Sunday, September 18, 2011

Egypt: The Murder of Dissent

By William Fisher

On August 14, two young bloggers, Asma Mahfouz and Loay Nagaty, were arrested on charges of defaming Egypt’s military rulers. In a blogpost that went viral on YouTube, Mahfouz called them a "council of dogs."

Both were referred to a military court. That prompted activists, as well as presidential hopefuls including Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, to protest their being charged in a military court.

(To date, more than 12,000 Egyptians have been charged before military courts, whose use has become the subject of a major point of conflict and contention between the pro-democracy forces and the military council.)

The outcry of popular support for the two was deafening. It was particularly strong for Mahfouz, a 26-year-old university student who was well known as one of the founders of the April 6 movement and credited with major contributions to the incredible revolution that begin in Tahrir Square.

On August 18, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) caved to the will of the people and ordered the military prosecution drop all charges.

But other voices of dissent have not been so lucky. Bloggers are routinely arrested – and NOT released. Instead, they are scheduled for trials before military courts. The more traditional journalistic communities – newspapers, magazines, radio and television channels – expected that the overthrow of the Mubarak regime would open a new avenue to press freedom. And they are deeply disappointed since the country’s military rulers have changed almost nothing to improve on Mubarak’s hawk-eyed censors.

One of the most revelatory of the military’s attitudes toward press freedom came this week with the military council reactivating the emergency law. In effect under Mubarak for three decades, it gives the state security apparatus broad powers to arrest and detain, without charges, and with the victims having no access to lawyers or to their families.

As reported in The Guardian, journalists fear that this law, ostensibly reintroduced in the wake of the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, will be used to muzzle the media.

Earlier, the military council committed to annul the law by September -- this has always been central to the demands of the protesters.

The Guardian reported: “A day after the old law was re-introduced, police raided the offices of an Al-Jazeera affiliate, Mubasher Misr, and shut it down. Broadcasting equipment was seized and the station's chief engineer, Islam al-Banna, was arrested and detained overnight. The authorities also jammed the station's live broadcasts from another location, at the media production city, outside Cairo.”

The Al-Jazeera affiliate began broadcasting in February. Its director, Ayman
Gaballah, said it had been promised a license. But the license never appeared and Al Jazeera’s staff say they were “repeatedly told by the ministry that they could go on broadcasting without a problem.”

The Guardian reports that research by local representatives of the New York-based press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), indicates that this was merely a pretext to silence the critical broadcaster.

The nation’s military rulers have now placed a "temporary freeze" on issuing broadcasting licences for new satellite television stations, the news channel Al-Arabiya reported.

Al Jazeera reports that hundreds of people have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest against the recent expansion of the Egypt's emergency law, amid palpable anger over the military's handling of transition from autocratic rule. Earlier this week, following a violent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and attempts to storm security buildings, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said it would enforce the Emergency Law at least until the end of this year, on articles relating to the spreading of misinformation, arms possession and interfering with traffic.

The highly respected Reporters Without Borders (RWB) organization says it is “very disturbed by information minister Osama Heikal’s 7 September decision, after consulting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to temporarily freeze the granting of satellite TV licences to recent applicants without saying how long the freeze will last.”

RWB also charged that Heikal threatened other TV stations, accusing them of indiscipline and saying he was asking the relevant agency to “take legal measures against satellite TV stations that jeopardize stability and security.” He said the measures were needed to restore order to the “increasingly chaotic media scene” and because of “concerns over incitement to violence.”

“His announcement and comments amount to a declaration of war on the broadcast media and, in particular, independent satellite TV stations that dare to criticize the Supreme Council’s policies. It is very disturbing that the council regards news media as sources of ‘harm to the country’s security and stability,’” RWB added.

The group said, “It is a return to the past, to the era of the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. Since taking over after Mubarak’s removal, the Supreme Council has repeatedly taken decisions that negatively affect media freedom in Egypt, endangering something that Egyptians fought hard for during their 18-day uprising.”

The crackdown has affected scores of individual journalists as well as journalistic institutions.

Here are several examples – though the list is far from complete.

Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese blogger who is the founder of the Arab Blogging Forum, was denied entry at Cairo airport last week and deported after being told he had been "blacklisted" as a security concern.

A popular TV personality, Dina Abd-Al Rahman, was fired as a presenter of the Dream TV program, “Sabah Dream,” following an altercation on the air with a former air force officer, Abd Al-Monem Kato.

Many online commentators and activists have expressed their outrage about her dismissal, describing Dream TV owner Ahmed Bahgat, an ally of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as a businessman opposed to media freedom on his own TV channel. While there is no evidence that the council had a role in her dismissal, the military has taken direct action against journalists on many occasions in recent months.

For example, a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds was imposed on Kareem Reda, who writes the blog Sarkha, was upheld on appeal. The blogger was fined as a result of a suit by Petrograde, a natural gas company, that accused him of defaming and insulting the company, damaging its interests and trying to harm the national economy because he launched a page on Facebook calling on people to boycott its services and not pay their gas bills it as long as it continued to export gas to Israel at below-market prices.

Maikel Nabil Sanad, a blogger and conscientious objector, was sentenced to three years in prison on 10 April for posting a report on his blog disputing the apparent neutrality of the armed forces during the January and February demonstrations and accusing them of arresting and torturing protesters.

He was convicted of insulting the armed forces, spreading false information and disturbing public order. He began a hunger strike in Cairo’s Al-Marg prison on 23 August despite suffering from heart problems. He subsequently stopped drinking as well, with the result that he had to be rushed to the prison infirmary. He insists that he will resume the hunger strike regardless of the outcome.

Another blogger, Botheina Kamel, was summoned by a military court for interrogation on 15 May after she criticized the armed forces in a program on Nile TV.

The blogger Hossam Al-Hamalawy and journalists Rim Magued and Nabil Sharaf Al-Din were interrogated on 31 May for nearly three hours about their appearances on the station ON-TV. Speaking on Magued’s program on 26 May, Al-Hamalawy accused military police of violating human rights.

The next day, Al-Din talked about the chances of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army as part of a political transition.

Rasha Azab, a reporter for the newspaper Al-Fajr, and Adel Hammuda, its editor, were interrogated by a military prosecutor on 19 June and were told they are to be tried because an article Azab wrote for Al-Fajr’s 12 June issue. Azab is facing a possible jail sentence for publishing “false information liable to disturb public security” while Hammuda is facing a possible fine for alleged negligence in his role as editor.

Hassan Bahgat, 70, a former army officer who used to head ABC’s Cairo bureau, was sentenced to six months in prison by a military court on 17 August on a charge of “chanting anti-army slogans liable to defame the armed forces” in Tahrir Square at 1 a.m. on 6 August. The sentence was suspended but it could be activated at any time.

A smear campaign has meanwhile been launched in the government media against Egyptian NGOs that get funding from the United States. It is targeting only those that criticize the Supreme Council and poses a threat to many national human rights organizations.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the CPJ's Middle East and north Africa program coordinator, summed up the current state of play: "For months now, the ruling Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces has been going to great lengths to hamstring the media and snuff out critical reporting. As the self-proclaimed guardian of the revolution, the military council ought to facilitate the work of long-silenced voices in the media instead of shutting them down and threatening them with repressive state security proceedings."

But this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The generals who sit on the Supreme Council are generals; they tend to know little about the need for press freedom. Indeed, they seem to fear it. Moreover, they know little about governing. They also appear to have great difficulty actually hearing what their constituents are telling them; a major reason is that they don’t regard the heroes of Tahrir Square as constituents.

And we should remember that all of these men were Mubarak’s military comrades. It must pain them greatly to see their fellow soldier being tried in open court for murder and corruption. It would appear that this was at least one of their motivations in closing the Mubarak court proceedings to the press.

To a significant extent, the generals are looking at a self-inflicted wound. They have failed to lay out any long-term vision for Egypt’s future. That sows confusion and contention among those who risked so much to give Egypt another chance to join the 21st Century. Absent such a vision, the Tahrir Square protestors are chaotically clamoring for an unconnected series of populist “fixes.”

But, as Egypt apparently must learn the hard way, populism is not policy.