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el-Sisi’s Power Consolidation and Press Censorship

The struggle for democracy is long, arduous and often bloody. Egypt is no exception. Unfortunately, the latest elections are hardly the end of that struggle.

Jailed journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Moham in court along. source  http://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Egypt-Journalists.jpg

Jailed journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Moham in court with other defendants.
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With the blitzkrieg advances of  ISIS across northern Iraq, a raging torrent of sectarian militancy may seem inevitable. But not to worry, atrocities of a largely secular nature are still happening in the Middle East. In its most populous nation in fact – Egypt. A long string of death sentences has today been continued with 12 more Muslim Brotherhood members thrown to the merciless jaws of capital punishment. The charge? Fatally shooting a police officer.

Isolated, this trial may not seem like the most morally repugnant issue in the hostile region. But the harsh sentencing is intensified by the fact over 500 other Muslim Brotherhood members were  previously sentenced to death in March this year. The latest sentencing, however, took place under the gaze of the newly elected President and former Commander-in-Chief of Egypt’s Armed Forces – Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

el-Sisi, also former Minister of Defence, was elected with 96% of the vote. This may sound like resounding democratic progress but this polling triumph is jaded by copious amounts of other anti-democratic problems in Egypt, aside from potential and politicized mass executions. Principally, this new government is very effectively consolidating power and not just with electoral legitimacy.

Press manipulation, a favorite hobby of tyrants, is taking on an ambitious and malevolent form. This is most aptly illustrated by the three Al-Jazeera journalists who have been held captive in the Egyptian court system for 170 days. They are are still waiting to hear the results of their trial – set for June 23.

Their charge of “aiding terrorists” carries 15 to 25 years in prison but is also undoubtedly a fake charge. Especially as now Qatar-based Al-Jazeera have been shut down in Egypt despite staying open since an order to terminate broadcasting in 2013. In reality, they may have been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood in their coverage of Morsi’s ousting, far from aiding terrorists.

From the left: AJ Staff Baher Mohamed, Mohammed Fahmy and Peter Greste. source

From the left: AJ Staff Baher Mohamed, Mohammed Fahmy and Peter Greste.
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This said, one other Al-Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, was yesterday released on health grounds following a four month hunger strike. It was unfortunate that he had to endure such physical deprivation to attain justice and one question remains: what about his journalist comrades still falsely tangled in unjust chains?

Fears of this kind of post-Mubarak press censorship precede the incarceration the Al-Jazeera staff. Lina Attallah, the former Editor-in-Chief of Egypt Independent evinced concern that since Mubarak’s fall in 2011, the military has tightened its grip over the media, especially given the fact the Muslim Brotherhood struggled to gain any control over the media at all. What’s more is the Egyptian government is emulating the shining example of Western spy agencies by seeking the ability to monitor online social media.

Proof of Egyptian press censorship is both indisputable and worrying. It highlights el-Sisi’s endeavour to sure up his government’s power and it doesn’t stop there.

The election results themselves also deserve some scrutiny. With less than 50% voter turnout, one million invalid votes and the fact there was no real opposition, your average political theorist could understandably mistake this for a populist dictatorship rather than pluralist democracy.

Old chums: President el-Sisi [left] with deposed President, now in prison, Mohamed Morsi.  source

Old chums: President el-Sisi [left] with deposed President, now in prison, Mohamed Morsi.
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Yes, it is ignorant and naive to expect a harmonious democratic nation to materialise instantly after half a century of dictatorship but this is an abysmal start. So abysmal, in fact, it can barely be called a start at all. Especially when compared to the monumental progress made in Tunisia.

Any appraisals of Egypt’s democratic progress mean little when journalists are locked up and persecuted; when political organizations are executed en-masse; when an ex-military General commands over the new Government.

As I said in my interview with Egypt’s Ambassador to Britain last year, “… it just appears that such a crackdown on the organization [Muslim Brotherhood] would suggest that the army isn’t going anywhere soon. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that the remnants of this old regime still exist somewhere in the new government. Worse yet, it wouldn’t be hard to believe it will exist in the next ‘democratic’ government.”

I did speculate that this could be a real possibility, given the likelihood of el-Sisi’s election bid, but I was not expecting this. Not only does it “exists within the next ‘democratic’ government,” it is the “‘democratic’ government.”

The problem isn’t that Egypt is progressing very slowly toward democracy, the problem is that Egypt is progressing away from democracy.

Though hard to determine right now, this trend of power consolidation and press manipulation is clear and worrying. I doubt Egypt will return to fully fledged dictatorship and a strong government is necessary in fragile economic times. Yet, the election is no excuse for complacency. No illusions should be harboured about the nature of the current government.

They may well be able to engender prosperity and security in Egypt but it is a government that must be heavily scrutinized. If this scrutiny flounders, if the power consolidation and press manipulation continues, then Egypt’s people may unknowingly surrender themselves to another unaccountable regime.

About Dean Forrester

Dean Forrester is the Editor-in-Chief of The International Citizen. An International Politics graduate from King's College London, with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, he is interested in international affairs and development.
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