Three years after the euphoric toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, there’s a tragic sense of déjà vu in Egypt. The military-led government is smothering dissent, whether it comes from the Muslim brotherhood, liberal activists, bloggers, or journalists. In a landscape in which both state and private media toe the military line, the online newspaper Mada Masr is a rare independent voice. Bob speaks with the paper’s editor-in-chief, Lina Attalah, about how she’s experiencing the crackdown.
BOB GARFIELD: Three years after many protesters died in the process of toppling Hosni Mubarak’s
authoritarian regime, there’s a tragic sense of déjà vu in Egypt.
CORRESPONDENT: Egyptian police firing at the crowds rounding up demonstrators, protesters throwing stones and fire bombs at the police.
[SOUND OF BOMBS, CROWD]
Angry scenes similar to the ones Egypt witnessed exactly three years ago today.
BOB GARFIELD: The military-led government is now smothering dissent, whether it comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal activists, bloggers or journalists. This week, at least a dozen reporters were assaulted or detained, while covering clashes between police and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on the third anniversary of Mubarak’s downfall. And state prosecutors charged 20 Aljazeera reporters with inventing news that, quote, “raises alarms about the state’s collapse.” This capped off a week in which Morsi appeared at his own criminal trial, locked in a soundproof glass cage, unable to hear or be heard, without the judge pressing a button. And this, as both state and private media depicts the man who deposed him, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, as a national hero. In this landscape, the online newspaper Mada Masr is a rare independent voice. Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief. She described her experience of the current crackdown.
LINA ATTALAH: There has been an unprecedented tightening of the political space in general, and this is quite a development, I’d say, from the Mubarak time because Mubarak had actually left deliberately some margin of freedom through some relatively, relatively free media, and this was a survival mechanism. Right now, we’re not even finding that margin. The margins are being tightened more and more. And I’m pretty sure this is not really sustainable, particularly after the revolution.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s easy to understand how the, the state media are under heel of Field Marshal Sisi, but there are private media as well which are nominally independent, but they have all fallen in right behind state media. Why?
LINA ATTALAH: They were born in the early and mid-2000, famous businessmen invested in these enterprises as a tool of putting pressure on the Mubarak regime back then, and it worked because they could actually get certain confession from the regime.
Now, this dynamic completely changed with the advent of the Morsi regime because for the Morsi regime most of these media have been considered extremely threatening to his rule and to the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood in ruling. And product was a lot of limitation, many attempts by the Morsi regime to limit the space in which those private media were functioning. So in response, it was only natural for lots of these media to collaborate with the military in ousting the Morsi regime by fueling very strong anti-Brotherhood sentiment. And right now, we are stuck with those private media basically saying in their alliance with the military, which is a crisis because we have to remember that these media did manage, actually, to present an alternative narrative to that of the state media, and they managed to actually put pressure on the regime back then.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’ll forgive me, from a distance, following the Egyptian press over the past three years has reminded me of a couple of Hollywood movies. The first is The Wizard of Oz.
When Mubarak was ousted, it was like when Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the West: “Ding-dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead.” And the journalists declared that at long last they were free to conduct real journalism. But now –
LINA ATTALAH: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - they remind me of Captain Renault in Casablanca, blowing with the prevailing winds.
LINA ATTALAH: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you make of your colleagues?
LINA ATTALAH: I do believe that there are journalists that are trying to be independent and that are trying to present the truth of the matter, but the problem really is that these journalists are housed within institutions that have declared their allegiances to the military and the pro-military government. And the problem also is that a lot of these private institutions are extremely hierarchical, extremely dictatorial, even though they were born around a certain ambition of independence or of being different from the state, unfortunately, have ended up internalizing a lot of the practices of that very autocratic state.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about you for a moment. During Morsi’s brief time in power, what was the nature of your reporting? Can you be accused of being in the pocket of the Muslim Brotherhood?
LINA ATTALAH: Just as we’re accused of that, sometimes the Muslim Brotherhood comes in and says that we are spies and we are some pro-military youth who are just spreading false information about them. And I think there is something healthy about being equally criticized by the two sides because it means that we are basically taking neither side.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m sorry to ask the following question, and I fear for what I will think if I hear it again some weeks or months from now, but why aren't you in jail?
LINA ATTALAH: I rely on the fact that maybe we haven’t gotten on the radar yet, and we hope we won’t because no one wants to end up in prison, obviously. I don’t feel they are capable of rounding up every single dissident voice. Whatever we think of the revolution, whatever we think of how many failures it had, definitely it’s forged an opening of political thinking and political opinions that cannot be all of a sudden silenced.
BOB GARFIELD: Lina, thank you very much.
LINA ATTALAH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief of Mada Masr. She spoke to us from Cairo.