Egypt's attack on the media gives little cause for hope
Egypt is in the middle of a massive crackdown primarily targeting members of the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone associated with it. Interior ministry buildings in Cairo and other areas of Egypt have been targeted by bombers on numerous occasions over the past six months. The most deadly of these attacks, on , killed 16 people.
The Egyptian government has responded by . But, as has been demonstrated in the western nations since 2001, wars on terror are unruly beasts. In the name of fighting terrorism and re-establishing stability, Egypt has arrested thousands (one local non-governmental organisation puts the figure at more than 20,000) and sought recourse to legislation that has effectively killed off public displays of political opposition.
A major front in this war on terror has been opened against the media. On 29 January it became clear that 20 journalists, including four foreigners, were of joining or aiding a terrorist group and spreading false news. Two of these foreigners, Egyptian-Canadian producer Mohamed Fahmy and Australian journalist Peter Greste, were arrested at the end of December while working for al-Jazeera English. They joined al-Jazeera Arabic journalists including 25-year-old Abdullah al-Shamy in detention. Al Shamy was arrested in August 2013 and is currently on hunger strike in protest at his incarceration.
Greste has from jail, desperately trying to make the authorities understand that he is caught in "a political struggle that is not my own". Greste, incidentally, is being held on the same wing as activist Alaa Abd el Fattah, arrested in December on charges related to a protest held in violation of a new law that criminalises political gatherings of more than 10 people held without the police's permission.
Unlike Greste, Abd el Fattah has been at the forefront of political activism for a decade – this is very much his struggle – but in a letter from his cell to his sisters he said his imprisonment is serving no purpose: "".
If the authorities and some of the domestic media are to be believed, Egypt's foreign press corps are all secret members of the Brotherhood, creating Islamist anarchy and mischief on behalf of al-Jazeera (now deemed a Brotherhood mouthpiece and banned from operating in Egypt).
I grew up in the UK and didn't know what Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams' voice sounded like until 1994 because decided that a voice ban, imposed in 1988, would "deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity". The Egyptian government wants to do the same thing to the Brotherhood, which it declared a terrorist organisation after the December bombing, but the bungling way in which it is going about it threatens to silence the media as a whole.
The domestic media has, with a few notable exceptions, taken its lead from the street and strongly backed the state's version of events; it had declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation months before.
The more circumspect, pesky foreign press, meanwhile, have been less co-operative. For a long time the quarrel was over nomenclature, and the authorities took umbrage over the use of the word coup.
What they fail to realise is that even if Morsi was removed with mass public backing, as he was, and even if is being targeted by terrorists, there is something decidedly dodgy about talking about the greatest constitution in Egyptian history and a new era for democracy while simultaneously hissing at the media through gritted teeth to stay on message.
The latest instalment of this was a garbled press release from the State Information Service, which said the state upholds complete freedom (for journalists with permits) and then segued into a vaguely worded ramble about how Egyptian law does not criminalise "mere contact or foreknowledge of any accused criminal or a person imprisoned in a pending case" as this does not constitute an offence "except if there is a sort of assisting [sic] or inciting or as a result of prior agreement".
Cumulatively, and amid the continuing mass arrests and detentions, these incidents have had a chilling effect on the media. Journalists must now contend with both the threat of being shot, or detained, or attacked by enterprising members of the general public who have it rammed down their throats – by local media – that al-Jazeera and foreign journalists are out to spread chaos in Egypt.
What is most frightening, however, is that both private and public media have chosen to abdicate their duty to question the state's narrative and hold officials to account. The other side of the story, criticism of events since , rarely appears on the pages of the local press, whether out of a misguided sense of patriotism or because of the red lines that have re-established themselves following a brief hiatus after 2011.
The 30 June revolution, its advocates say, saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood's religious totalitarianism. The question now is whether it has replaced it with something just as bad.