Egypt's siege mentality bad news for journalists

Cairo: Egypt's government sees many enemies when it looks out of the bunker from which it says it is simultaneously fighting terrorism and installing democracy.

In the first months after the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Mohamed Mursi was deposed and an interim, military-backed government was installed, it was Syrian refugees who felt the heat.

Those 133,000 Syrians who had fled their country’s brutal war and a lifetime of oppression by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and before him his father Hafez, were suddenly stopped at checkpoints across Cairo, deported, beaten and viewed with intense suspicion.

If they were not backing Assad’s Alawite-led government, the reasoning went, then they must be backing Syria’s Sunni-led resistance. And who is the largest organised Sunni group in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood.

Palestinian refugees faced the same assessment – they must be from neighbouring Gaza, Egyptian authorities assumed, which is led by the Islamist Hamas movement, known to all as the Palestinian franchise of the Brotherhood brand.

Underneath it all lies a deep, deep distrust of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members have been rounded up in their thousands since Mursi was deposed and imprisoned on July 3.

Most of the movement’s leadership is either behind bars and facing terrorism charges, like Mursi, or they have fled the country to avoid arrest. Thousands of supporters who took to the streets to protest what they believe was a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president have been detained, many without charge, for months.

It has been an extraordinary political journey for a country that was ruled for nearly three decades by dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was swept aside in February 2011 to make way for what many revolutionaries hoped would be a more democratic Egypt.

Instead, the country remained deeply polarised. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces violently suppressed protest after protest until Egyptians, faced with a choice popularly described as between cancer (the Mubarak-linked candidate, Ahmed Shafiq) and death (Mursi), chose death.

It quickly became clear to many that they had made the wrong choice.

Egyptians had experimented with political Islam and they didn’t like what they saw, says Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo.

On June 30, almost year to the day since Mursi was elected, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians rose up again, disgusted with the actions of the Brotherhood-backed government and determined to see its downfall.

The Brotherhood went from political leaders to pariahs in a matter of days.

Caught up in the frenzy of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment is the Qatar-funded al-Jazeera television network, which has long been accused of a pro-Brotherhood editorial stance.

Once seen as the network that gave voice to the Arab revolutions, it is now viewed in Egypt quite literally as an enemy of the state.

Broadcasting via three main channels in Egypt – al-Jazeera English, al-Jazeera Arabic and al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr (Egypt Live) –  Sadek says some of its staff resigned from its Arabic-language channels over its perceived anti-Egypt bias.

Its Arabic channels were viewed as more compromised than its English-language outlet, and yet all have been tainted with the accusation of partiality.

“It is taking the side of the Muslim Brotherhood all the way, with totally unobjective, totally biased coverage,” says Sadek. “It declared war on the June 30 revolution and the Egyptian government and it began to promote incitement and negative coverage of Egypt.”

Al-Jazeera English and its journalists deny the charges of bias, and overnight the network released a compilation of news reports on Egypt to back its claims.

”Here are all of the packages our team produced from the field since July 2013. We make no apologies for telling all sides of the story and we stand by our journalism. Judge for yourself,” the network announced.

“This is a challenge to free speech, to the right of journalists to report on all aspects of events, and to the right of people to know what is going on,” a network spokesman said.

“We will continue to pursue all avenues to get our journalists back,” he said of the five journalists facing charges of producing false news and aiding terrorists, including Australian reporter Peter Greste and his two colleagues, dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed. They have been in jail since December 29 and have been given no prospect of  bail pending trial.

The Egyptian authorities’ campaign against al-Jazeera began the day President Mursi was deposed – an act the broadcaster declared was a “coup” and not the popular “people’s revolution” that army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi insisted it was.

On July 3, authorities raided the offices of al-Jazeera Arabic and al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr and 28 staff were arrested, including the station director.

By July 15 al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr cameraman Mohamed Badr was arrested – he remains in prison. Correspondent Abdullah al-Shami was arrested on August 14 and also remains behind bars.

The same day a crew from al-Jazeera English was detained, including correspondent Wayne Hay and producers Russ Finn and Baher Mohamed. Mohamed was released after two days (but he was detained again with Greste), while the other two were deported to London after five days' detention.

The crackdown continued, with crews arrested and beaten while covering security operations against a pro-Mursi protest camp – a story that all foreign correspondents and most local media in Egypt covered, at times daily.

In post-revolution Egypt, it seemed, if you covered the Brotherhood, you supported the Brotherhood.

But tied up with the campaign against al-Jazeera is a broader, regional struggle that pits Qatar, which openly backed the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who threw Egypt billions of dollars as a financial lifeline once Mursi was deposed.

Part of that struggle is also a battle for control – behind the scenes – of the political opposition to Assad's rule in Syria.

In the meantime, international human rights and press freedom groups have spoken out against the treatment of al-Jazeera's reporters, who on Wednesday were told they would stand trial on a series of serious terrorism-related charges – all of which they deny.

“The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today – that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities,” said Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International.

“Journalists cannot operate freely in a climate of fear. The latest development is a brazen attempt to stifle independent reporting in Egypt. In the lead-up to elections, a free press is essential,” said Mr Shetty.

The Committee to Protect Journalists described Egypt’s actions as an “attempt to criminalise legitimate journalistic work”.

“The government's lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Coordinator.

In a census the CPJ conducted in December, Egypt ranked among the world's worst offenders for jailing journalists after Turkey, Iran, China, Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan and Ethiopia.

It doesn’t look like slipping out of the top 10 any time soon.

This story Egypt's siege mentality bad news for journalists first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.