Because Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi is going through his honeymoon period, we did not expect him to bare his teeth at the Egyptian press; he has mostly indulged journalists and handled them gently. This cordial relationship was to be expected at the beginning of his presidency, for Mursi cannot be blamed for the 30 year legacy he has inherited from his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Hence we were stunned when Islam Afifi, editor of al-Dustour newspaper, was dragged to court on charges of insulting the President and inciting against him, even for a news item that was written before Mursi assumed the presidency!
Everyone is waiting for the court’s verdict, which is expected at the end of the month. If Afifi is sentenced to prison we will witness a fierce battle emerging, because the media in Egypt is actually more vicious than the military. No matter how Mursi uses his powers to prosecute his critics, in the end he will discover what Mubarak discovered before him, who in the end was forced to keep silent grudgingly because he had failed to muzzle the media. He tried many means, including jail sentences on more than one occasion. He paid huge rewards to those who had made their name in the independent camp and then moved on to work in the official state media institution, but even this did not succeed in silencing them.
Mursi and those alongside him in the Egyptian leadership are used to sitting in the chairs of the opposition and are not familiar yet with the downsides of being in governance, including press criticism.
The Egyptian media is known for its loud voice. Today, and ever since the January 25th revolution last year, it has begun to monopolize the market. The Egyptian media is now at the forefront, whereas in the past the domain was somewhat mixed. The secret lies in the high ceiling of freedom after the ouster of the Mubarak regime, so how will Mursi manage to get the genie back in the bottle? How can the new Egyptian President tame the Egyptian press, which has become an important figure in the political and social process? Mursi, or his party, succeeded and hired loyalists in the national – i.e. government – media institution, which accounts for about fifty newspapers and magazines, but in Egypt there are around 120 other licensed independent media outlets, and there are 7,000 journalists registered in the union. Furthermore, how does Mursi intend to silence the great army of social network users, where about 10 million Egyptians take part in debates using Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone messaging, capable of unsettling the Egyptian President at any point until the end of his reign?
In the final years of Mubarak’s rule it was no secret that the relationship between him and the Egyptian media had descended to its lowest level. We, as media figures operating outside the country, could sense the ill feeling. At one point Anas el-Fiqqi, Mubarak’s obedient Minister of Information, tried to pursue a number of foreign media outlets, even travelling outside Egypt and confronting them. According to el-Fiqqi, Mubarak had objected to such outlets, saying: Why does the opposition appear on foreign screens, and why are they discussing Egyptian issues? El-Fiqqi informed him that Egypt was a big country regionally, too big to prevent others from covering its events. Likewise, Mubarak did not have guardianship over foreign media outlets, and anything that was mentioned in the foreign press was reiterated by the independent Egyptian media itself anyway. Furthermore, each of these so-called opponents, whom Mubarak demanded to be removed from foreign screens, were either members of the People’s Assembly, held valid media licenses or worked in licensed newspapers. Mubarak was simply trying to control the foreign media after he had failed to silence the Egyptian media.
This was Mubarak, while Mursi should remember that his legitimacy is based on freedom and pluralism, so how is it possible that one of the first decisions of his era is to imprison a journalist and close a television station?