The media was instrumental in paving the way for Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s popularity in the months leading up to his official election and inauguration as president. It was also through the media that his decisions and actions were given legitimacy. Not a single voice dared go against the flow. Two years into his term, the media is once again at the forefront of Al-Sisi’s popularity, although this time voices of opposition, not support, are crowding the headlines.
The light that surrounded Al-Sisi during his rise to power has dimmed. The media has given a voice to the political elite, consisting of public figures who have acquired a degree of credibility and popularity after the 2011 revolution, and it is rife with dissent.
Opposition began to gain momentum when the media, who had previously supported the president, became overwhelmed with one government failure after another. The most problematic issue of all, however, seemed to be when they realised how much security forces have been interfering in the management of state affairs. Additionally, several critics of the regime have denounced the repeated violations of human rights, in the form of attacks on both personal and press freedoms.
The media is now denouncing Al-Sisi’s government on a daily basis, criticising price hikes, the mismanagement of the country’s economy, the insufficiency of resources and more. Now, headlines and talk shows regularly lead with the phrase: “Mr President, what is your stance on what the government is doing?”
State security and abuse of power
Countering terrorism and facing internal and external conspiracies against the country continue to be the state’s narrative, recurrent in Al-Sisi’s speeches and widely adopted in the media. This narrative has served as a means for the once dissolved National Security apparatus to be re-established.
Additionally, there seems to be direct interference by the general intelligence services, as suggested by telecommunications professor and liberal politician, Hazem Abdel Azim, in his controversial testimony in January. Abdel Azim had been a leading member of Al-Sisi’s presidential election campaign, along with Tamarod’s figure Amr Badr.
In his testimony, Abdel Azim stated that the “time has come for my revelations”. He said he had been contacted by the president’s office to attend a meeting in preparation for parliamentary elections, which took place at the end of 2015.
According to Abdel Azim, several meetings took place at the headquarters of the general intelligence directorate, Al-Mukhabarat, in the year leading up to the elections. The purpose for such gatherings was to form a parliamentary coalition, as “a strategic goal for intelligence”. The coalition would then work towards becoming a majority within the House of Representatives and subsequently prevent other political parties from acquiring seats.
The coalition would later become known as ‘For the Love of Egypt’ during the election process and then ‘Egypt’s Support’ once inside the Parliament. It was managed by the late Sameh Seif El-Yazal, a former officer in both the military and general intelligence. By going public with the details of the meetings, Abdel Azim took a stance against Al-Sisi and his regime.
Another controversial reference to Al-Mukhabarat involved former MP and TV host Tawfik Okasha. He was explicit in revealing how intelligence interfered in many of the events under the command of Al-Sisi’s Chief of Staff Abbas Kamel, also a former military intelligence officer.
“After 60 years of a one-opinion nation, the ‘democracy show’ revealed that some do want to take us back to the 60s,” Okasha stated on TV, while mentioning how security sources interfered with his parliamentary membership.
Okasha, once popular in the media and on the streets, was one of the key figures in the 30 June protests against the Muslim Brotherhood. “As media people, we were all directed on what to say and what not to say,” he added.
Okasha eventually lost his parliamentary seat following severe backlash from the media and parliament for hosting the Israeli ambassador at his house. His actions resulted in a majority vote for his expulsion. Al-Faraeen channel, which he managed and appeared on, was subsequently shut down.
Okasha’s big claims were made during an interview with TV host Youssed Al-Hosseniy, who later appeared to have been ‘ruled out’ following a mounting critical tone in his show.
Opposition to the demarcation of Tiran and Sanafir islands
Al-Sisi’s recent decision to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia has resulted in a controversy that has rocked Egypt. Both lay people and politicians took to the streets on 15 and 25 April, resulting in protests that rivalled demonstrations supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
Though TV host Al-Hosseiny said he would not judge Al-Sisi’s motives for signing the maritime demarcation deal with Saudi Arabia, he nonetheless strongly opposed the deal and thought Al-Sisi was “giving up” the islands.
“I would only like to remind everyone of the president’s own words when he said that ‘whoever touches Egypt will be wiped from the face of earth’. The president seemed honest at the time but …” Al-Hosseiny said during one of the last episodes before he disappeared from TV screens across the country. No clear announcement was ever made as to why he left the show.
Well-known journalist and TV host Ibrahim Eissa was once one of Al-Sisi’s strongest supporters and even had the opportunity to interview him on television. His stance has also changed.
“Tiran and Sanafir islands are Egyptian by all means, and what the Egyptian government presented as documentation [of Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty] are false,” Eissa stated during his show. Al-Maqal newspaper, of which he is editor-in-chief, has published front-page headlines saying the islands belong to Egypt.
Moreover, the recent deal has been rejected by some parliamentary members, such as MP Haitham Al-Hariri, who joined the lawsuit filed by rights’ lawyers to stop the agreement. MP Samir Ghattas is also against the decision and said the parliament should reject the agreement once it is submitted for approval.
Government incompetence casts blame on Al-Sisi
Eissa has also been paying attention to how religious institutions and preachers are performing in their duties, based on Al-Sisi’s speeches on the necessity of renewing religious discourse. “Al-Sisi went back on what he said about a religious revolution. Perhaps he is afraid of criticising Al-Azhar institutions and doesn’t want to end up being accused of opposing religion?” Eissa said in his show.
According to Eissa, the problem with Al-Sisi’s regime is that it relies on security services and the judiciary in countering terrorism, without really providing alternatives to face extremist ideologies. Eissa has even chosen to interview Al-Sisi’s political rival Hamdeen Sabahy, presenting him as a “civil alternative”.
In a blatant refusal of the government’s decision, the House of Representatives rejected the passing of the controversial civil service law in January. It was the only law to be denied among more than 300 that were submitted.
Human rights abuses too severe to be ignored
On several occasions, the media has addressed the government’s stance on freedom of expression and opinion. Several debates have been conducted on the jailing of researchers and writers, such as Islam El-Beheiry, Ahmed Nagy and Fatima Naoot. Even among many of Al-Sisi’s supporters, it was deemed unacceptable that intellectuals have been imprisoned.
More recently, the prosecution of hundreds of youth who protested against the islands’ agreement sparked criticism by pro-state media figures, such as TV hosts Lamees El-Hadidy and Ramy Radwan. Both hosts highlighted the absurdity of the trials, due to the fact that law enforcement is unequally applied to citizens.
This backlash came despite the fact that the media had strictly condemned the protests, proving that human rights violations have reached an unprecedented level. MP Anwar Sadat has repeatedly called on Al-Sisi for the release of young political detainees.
Al-Hosseiny once interviewed the relatives of two young detainees, including the brother of Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, also known as the “T-shirt detainee.” When Hussein exceeded his maximum legal detention period without being released, Al-Hosseiny appeared on TV wearing the same “nation without torture” T-shirt.
The Egyptian Constitution provides several guarantees to freedoms of thought, opinion and expression, but they have not been legislated, let alone applied. This breach in protocol has further magnified the separation of powers in government, as well as highlighted the executive power’s diminishing authority.
A vague statement made about the Constitution by Al-Sisi in September 2015 was interpreted by some as an attempt to introduce amendments. As a result, in March 2016, an organisation was formed to protect the Constitution by members of the 50-member committee who drafted it. The committee was led by Amr Moussa, the former leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF), which backed the 30 June movement.
Al-Sisi enjoys international support despite internal conflicts
Egypt has come under fire several times by different worldwide organisations. Whether it has been the repetitive accusations of human rights violations by European parliaments and American NGOs, the many campaigns against Al-Sisi’s dictatorship in the international press, the Russian aircraft disaster or the mysterious killing of Italian student Giulio Regeni, there has been much to talk about in the past two years.
In practice, however, Al-Sisi continues to enjoy strong diplomatic ties with counterparts from Europe, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. He has also managed to increase his weapons’ store through agreements with France who has provided Egypt with Rafale jets and, more recently, a Mistral-class warship. Economic cooperation has also thrived internationally, as Egypt continues to receive billions in aid from both Arab countries and other foreign nations.