Bassem Youssef and the Muslim Brotherhood’s war on media in Egypt

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The arrest warrant issued for Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef is the most high-profile illustration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ongoing crackdown on media outlets that are seen as critical of the group or President Mursi.

Over the last nine months, the Brotherhood and its allies have followed several tactics in terrorizing journalists and TV hosts, including violence, legal action, press statements, and speeches made by the president. The third and fourth tactics are the most frequently used, with violence proving risky and legal action being mainly handled by the Brotherhood’s allies.

Less than two months after Mohamed Morsi became president, the Muslim Brotherhood realized that the media constitutes one of the main obstacles to their plan of taking control of state institutions.

Newspapers and satellite channels hampered the Brotherhood’s plan to gain public support, a battle they have so far been losing. Talk shows played an important role in making residents in Cairo and other major cities vote against the Brotherhood’s constitution, especially given the weak persuasive skills of the opposition. Through raising people’s political awareness, the media has become the main opposition bloc for the Muslim Brotherhood – and that is why their attempts at curbing freedom of expression in media outlets comes as no surprise.

In its battle against the media, the Brotherhood started targeting journalists directly, something that was made clear when a number of the group’s members assaulted young journalists covering the protests that took place in front of the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo. The Brotherhood, however, realized that physical violence is detrimental to their image.

Examples of violence against journalists in Egypt include the murder of journalist al-Husseini Abu Deif, who was killed during clashes that took place in front of the presidential palace in December.

Against this backdrop, the Brotherhood has encouraged ultraconservative Salafis, under the leadership of former presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, to besiege Media Production City in Cairo, which is home to the majority of studios from which private satellite channels broadcast their shows. The siege included threats of physically assaulting TV hosts and preventing them from entering the studios. The last siege, which took place in March, was aimed at warning independent journalists and TV hosts who criticize the regime that the patience of extremist groups was wearing thin.

In the light of the failure of this terrorizing tactic, which was met with sarcasm and indifference on the part of TV hosts, legal action seemed like the most adequate tactic. The Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the appointment of new Prosecutor General Talaat Ibrahim late last year to file a series of complaints against journalists and TV hosts in an attempt to both terrorize and drain their zeal. The prosecutor general responded to the group’s plan and summoned dozens of famous journalists and TV hosts based on charges that are not supported by evidence, as the lawyer of one of the summoned journalists said. It seems like this tactic is also failing given that the regime is unable to put those journalists in jail, especially with the growing domestic and international risks such action might involve.

Some factions have tried to attack the opposition through dozens of satellite channels that serve as their propaganda machines. Yet with the rise of public indignation against the regime’s attempts at stifling freedom of expression, the Muslim Brotherhood pushed the president to the line. Throughout the past two months, President Morsi accused the visual and written media of inciting violence and threatened to penalize journalists. He even made direct warnings against “insulting the president.”

Accusing Bassem Youssef of insulting the president was the culmination of a series of attacks on media freedom. This reflects the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to restrict media outlets that criticize the presidency in post-revolution Egypt, and to reestablishing the “red lines” imposed on the media after the July 1952 revolution. It is noteworthy that the attacks launched by the media against Mohamed Mursi started with the president’s failure in keeping the promises of his electoral campaign, also known as the “100 day plan,” and the constitutional declaration he issued in November 2012.

According to a report released two months ago by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, 24 legal complaints were filed against journalists and TV hosts for “insulting the president” during the first 200 days of Mursi’s rule, compared to 14 cases referred to Egyptian courts for the same charge throughout the past 115 years - from the late 19th century till the end of Mubarak’s rule. The number of complaints and lawsuits rose to 30 in the past two months.

The remarkable increase in the number of complaints in the first nine months of Mursi’s rule highlights the main factors that define the crisis between the regime and the media. The most prominent of these factors is the inability of the president and Muslim Brotherhood to realize the difficulty of clamping down on freedom of expression in a country that witnessed such drastic changes.

In most former USSR republics and Eastern European countries, the media intensified its attacks on governments and regimes in the early 1990s, a phenomenon referred to as the explosion of the “repression balloon”. Similarly, Egypt has witnessed a boom in freedom of expression at times of crisis such as during the reign of King Farouk in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the period that saw the emergence of the “new press men” who continued to dominate Egyptian journalism until the 1980s.

Another factor is the presidency’s loss of dignity. Mohamed Mursi played a major part in eliminating “patriarchal respect” for the president of Egypt through his actions and mistake-prone speeches. Morsi attempted to create his own “charisma” through what he perceived as spontaneity - something that triggered sarcastic responses from the media and public. The Egyptian consciousness could not accept a president lacking the main physical and oratorical qualities of a charismatic leader.

The president’s actions, therefore, became great fodder for satire in the media - especially given the gestures he made with his fingers, his insistence on using English words in the middle of Arabic sentences, adjusting his clothes during formal meetings, and his nonchalant conduct when meeting heads of state and international officials.

A third factor is the use of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter as means of criticizing the president and his policies. It is noteworthy that most criticism directed at the president’s actions and speeches came from those websites. This same factor played a role in the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak and therefore could not be restricted after the January 25 revolution.

The fourth factor, which could include the previous three, is political failure. The new regime’s failure in achieving any progress on the ground and the deterioration of the political, social, and economic situation all contributed to the intensification of scathing criticism against the president and his government.

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