North Africa, West Asia

Egypt's most powerful man tries to tame the media

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To reconcile two different media perspectives of him, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the armed forces, has resorted to attempting to control Egypt's media himself.

Ahmed Magdy Youssef
25 October 2013

Many Egyptian media outlets portray him as a "national saviour" who succeeded in deposing the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and casting out his Muslim Brotherhood group from the political scene, thence saving the most heavily populated Arab country from slipping into an imminent civil war. On the flip side, some other Egyptian media platforms excoriated, yet depicted him as a "murderer" for the various deadly crackdowns against Morsi's supporters, notably in shooting down more than fifty pro-Morsi protesters by the armed forces in front of Cairo's Presidential Guards Club in early June, and the brutal raids launched by the government on two pro-Morsi protest encampments in mid August. To reconcile these two different media perspectives of him, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the armed forces, has resorted to attempting to control Egypt's media himself.

On October 2, some activists released a leaked video footage, published afterwards on the Al-Jazeera website, showing military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressing senior officers of the army in the months before Mohamed Morsi's ouster. In this recording, Al-Sisi was discussing best tactics to influence key media figures either by "neutralizing" or "terrorizing" them, in order subsequently to tighten control nationally. One of the senior officers suggests  re-establishing red lines for the media, eager to find new ways to frighten journalists off from criticizing the army. Al-Sisi reassures his officers, saying that:  “It takes a long time to be able to control the media. We are working on this and we are achieving better results, but we haven't yet achieved everything we could wish for."

It's patently obvious that Al-Sisi has paid careful heed to the impact of the media in shaping public opinion. His propensity for control first manifested itself in the arrest of dozens of journalists and the closure of numerous Islamist-run television stations in Egypt, including Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr, the Egyptian arm of the Qatari-funded network, by the military-led government since the overthrow of president Morsi on July 3. And it worked. Buttressed by monotone coverage dominating Egypt's mainstream media and accentuating a so-called "terrorist" threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, the commander of the armed forces has enjoyed growing popularity on Egypt’s streets.

In a rare recent interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm Egyptian newspaper, Al-Sisi replied to someone asking whether he was going to run for presidency or not, given the pro-Sisi campaign that claims to have gathered four million signatures of support, by saying it was not the right time to discuss that issue. Still, Al-Sisi's answer promptly fuelled more speculation about the matter, since it seems many Egyptians will not take no as an answer.

The same interview, which was reprinted in over seven whole pages accompanied by 30 photographs of the armed forces chief, clearly displayed how Al-Sisi was trying to disavow the bloodshed stemmed from the previous clashes between the armed forces and pro-Morsi protesters, by laying the blame at the feet of media outlets which are just good at faking news. "Some are trying to promote the idea that the authority is the real enemy, through some media outlets which are working 24 hours to carry fake news and manipulate people's minds in the way they want," Al-Sisi insisted.

Soon after Al-Masry Al-Youm's exclusive interview, another leaked recording of Egypt’s armed forces chief went viral on social networking sites. This recording was published first on Cairo's Rassd News Network (RNN), an alternative pro-Islamist media network, and is apparently the raw recorded material for the aforementioned Al-Masry Al-Youm's interview. In the leaked recording, the defence minister was urging his interviewer, the editor Yasser Rizk, to launch a campaign on his behalf to secure his position constitutionally. "You should run a campaign with the intellectuals that there should be an article in the constitution that protects General Sisi and protects my position as minister of defence and allows him [Sisi] to return to the position if he doesn’t get into the presidency,” Al-Sisi's voice was quite clearly to be heard.

Though Al-Masry Al-Youm hasn't denied the authenticity of the recording, it has announced that it filed a report against Rassd News Network (RNN) for EGP 50 million ($7.2 million) over publishing a fabricated clip, selectively editing the recordings and tarnishing the reputation of the armed forces.

The importance of this recording is not confined to exposing the "suspicious" relationship between the armed forces chief and local media outlets, since the latter became heavily pro-military after the "popular" ouster of president Morsi on July 3, but it also sheds light on the stance of the so-called "elites" and public figures in Egyptian society. Khaled Youssef, a well-known director and a member of Egypt's 50-member constitution committee, maintained that the recording had been selectively re-edited placing various audio clips in a new arrangement! As proof, he adduced: "All Egyptians know well that if he (Sisi) runs for presidency, he will overwhelmingly win. So, it is not logical to say he wants to return to his position as a defence minister if he loses the elections."

Similarly, Hassan Shahin, a member of the Tamarod movement, wrote a post on his Facebook page, labelling Rassd's leaked recording as "fabricated", but went even further to accuse the news network of adopting the "Muslim Brotherhood's Zionist and American agendas"!

On the whole, it is likely that the majority of Egyptians will shrug off and disregard the leaked recordings, manipulated or re-edited or not, as there is a huge wave of popular support for General Al-Sisi among Egyptians. But, what remains most important is the attitude of the most powerful man in Egypt toward the media. The 1950's and 1960's tactics of terrorizing the media and intimidating journalists, not to mention shutting down outlets and television channels which are not adopting the regime viewpoints, could prove rather futile in the current digital age of wireless networking, tablet PCs and smartphones.      

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