Cairo Clips Critical Journalists' Wings

Under Egypt's current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, criticism of the security forces is simply not allowed.

AP

Why does Reem Maged scare the Egyptian government?

As many other Egyptian media people have discovered, this 30-year-old journalist learned that the sort of freedom of expression the Cairo regime will tolerate does not include criticism of the military.

In her soft voice, and with an embarrassed smile that is occasionally visible on her hijab-covered face, Iman Hilal speaks of her experiences as a news photographer covering the violent demonstrations in Egypt between 2011 and 2013, and the clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the security forces.

Hilal is talking to the well-known interviewer Reem Maged at the television studios of Egypt’s ONTV network, as part of a new series called “Women at a Turning Point,” produced in cooperation with the German news network Deutsche Welle. The camera pauses occasionally at a laptop sitting on a table to show the horrifying pictures of the dead and injured, and of demonstrators sustaining blows from the police at one of the most violent demonstrations in Cairo about two years ago.

This episode was supposed to follow two others in the series that were actually broadcast, but have caused a real stir in Egypt. The third one has not been aired: “The authorities,” it was stated, ordered the show off the air without explanation. There was no need for an explanation. Under the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, criticism of the security forces is simply not allowed.

It’s not only what was said in that interview that angered the authorities. The interviewer, Maged, is also a thorn in their side. After studying communications at the University of Cairo, she became known back in 2011 as someone who was not prepared to bend to the will of the country's leaders. Until two years ago, she was on the staff at ONTV, where she presented her popular program “Our Country in the Egyptian Way.” She did not hesitate to invite guests to the show who represented the opposition and intellectuals critical of the military regime.

In one program, she hosted the then-prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, who had been appointed at the end of the reign of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Shafik appeared along with prominent author Alaa Aswany, who wrote the bestselling “Yacoubian Building.” Shafik spoke about his plan to convert Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the scene of major clashes with government forces, into an Egyptian version of London’s Hyde Park. For his part, Aswany didn’t wait for details and pounced on him: “You’re asking what’s wrong with people having a 'clean' place to spend time? First we need to find the person who killed people there.” A short time later, Shafik announced his resignation.

Maged herself didn’t escape unscathed either. In May 2011 she was summoned for questioning after hosting a human-rights activist on her program who described the torture demonstrators had sustained at the hands of the security forces. Two years later, she resigned from the station where she had worked for 12 years, explaining that, “ONTV prefers security whereas I prefer freedom.” For the following two years, she kept herself off-screen – until the offer came to produce the new series on women, which was consistent with her own feminist agenda.

The security forces and the Sissi administration are apparently not opposed to a feminist agenda as long it doesn’t conflict with their own public image. Official administration spokespeople even say that the regime has no objection to broadcasting the third installment of “Women at a Turning Point.” The station’s owner, Najib Sawiris, said the show was taken off the air because it had not attracted advertising support, adding that the security forces had no hand in dropping it.

A day before that declaration, however, the Ona website, which is affiliated with ONTV, published an article entitled “Reem Maged, the girl who scared the government,” in which it was suggested that the program was discontinued following pressure from senior officials in the security establishment. A few hours after Sawiris’ remarks, the website published a clarification saying that Maged’s series had not been cancelled but had simply been put on hold due to a new business strategy at the station.

New strategy or not, Maged is not the only journalist to feel the heat personally due to the repressive approach the Sissi regime is using vis-a-vis the media. Last year, several senior journalists, including the deputy chairman of the journalists’ association, Abeer Saadi, decided to quit the profession over what they said was their inability to square their standards with the demands of the owners of the media outlets.

Belal Fadl, a columnist at Egypt’s Al-Shourouk newspaper, quit over censorship concerns. The satirist Bassem Yousef stopped appearing because of fear for his life and that of his family. Aswany, the author, stopped writing for the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, saying that “nothing is allowed anymore other than one opinion.” A program with television journalist Wael Al-Ibrashi was halted due to criticism that he aimed at government ministers. And this is just a partial list that doesn’t include journalists who have been prevented from working.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that criticism of the police, in contrast to the military, is allowed in Egypt these days. Newspapers and TV stations have reported on dozens of cases of ill treatment, torture and rape at police stations. The fine line between what is allowed and what is not is blurred, and the ultimate decision is in the hands of “the authorities,” who at the moment see the war against terrorism – which is in itself justified – as an opportunity to also deal with those who criticize the regime.