The Middle East Channel

Free media under siege on eve of Egypt’s elections

Parliamentary elections will take place in Egypt on Sunday, and although the resulting political configuration is already known, Egyptian authorities are nonetheless demonstrating great anxiety. During its last parliamentary elections in 2005, the Egyptian government had to rely on its police and security services on election day to control the outcome. This time around, the government has been much more proactive, taking steps to carefully rig the elections well in advance. But the government has not stopped there. Over the past decade, one of the brightest spots in the Egyptian political landscape had been the emergence of a freer media climate and more open public discourse on political issues. But in the two months preceding Sunday's election, the regime has turned the entire media scene upside down, forcing it to abandon critical discourse and uproot real political debate from the electoral coverage.         

The elections are supervised by the High Elections Commission -- according to the Egyptian authorities, an "independent body," whose mere existence makes any talk of international monitors an encroachment on its authority. In reality, however, the commission lacks any genuine independence, with seven of its 11 members being appointed by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). More importantly, the commission lacks real authority -- in practice, its electoral role is limited to declaring the results it will receive from the Interior Ministry. The latter is responsible for most, if not all, of the electoral process, starting with voter registration to the selection and management of nearly a quarter million civil servants to staff the polling stations and count the ballots. In addition, the security apparatus is arresting selected candidates and their supporters, abducting and beating pro-boycott activists, and removing or detaining monitors at the candidacy stage, all without a word from the commission. The chair of the commission did not promise fair elections. This, he said, depends on "government intentions," because the commission has no legal prerogatives and does not possess the resources necessary to ensure transparent elections.

The authorities have imposed a timetable that facilitates circumscribing candidates and deterring voters. The period set aside for the declaration of candidacy was only five days, and the final list of accepted candidates was announced directly before the five-day Eid al-Adha holiday, impeding the ability of rejected candidates to appeal in court. The legal campaigning period began on the night before the holiday, leaving candidates only five days for real campaigning, in contrast to five weeks before the last parliamentary elections in 2005. Since the candidates were unable to campaign during the holiday in which Muslims slaughter sheep, some opted to distribute meat as part of their campaigning. In this way, the timetable might have benefited some of Egypt's poor, who will certainly not benefit from the election's results.

Unfortunately, the restrictive timetable and limited campaign period have not been enough for the authorities. Not only must the election be put on ice, but also any public debate or discourse that the election might spark. The regime is experiencing difficult internal struggles, and thus any remnant of public politics must be eradicated and political debate frozen.

To this end, a special security-media team was formed to make a list of targets of most influence over public opinion: columnists, independent papers, news channels, heated political talk shows. A plan was drafted to remove or neutralize them with as little fuss as possible. The plan resembles a game of pool in which balls are swept off the table one after the other with clean, carefully considered shots, forcing the other balls into new positions. No one sees the player. All we can see is the cue stick -- an opposition party head, a tax agent, or a fee collector -- but everyone knows who the hidden player is.

In the span of only a few weeks, the whole media scene was changed. The outspoken editor of Egypt's most independent newspaper was removed and its editorial policy changed, widely read columns critical of the government in various papers were stopped, television talk shows were canceled, a program presenter was removed, a popular talk show host was forced to take a sudden vacation, and another program was compelled to temporarily broadcast from Tunisia.

Following the proverb that says strike whoever is in reach and those roaming free will fear, 12 private television channels were suddenly shut down on the grounds that they broadcast religious hatred, while of course religious hatred aired by state-owned television channels, papers, and publishing houses has long been ignored. This move struck fear into the owners and staff of other private channels, especially when warnings were issued to several others soon thereafter. All channels and talk shows began to review their policies. Interest in election coverage waned, heated debates disappeared, and television coverage was altered to focus on criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood or non-political technical observations. The list of prohibited persons grew longer, and a second list was added for those who are banned from appearing live. Even Al Jazeera, the best outlet for coverage of the 2005 elections, succumbed to the veiled threat of closing its office, Moroccan-style, by reducing its criticism.

Independent newspapers have devoted less space to elections than in 2005, and the red lines have proliferated. Front-page-worthy news is now found on page four or six, as self-censorship has increased. Statements by human rights groups and others on the elections are ignored, even for topics that would have been on the front page a few months ago. Tightening the siege on the media, the Ministry of Information formed a McCarthyite committee to investigate the media's adherence to "professional standards" and ensure that it expresses no misgivings about the elections.

Mass text messaging and live television coverage of election-day events have also been restricted. The elections will take place under in the dark; a climate more suitable for a crime than a parliamentary poll.

While the authorities are touting local human rights groups as an alternative to international election observers, monitors from local organizations have received only 10 percent of the needed permits. The authorities have also denied funding and monitoring permits entirely for many independent groups. The government media is already waging a campaign to discredit the reports they will issue, and they are threatening to close some of them and restrict the rest with a new law to pass soon with the new parliament.

The severity of this wave of repression can be explained by the relationship between the parliamentary elections and next year's presidential elections. The outcome of the former plays a significant role in determining possible candidates for the latter, and the ruling elite has yet to reach a consensus on a candidate to succeed President Mubarak. This failure is due to serious conflict within the regime, not only the party, for not all the potential presidential candidates are members of the NDP.

At this fateful juncture, the regime is increasingly relying on the instruments of a police state, and circumstances will increasingly push these methods to the fore in an attempt to secure a transitional phase in which little is known besides the starting point. At this point, no one can predict where, when, and how it will end, the extent of possible losses, or the country's ability to withstand them.

Simply put, this escalating repression is not sustainable. If the limited freedom of the media and human rights groups turns out to be merely the regime's first victim in this period of transition, then Egypt's "stability" of which the Minister of Finance recently boasted in the Washington Post may not outlive its 82-year-old ruler. 

Bahey eldin Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

O Brotherhood, where art thou?

CAIRO—The noise could be heard from well down the block in the muddy streets of Shubra al-Kheima, a grim industrial suburb just north of Cairo.

A chanting sign-waving crowd, about 50-strong, worked its way through the Mit Nama neighborhood, singing the praises of Dr. Mohammed El-Beltagui -- the district's incumbent parliamentarian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-known Islamist group.

"The symbol of the anchor," they chanted, referring to the Beltagui's electoral logo -- a key element in a district where illiteracy runs high. "Reform and change! He doesn't sleep and he doesn't lie!"

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KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images