The Press, the Public, and the President
Leslie T. Chang has a good report in NYR Daily titled “Egypt’s Media: Endorsing Repression.” She writes on how journalists, perhaps notably the country’s influential political talk show hosts, are making energetic efforts to build a consensus behind the policies of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. It seems to be helping: the leader’s approval rating after a year in office was around 90 percent.
Abroad, the Sisi administration is criticized for allowing more than a thousand people thought to be sympathetic to Morsi to be sentenced to death in mass trials; in Egypt, newspaper columnists say they should be executed without trial. Journalists occasionally criticize government performance on issues like education, health care, or religious policy. But as I discovered in interviews with leading talk show hosts and editors, they regard the defining feature of Sisi’s administration—the use of state-sanctioned violence and politicized trials to maintain order and crush its opponents—with near-unanimous approval.
Chang reports on El-Sisi’s moves to influence the media, holding monthly meetings with editors and presenters, and telling television hosts they are responsible “for promoting unity and raising morale.”
As Chang notes, it’s not simply an issue of control from above. Egyptian journalists, especially those working for the independent media, were increasingly free to report during the last years of the Hosni Mubarak era—criticism of the president and even his family was tolerated. Journalists briefly became more assertive in their watchdog role after the January 25, 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule. In one of the most celebrated examples, Ahmed Shafik, an interim prime minister, abruptly resigned from office after being aggressively questioned on Baladna bel Masry, a political talk show on ONTV hosted by Reem Magued.
But the Egyptian public mood has become deeply fearful of instability, due to the polarizing presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the protests and violence involved in his removal from office, the rise of jihadist chaos throughout the Arab word including in Egypt, and the nosedive of the Egyptian economy. El-Sisi is seen by millions as the nation’s protector—and only hope. Many journalists share the fears, or at least are influenced by the public’s intolerance for any further destabilization of the state. (The logic was no doubt at play last week in the Egyptian government’s ban on media coverage of the Egyptian military’s lethal attack on suspected insurgents who turned out to be Mexican tourists—few Egyptians want to see their army’s honor besmirched.)
In the two years since the army removed Morsi after huge demonstrations against him, the mainstream media has lost most of the openness it briefly enjoyed. Especially during major political events, the press speaks in one voice; journalists who break ranks sometimes find themselves vilified—not by the government but by their own colleagues and the public.
Egypt’s revolution taught the world that the power of a dictator can dissolve in an instant. But the lesson of the years since may be that, in a country threatened by chaos and violence, authoritarianism can hold a powerful appeal of its own.