A protest against President Mohamed Morsi. The sign reads, “Muslim Brotherhood prohibited. Freedom.” (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
In November 2010, veteran left-wing journalist Hani Shukrallah helped found Al Ahram Online, a news site that would tell the story of Egypt’s coming revolution to hundreds of thousands of readers in the English-speaking world. Since the ouster of the Mubarak regime, which had removed Shukrallah from his post at Al Ahram’s print edition in 2005 for his critical commentary, he has been forced to relive the past.
This January, Shukrallah received a call from Al Ahram’s new chairman, who had just been installed by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. With only a vague justification, the chairman told him that he must retire. Just over two years since the anniversary of the transformative events that promised to usher in a new Egypt, Shukrallah has arrived at the depressing conclusion that the vise of media repression has not loosened at all since Mubarak’s departure. Under President Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-led government has employed a combination of legal tricks and street-level vigilantism to impose its will on the country’s media.
I spoke to Shukrallah in February, just after I returned to the United States from an extended visit to Cairo. Over the course of several weeks in the city, I saw the conflict between the Brotherhood and its urban-based opposition turn violent, first in December, with a massive street clash near the Presidential Palace that began when Brotherhood supporters bused in from the countryside assaulted young protesters encamped outside the palace, which ended with hundreds injured and a handful dead. Following a wave of attacks days later on Brotherhood offices around the country, a group of Salafists held a sit-in outside Media City, an area outside Cairo that is home to many of Egypt’s private broadcasting outlets. There, the Islamists called for the “purification” of the media, accusing the networks of inciting violence against Morsi and attacking journalists in retaliation.
According to Shukrallah, the events at Media City reflected the determination of the Brotherhood and its allies to exert at least as much control over private media as over state-run institutions like Al Ahram. The criminal investigation launched in January against Bassem Youssef, a comedian known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, who has grown famous for his satirical portrayals of Islamists including Morsi, is another example Shukrallah cited as evidence of the government’s authoritarian impulses. This month, Youssef was accused of defaming Morsi in a new lawsuit filed by Brotherhood supporters who claimed they were “psychologically affected by this nonsense, ridicule and slander addressed to the head of state.”
During our hour-long conversation, Shukrallah detailed the Brotherhood’s employment of an “E-militia” to intimidate critics on social media, emphasizing that it sought to gradually replace the country’s professional media with a cadre of sycophants not unlike the kind favored by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) machine. We also discussed the role of the powerful Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Obama administration in bolstering the status quo. Finally, Shukrallah elaborated on a long column he recently published that addressed what he saw as the critical mistakes of the revolutionary youth who ousted Mubarak but who had proven unable to generate a coherent political strategy or unified leadership in his wake.