On April 13, 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi held a 93-minute “conversation with representatives of the general public” that was in essence a speech. After the one and only attempt by an attendee to contribute, Sisi thundered, “I did not give anyone permission to speak!” The exchange demonstrated once again that Sisi believes information is a one-way street going from the top down and exemplified his aversion to diverse opinions and voices.
This “conversation” serves as the latest indicator of Sisi’s troubled and complex relationship with the media. At times, Sisi expresses his contempt for media outlets, trying to circumnavigate pundits and reporters to address Egyptians directly. At other times, he tries to control or woo prominent figures within the media who serve as important conduits of information. These reflect the contradiction that the president actually needs the media while simultaneously trying to destroy its independence from the regime. The political consequences of this have become more acute as the Egyptian regime faces a series of public opinion crises. Despite the president’s attempts to coax the media to conform to his ideal of one state-issued opinion, they have not entirely done so, and the president’s own ability to control the media is not as certain as it once was.
From when he became the de facto ruler of Egypt on July 7, 2013, through the first year and a half of his official presidential term, Sisi and the majority of mainstream Egyptian media experienced a palpable honeymoon period. Media outlets that didn’t support the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi were shut down, and a number of their operators were imprisoned. Likewise, Sisi’s allies in the media grew as his own influence grew, causing media owners and operators to gravitate towards Sisi as a tactical maneuver. Furthermore, it seemed as though a real majority among the general public and different state apparatuses supported Sisi as the “stable” option, or one that would reinstate the pre-revolution status quo. As such, media hosts doted over Sisi as the country’s anointed savior.
For now, the media system created by these circumstances remains mostly intact, reflecting the patterns of coercion and alliance-making within the country. However, as Egypt faces new political crises, levels of criticism against the government are increasing as a limited number of mainstream, primetime, political talk show hosts feel more comfortable criticizing the president directly, rather than opting for a more traditional non-confrontational method of criticizing the cabinet or the president’s advisors. Ibrahim Eissa, a talk show host on the Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo Centric) channel and formerly a stalwart Sisi supporter and apologist, has taken the president to task on all of the recent blunders, most recently dedicating nearly two full episodes criticizing Sisi’s controversial handover of the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. More surprisingly, Azza El-Hennawy was suspended twice for her critiques of Sisi as an anchor on state television, which is usually one of the last places one expects to find direct criticism of the head of state. Most prominently, Tawfiq Okasha—a talk show host, conspiracy theorist, and opponent of the 2011 revolution—had his seat in parliament revoked, ostensibly after meeting the Israeli ambassador to Egypt without state or parliamentary approval. Despite facing numerous lawsuits for unhinged libel against human rights activists during his popular daily rants on television, Okasha had remained immune to them due to his support for the Sisi regime. However, Okasha’s fall from grace came soon after he turned on Sisi, claiming he had failed as a president and “hijacked the June 30 revolution.”
The past few months have seen many such instances of media criticism, especially regarding the unsolved murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, which is causing a diplomatic rift between Egypt and Italy, and the handover of Tiran and Sanafir. Sisi blames the media for both of these public opinion crises, claiming that they only became a global issue because of extensive media coverage. “[All] media is supposed to represent the state’s policies… everyone knows that,” Sisi said in his speech.
Yet though political talk show hosts since the January 2011 Tahrir uprising fill a role somewhere in between pundit and politician, unlike politicians their mandate comes more from the weight of advertisers’ input, whims of media owners, and demands of security establishments that oversee them. Each one of Egypt’s dozen or so primetime talk show hosts has the ability to transcend the limits of his own outlet and reach a much broader public simply by broadcasting a controversial opinion. This group of media personnel is the regime’s main guarantee of a compliant media, which Sisi still needs as cheerleaders for his grand projects, such as the Suez Canal infrastructure expansion, especially when the advertised benefits for these projects are dubious.
A great deal of “real journalism” must escape primetime programming either to some of the new or lesser-known independent news websites, such as Albedaiah, Mada Masr, or Aswat Masreya, or to foreign outlets. Traditional critics of the regime have long been frozen out of primetime broadcasting as state censorship and persecution of independent journalism continues. Yet the operational red lines seem to be more capricious today than they were during the Mubarak days. Two old red lines—the military and matters of “national security”—remain, but they have become more volatile, elastic, and open to interpretation. For example, journalist Hossam Bahgat and researcher Ismail Alexandrani both crossed red lines by reporting on matters the military considers sensitive and classified. The consequences of their actions are uncertain: after being detained for four days, Bahgat has since been banned from travel outside Egypt, and Alexandrani is still in detention without trial after initially being arrested in November 2015.
Uncertainty over where the limits lie is frustrating even the governing class itself. Any reporting on the military already exposes journalists to military tribunals, and a presidential decree ratified January 17 by parliament further attempts to assert clear, top-down directives for media coverage on terrorism by prohibiting media from reporting on issues dealing with terrorism unless to relay the official government narrative. However, murkier red lines have also appeared as the state issues gag orders at will. Over the past seven months, numerous gag orders have been issued on topics such as corruption investigations, the murder of Mexican tourists, and Egypt’s nuclear energy plans, among others.
As the state keeps an eye—and a hand—on public expression, the media, and information sharing, the president’s view of the media and the arbitrary application of “security measures” will only contribute to what is increasingly becoming a dystopian state regime. On April 15, 2016, when mass protests against the forfeit of Tiran and Sanafir erupted, Egypt’s largest state-run paper, Al-Ahram, deferred to Sisi by instead focusing on yet another of his speeches, where he affirmed that Egypt’s largest threats are internal. The government has also engaged in random arrests of journalists in the run-up to further protests on April 25. Though the government expects the media to follow its lead in ignoring or silencing public demonstrations and public dissent, media compliance is much less certain than it was a few years ago.
Mohamed Elmeshad is an Egyptian journalist and PhD candidate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, where he is researching the political economy of media in the Arab world.