Friday, October 15, 2010

'We must not tame ourselves': Media crackdown raises the stakes for journalists in Egypt


-Taken from the New Statesman and the Arab Press Network
-Cairo - October 2010

Just two days before Egypt's most dissident newspaper editor was forced out of his job, he sat down to type a remarkably prescient editorial. "It's impossible for the Egyptian regime to give up election rigging," wrote Ibrahim Eissa. "So the solution it has devised is that instead of putting a stop to rigging, it will put a stop to the talk about rigging. Hence the steps to rein in the satellite media; up next are newspapers. Perhaps soon we'll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians' freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt."

Forty-eight hours after that column hit the newsstands, Eissa - a 46 year old who in recent years has done more than any other individual to challenge the state's hegemony over public narratives on Egypt and its politics - was summarily sacked. The removal of Eissa from Al-Dostour, a leading daily newspaper, was a personal blow to a man who has spent his entire career on the mercurial borders of Egypt's vibrant (though limited) world of officially-sanctioned independent media, but it also represents something far more chilling and expansive - and throws up a personal challenge to every journalist working in Egypt today.

The breadth and clout of independent media organs has ebbed and flowed in recent years in accordance with the sensitivities of Egypt's authoritarian Mubarak regime. At times of relative 'liberalisation' contrarian voices have flourished - not as a result of government beneficence, as ruling party NDP officials would have one believe, but rather because of the technological innovations (satellite television, the internet, mobile phones) which have made top-down mastery of the media in the 21st century an absurdity (if not a complete impossibility), as well as the government's need to demonstrate a degree of glasnost to its western allies and sponsors.

Exploiting the changing media climate to subvert the rules of the game has long been the goal of Eissa and many others like him, determined as they are to offer sceptical audiences an alternative slant to the rose-tinted, photoshopped window onto Egypt and its leaders that gets served up by the state-controlled press with formulaic consistency. In pursuit of this end they have benefitted, just as the street-level opposition movements to the government have benefitted, from the canny utilisation of political events like Israel's assaults on Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008-9, which evoke angry sentiments and throw into sharp relief the detachment of the ruling elite from the mass of public opinion.

Meanwhile at times of potential political volatility, or generally when the regime feels up against the ropes, the space in which criticism is tolerated gets reined in, usually through a flurry of legal cases, forced resignations and bureaucratic thuggery. As someone who has always been pushing the boundaries of that space - and a veteran himself of many a courtroom battle with the powers that be - Eissa was important not just for what he achieved, but also for what he revealed about the febrile state of free expression in the Arab World's largest country. From the establishment of Al-Dostour in 1995, to its closure in 1998 and triumphant re-emergence in 2005, right up to the trials, sentences and pardons of 2007 onwards, Eissa has been a bellwether for the health of the independent media sector, dredging ever-shifting invisible red lines to the surface - normally by stepping over them.

Which is why his sacking last week by Al-Dostour's new owner, Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, tells us something deeply worrying about the direction Egypt is heading in. Al-Badawi is the president of Al-Wafd, a political party that, like the rest of Egypt's official opposition, exists primarily to legitimise the one-party rule of the NDP by coating Egypt's parliament in a sheen of superficial plurality. Al-Wafd are widely believed to have struck a deal with the regime which will offer them a larger share of seats in next month's rigged parliamentary elections in exchange for assistance in neutering the less malleable elements of the opposition, including former UN nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei who called for a boycott of the polls - a call that Al-Wafd has unsurprisingly chosen to ignore. Ever since Al-Badawi took over Al-Dostour rumours have been circulating that he would be employed as the government's tool to silence Eissa, and so it has proved; after reeling off a series of pious promises regarding the sanctity of Al-Dostour's editorial independence, Al-Badawi swiftly conjured up a fake controversy over the publication of an front-page op-ed by ElBaradei (on the anniversary of Egypt's 1973 war with Israel) and used it as a pretext for giving Eissa his marching orders.

Many of the newspaper's staff walked out in response, claiming that political pressure had been behind the sacking. They were right. In recent weeks prominent dissidents Alaa al-Aswany and Hamdi Qandeel have also had their public platforms removed (in this case regular columns in Al-Shorouk), part of a wider process of other independent dailies being corralled into self-censorship. The result is that the space available in the print media for holding the country's business and political elite to account is being slowly but steadily curtailed.

Set alongside a parallel crackdown on independent voices in the satellite media - which has seen four channels shut down, popular TV chatshows hauled off air, a series of high-profile resignations (including Eissa himself, from the popular Baladna Bel-Masri show), and the launch of a new channel by regime acolyte Ahmed Ezz, as well as this week's new set of regulations that effectively puts all live TV news broadcasting under state control - and it is clear that a sustained, organised and state-orchestrated operation is underway to muzzle any influential voices of dissent as Egypt enters a period of unprecedented political uncertainty. With the 82 year old Hosni Mubarak looking increasingly frail, succession plans for his son running into trouble, and both parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled over the next year, never has it been more important for Egypt's leaders to re-establish a semblance of dominion over the flow of information reaching the public.

Nor is this pressure restricted to media outlets. NGOs continue to fight attempts to criminalise their work following the circulation of a draft law earlier this year which would slash away the independence of civil society organisations and suffocate government criticism. New restrictions on SMS messaging have just been unveiled that will hinder the opposition's ability to mobilise support on the ground. And elsewhere the instruments of state control over Egypt's population remain shrouded in secrecy: the broadcasting and even basic reporting of court cases - such as the trial of two policemen alleged to have beaten an Alexandrian man to death in broad daylight after he posted an online video of corrupt officers apparently engaging in the narcotics trade - has now been prohibited, official candidacy information for the parliamentary vote is no longer published publicly, and the workings of the Higher Election Commission, a government-controlled body who have replaced judicial supervision of elections and presided over this year's Shura Council poll with spectacular efficiency (the NDP won over 90% of the seats), continue to be a mystery.

Yes, spaces still exist for free expression and debate in Egypt, and yes, the scope of media freedom remains wider than what's on offer in many of the country's regional neighbours, but there is undoubtedly a new and distressing air of intimidation emanating from the regime at the moment, and one with potentially very dangerous consequences. "Everything is exposed," wrote former presidential candidate Ayman Nour on twitter in the aftermath of Eissa's removal. Columnist Issandr El-Amrani has called it the end of the 'Cairo spring' and the start of a 'Cairo autumn'; blogger Baheyya concludes simply that "the government is intent on controlling all sources of alternative knowledge."

Eissa himself has likened this multi-pronged crackdown to a stage being set for the magician's final act, and some are now asking what role international journalists will be assigned within the theatrics. In his now infamous penultimate editorial Eissa listed a number of places where the state's fist would strike next, and found to his personal cost that his first guess - newspapers - was entirely correct. If the rest of his predictions are as accurate then the 'representatives of the western media' will soon also be targeted - not, in all probability, by the sort of harassment and intimidation which Egyptian colleagues have to contend with, but rather, according to Eissa, through some sort of 'understanding' which foreign editorial desks will reach with the regime.

Here I think Eissa may be wrong, partly because the political and PR repercussions of a wholesale assault on the foreign media are too risky (though that doesn't mean that individual correspondents won't necessarily be singled out, as some have been in the past), and partly for a more depressing reason: that such a move would achieve very little. By and large the western media apparatus does little to interrogate the regime-friendly prism through which events in Egypt are seen by the outside world; indeed it does rather more to strengthen it. This is a prism which gets peddled aggressively by lobbyists like the Podesta and Livingston groups on Capitol Hill and Bell Pottinger in London, all of which are paid handsome sums by the Egyptian government to spread one message - Mubarak equals stability - and rarely do we see that narrative challenged.

That's not to say that western media coverage flatters the president or his government; human rights abuses are certainly documented and protests get reported, albeit without the sort of prominence afforded to opposition activity in countries which aren't led by 'moderate' allies of the west. But through its selection and presentation of news from Egypt the international press often subtly entrenches the status quo perspective on Egypt in the west, and that in turn helps subtly reinforce the status quo configuration of political power in Cairo.

I've written elsewhere in more detail about what that perspective involves and why it receives such a sympathetic airing in the print columns and TV news segments of the western media; without repeating myself at length here suffice to say it comprises a misleading analysis of Egypt's neoliberal economic reform programme, skewed reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood - describing it continuously in the terms of an omnipotent threat to the survival of Egypt as a liberal, secular state rather than an complex, diffuse organisation that has a symbiotic relationship with the ruling elite - and a tendency towards supposedly depoliticised 'colour stories', which exaggerate the cleavage between 'religious fundamentalists' and 'secular forces' and leave many genuinely remarkable political developments, like the rise of the labour movement, completely unreported. All of which strengthens the message about Egypt and its current government that the Mubarak regime is desperate to sell to the international community, in order to preserve from that community the uninterrupted flow of political support and hard cash that the regime's survival depends on.

As journalists like Joris Luyendijk and Nick Davies have painstakingly explained, the institutionalisation of misleading news reporting has dizzyingly deep roots and is hardly confined to Egypt alone. But the present media crackdown makes it all the more important for the international press to raise their game and shine an even harsher spotlight on the social, political and economic violations perpetrated against Egyptian citizens by their rulers, particularly with sham elections looming just around the corner. Although it can never be a sustainable alternative to good quality domestic reporting, international press reports can serve as a vital enabler to local media outlets; in the past, some newspapers and TV shows have been able to skirt around local restrictions that were hindering publication of a certain story by reporting instead on the reports of foreign correspondents, who face less constraints going about their work. And in the best of cases the coverage of foreign media outlets can in its own right serve to inform Egyptians who can access it on the internet, carving out a small but increasingly vital island of free expression and in a limited way helping to defend Egyptian citizens against the egregious excesses of the state - as well as puncturing the pyramid-sphinx-Nile axis of clichés that dominates vistas on Egypt from beyond its borders.

With other sources of debate and dissent being shut down, it's imperative that foreign journalists exploit their inherent logistical advantages to the full. The government is trying to tame every organ of scrutiny within Egypt's borders; in this climate it's more crucial than ever that we do not tame ourselves.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Egypt's last leprosy colony broaches time of integration

"This place is paradise": Leprosy patients reluctant to leave colony despite change in attitude towards sufferers

-Taken from the Guardian
-Abu Zaabal, Egypt - October 2010

It was 59 years ago that Ahmed Ali was grabbed from his house by the Egyptian security services and bundled into an unmarked car, but he remembers the day with perfect clarity. "A neighbour contacted the authorities and told them that I had the leprosy disease, and in those days that's all it took," he said. "I was confused and I was terrified. I had no idea where they were taking me."

Ali's destination was Abu Zaabal, Egypt's only surviving leprosy colony. Back in the 1950s this was an isolated community set deep in the Egyptian desert and guarded day and night by camel-mounted policemen.

Now, following significant medical advances and a sea-change in social attitudes towards leprosy, Abu Zaabal's doors have finally been thrown open again. But, despite their new freedom, its residents are refusing to leave. "This place is paradise," said Ali. "Why would I want to go?"

The future of the colony is now at the heart of a debate about how sufferers of one of the most stigmatising diseases can be reintegrated into society. "Colonies were built for an era where the only known treatment for leprosy was complete quarantine," said Dr Salah Abd El-Naby, head of the leprosy programme at Egypt's ministry of health. "That's no longer the case."

Despite specialist outpatient clinics having opened up in every governorate in the country, negating the need for the isolation of leprosy patients, official efforts to bring Abu Zaabal's days as a separate community to an end have been met with stiff resistance from the patients themselves.

The story of Abu Zaabal begins in 1933, when a leprosy colony was established in what was then a remote wasteland 20 miles outside of Cairo. Originally intended to be a self-sustaining community incorporating 125 acres of farmland, patients brought to Abu Zaabal instead found themselves locked in an open-air prison with little contact with the outside world. Shunned by fearful locals and with few resources to fall back on, the colony soon slipped into disrepair.

"You can't imagine what it was like back then," recalled Gian Vittoria, an Italian nun who arrived at Abu Zaabal in 1985. "The government hired nuns from abroad to treat patients here because no Egyptian nurses would come near the place. When we arrived we found it completely trashed."

Over the past decade, though, a series of dramatic improvements has transformed the largest leprosy colony in the Middle East into a thriving village of 6,000 people.

Three-quarters of them are former leprosy patients who rely on the colony hospital for ongoing medication; many have married and had children, while some outsiders have also been attracted to job opportunities inside the compound. "Everything's different now," explained Dr Ahmed Rashad, director of Abu Zaabal's hospital. He grew up in a nearby town and remembers his school friends spreading dark rumours about the colony, which was situated far from roads and across a river. "Leprosy had a fearsome reputation back then and we were all scared of the patients living behind those walls. Now a lot of money has come in from foreign donors and we have a bakery, a kitchen, a shoe workshop and even a broom factory; even those with quite severe deformities are offered employment tending to the gardens and keeping the place clean."

Formerly far removed from other settlements, Abu Zaabal has now been enveloped by Cairo's rapidly-expanding urban sprawl; where empty desert once stood, the capital's fringes have crept right up to the colony's doors. The patients' new proximity to wider society has reflected a shift in global attitudes towards leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease – one of the oldest medical conditions on record.

In the middle ages sufferers of leprosy in some parts of the world were made to wear bells and use separate currency due to the assumed contagiousness of the disease, and as recently as 1985 it was still considered a significant health issue in 122 countries.

Modern research, however, has shown that 95% of people are naturally immune to leprosy and that the disease is not hereditary; in the past 20 years multi-drug therapy has cured 15 million patients, and the days when forced quarantine was considered the only possible treatment have long been left behind.

According to El-Naby, that is why the residents of Abu Zaabal are now free to come and go as they please. In recent years though, fewer than 200 patients have chosen to move outside of the colony's walls.

"I spent my youth here, I built a house here, I married my wife here – this is the place I've constructed my life," insisted Radi Gamal, a 40-year-old who was brought to Abu Zaabal from the northern Egyptian town of Beni Suef while in his teens. His friend, Yasin Ali, who earns 150 Egyptian pounds (£16) a month doing plumbing jobs in the colony, agrees. "This used to be a prison, and yes we're now allowed to leave," he observed while playing dominoes on one of the colony's neatly trimmed lawns.

"But outside these walls when I see people who are fine looking at my deformed hands, I feel ashamed. Here we're all the same, there's a sense of belonging."

As in other parts of the world where individuals living with leprosy are concentrated, self-stigmatisation of patients and misconceptions held by non-sufferers about how the disease is transmitted continue to act as barriers to full integration.

"People in the surrounding areas are still afraid, there's no point pretending otherwise," said Vittoria. "But today you see many Egyptians arriving with food, clothes and other donations, and the patients themselves have helped build a remarkably successful home. The story of Abu Zaabal is a happy one."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Egyptian chatshows that talk too much

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - October 2010

For millions of Egyptians, tuning into one of the numerous political chatshows that dominate the evening TV schedules is as habitual as eating dinner or lighting up a Cleopatra cigarette. Anchored by heavyweight stars, the high-profile programmes have played a major role in the expansion of Egypt’s vibrant independent media sector in recent years – but that could be about to change.

After a series of resignations, business bust-ups and show cancellations, the chatshow industry has been left reeling and analysts are attributing the problems to a government crackdown on dissent in the run up to November’s contentious parliamentary elections.

One of the most popular shows, "Al-Qahira Al-Yom" ("Cairo Today") has already been pulled off air following a tussle with state-owned production studios which claim they are owed money for studio rental; the show’s co-host, Ahmed Moussa, has already dismissed the legal wrangle as a fabrication, insisting that "government malice" was behind the move and warning that "someone wants to crush freedom of expression and opinion".

Meanwhile, rival production "Baladna Bel-Masri" just lost its famous host Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent independent newspaper editor and outspoken government critic, who suddenly quit the show mid-season with no explanation. Although the programme producers quickly insisted Eissa’s departure was not politically motivated, Eissa, himself a veteran of many a court battle with the Mubarak regime, has pointedly refused to comment on the situation.

According to Gamal Eid, executive director of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, applying the screws to independent television is a well-worn tactic by the state. "Certainly there’s political pressure behind the latest developments," he told Monocle. "Both shows went beyond the red lines by tackling issues of corruption and political succession, and by disrupting their production the government is ensuring that the upcoming elections can be rigged without anyone being able to talk about it."

Soliman Gouda, a leading newspaper columnist who also hosts his own political chatshow, agrees. "How can anyone believe talk about electoral integrity when such television shows are being banned?" he wrote last month. "Everything that’s being said about the integrity of elections is just words. Nothing will be seen on the ground."

Gouda is right to worry – his program runs on the private Dream TV network, whose owner Ahmed Bahgat recently admitted that he would immediately 'shut the network down' if asked to do so by the authorities. "What else could we do? Would we challenge the state" asked Bahgat, who is currently saddled with a $500m debt to the (state-run) National Bank of Egypt.

The small-screen drama comes as the country gears up for a national poll that domestic and international observers believe is likely to be fixed in favour of the ruling party, and which has already provoked violent clashes on the capital’s streets between protesters and security forces.