shock and outrage at the abrupt news that the islands had been seemingly summarily handed over. Several thousand protesters took to the streets across Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt for several weeks. Egypt’s security services responded to the protests the way they often do: with tear gas and arrests.

Then on April 30, an Egyptian court issued a media gag order on cases of protesters arrested in demonstrations over the transfer of the islands, further angering the media. The next day, two journalists who were vigorously opposed to Sisi’s decision over the islands held a sit-in in the Journalists Syndicate headquarters — an establishment that many believed, with good reason, to be off-limits to the state’s security forces.

That’s because professional syndicates in Egypt have historically been treated as more or less inviolate. Egypt’s constitution affirms the independence and democracy of each professional syndicate and states that "no intervention from administrative authorities in its affairs is permitted."

In February, for instance, the Doctors Syndicate held an impromptu demonstration against the state over police abuse of doctors. Despite a highly controversial protest law that makes legal public protest incredibly restricted, if not impossible, that demonstration did not meet a crackdown from security forces. Most assumed that was because the demonstration had taken place at the syndicate.

This time, however, things went differently. On May 1, Egyptian state security forces entered the Journalists Syndicate headquarters and arrested the two journalists — an unprecedented move in the 75-year tenure of the syndicate — accusing them of being involved in inciting illegal protests against the state.

The response from the journalist profession was swift and severe — drawing almost universal condemnation, with even state-owned newspapers publishing strongly worded editorials denouncing the Interior Ministry’s move against the syndicate.

Private newspapers like al-Dostour, which have hitherto been pro-Sisi, have run headlines such as, "Disaster lies in state policy of running the country with a security mind-set." Journalists came out in force and tried to assemble at the syndicate.

On May 4, a day after World Press Freedom Day, the Journalists Syndicate publicly adopted a number of resolutions calling for, among other things, the dismissal of the state’s interior minister, an apology from the president, the release of all journalists from imprisonment for publication crimes, and a general conference to discuss a general strike by all journalists.

By any standard, the declaration was a daring one.

The Interior Ministry in 2013, following the toppling of Morsi from power, had managed to somewhat rehabilitate itself — it openly sided against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was eventually banned as a terrorist organization by the Egyptian state, and many within the pro-state media establishment declared the ministry as having learned its lesson post-2011.

Police brutality and the need for security sector reform, after all, were two of the most animating demands of the 2011 revolutionary uprising.

Today, the Interior Ministry is being mocked across the media spectrum — for no less than having mistakenly leaked its media strategy to journalists via normal press release email lists.

The strategy revealed that the ministry expected there would be "a strong campaign" by the media in solidarity with the syndicate and in defense of press freedoms, and that the ministry would try to gain public support by claiming the syndicate sought to be "above the law" and that it was "hiding criminals." The leaked strategy was widely spread over social media, and journalists and citizens alike mocked, and attacked, the ministry for its approach.

On May 6, the ministry declared that it would no longer email press releases (probably a good call), and that all communication with the media would happen via social media channels like Twitter and Facebook — presumably to stop such a mistake from happening again. It also imposed a "media gag" on discussions of the incursion into the syndicate, pending investigations.

The gag was roundly ignored.

A sign of rising discontent with Sisi?

The momentum behind this crisis has not yet run its course — and it’s unclear where it’s headed. There is little evidence to suggest a repeat of the kind of widespread mobilization we saw back in 2011, as the opposition to state authorities is fragmented, and there does not appear to be sufficient appetite for any upheaval, particularly after such a tumultuous period as the one after the downfall of Mubarak.

At the same time, though, there is growing dissent over the security sector as well as, crucially, the economy. The same issues that led to the revolutionary uprising of 2011 remain, and have intensified.

Egypt’s police and other security agencies have been in need of major, serious reform for years — under Sisi as well as all his predecessors in living memory. The issue is not a new one, but it requires political will, which as yet has not been forthcoming.

There has been no suggestion from Sisi that this is about to change — on the contrary, Sisi has been vigorous in his support of the security establishment, identifying problems as evidence of isolated occurrences rather than as systemic issues.

Egypt continues to face a number of substantial security problems, including a stubborn ISIS presence in the Sinai, as well as radical militant elements manifesting in other parts of the country. The security establishment is vested with the responsibility to respond to those challenges, and no other sector is able to replace it.

But as the challenges continue, and especially if they intensify, the need for the security forces to engage constructively, rather than counterproductively, increases. Recommendations to engage with different strategies in the Sinai, for example, have come from a slew of quarters — including Cairo’s allies.

Abjuring certain fundamental freedoms, including the independence of the press, on the altar of "security" is not a recipe for sustainable stability. One need only think back to 2010, when Mubarak’s regime made that same mistake, leading to the revolutionary uprising in 2011.

The Egyptian state under the Sisi presidency isn’t as cohesive as the Mubarak regime was, but the buck does stop at the presidency. By any realistic assessment, the long-term health of the state depends not on repudiating the need for security sector reform but on making it a priority.

If such a step continues to be ignored, as part of a wider course correction within the state, then the crisis with the Journalists Syndicate is only likely to be one of many more to come.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and at the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt. Find him on Twitter @hahellyer and visit his website.