The censorship of journalists by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood has “revived concerns about the methods the Islamists are willing to use to strengthen their hold on power” and prompted “accusations that the country’s new Islamist president is willing to tolerate — if not employ — the same heavy-handed tactics used by former President Hosni Mubarak to stifle dissent,” Kareem Fahim and Mayyel el Sheikh write in the New York Times:
Last week, the authorities suspended a satellite television channel that featured a program whose host is Tawfik Okasha, a strident opponent of President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. On Saturday, the authorities confiscated copies of the daily newspaper Al Dustour, which has published regular condemnations of the Islamist group. In other cases, editors have been faulted for tamping down criticism of Egypt’s new rulers. And on Wednesday, for the second time in a week, the editor of a state-owned daily newspaper was accused of censoring writers who wrote columns critical of the Brotherhood.
“These actions show, if anything, that they are jittery and really worried about their image,” said Hisham Kassem, a veteran publisher and democracy advocate. “The first thing they should have done is nullify the media laws of Mubarak, but instead they are using them to crack down on political opponents.”
Kassem said the moves showed that the new president and the group he hails from – the Muslim Brotherhood – were willing to use repressive tactics that were a mainstay of the Hosni Mubarak regime [and] showed a lack of political expertise on the part of the government. By seizing copies of the paper, which he said was one of the lower circulation dailies in Egypt, the government had drawn more attention to the editorial.
“After they did this, the editorial has spread everywhere. If they hadn’t taken the papers away, it would hardly have been read,” said Kassem (right), a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy and recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2007 award for his contribution to media freedom.
“What’s happening is very serious,” said Hani Shukrallah, the editor of Ahram Online, an English-language site. “We’ve got an organization that is not interested in democratizing the press, or freeing the press,” he said, referring to the Brotherhood. “It’s interested in taking it over.”
The celebrated writer Alaa al-Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building, said the charges against Al Dustour editor, Islam Afifi, for insulting the president and causing strife, “could be brought against any individuals who don’t please President Morsi.” He called on President Morsi to “stop chasing after journalists in order for Egyptians to be persuaded that he really wants to build real democracy.”
Egypt’s “transition to civilian rule” has proved to be neither liberal nor democratic, according to a prominent analyst.
“Egypt has a new dictator,” writes Eric Trager, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The evidence suggests that President Morsi “will use his expanded power to advance the Muslim Brotherhood’s radically intolerant domestic agenda,” he contends:
Consider the editors he appointed to lead Egypt’s two largest state-run newspapers. The new editor of Al-Ahram is an old Mubarak regime hack who called last year’s uprising “foreign funded” and lost his column in 2010 for writing anti-Christian articles. The new editor of Gomhoriya shut down a conference on religious freedoms in 2008 and called for the murder of a well-known Bahai activist in 2009. The new editor of Al-Akhbar recently censored an article that criticized the Brotherhood.
Observers are also underestimating Morsi on foreign policy, Trager suggests, noting that he is likely to be the first Egyptian head of state to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1979 revolution.
“Accompanying him could be his new chief of staff, Mohamed Rifaat al-Tahtawi, a former ambassador to Libya and Iran who has declared Israel to be Egypt’s ‘main threat,’ praised Syria as ‘a fundamental pillar of the resistance camp [against] Israel,’ and called for closer relations with Iran and Hamas,” he writes.
But Issandr El Amrani insists that “it is too soon to tell whether this new regime is a democratic one, an authoritarian one based on an alliance between Islamists and generals, or something in between.”
“The good news is that at least this means there is a regime of some kind. The last 18 months of post-Mubarak transition had a military regime in place that protested it was temporary but increasingly wanted to perpetuate itself,” says Issandr El Amrani, an independent Cairo-based journalist and visiting fellow at the European Center for Foreign Relations.
“The ambiguity of the last two months, during which the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave itself formal powers to co-rule with the new president, was unsustainable.”
More widely known as The Arabist blogger, Amrani criticizes Morsi for not adopting a more inclusive approach to governance by calling a national conference to negotiate a compromise on the constituent assembly.
But other observers believe the Islamists may yet be constrained by the judiciary and secular forces
“Morsi delivered a tremendously game-changing blow to the military” with last weekend’s reshuffle of senior security personnel, writes Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a blogger for EgyptSource:
The coming days will reveal the backlash to Morsi’s move as opposing forces regroup to counter what they see as an existential conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. While Tantawi and Anan appear to have accepted their retirement, more stubborn political and judicial authorities will no doubt make their plays soon enough. Morsi may have cornered the rooks, but he remains many moves away from a checkmate.
Egyptian liberals appear to be as characteristically divided and inchoate as ever, with many prominent secular activists opposing a planned “million man” protest outside the Brotherhood’s head office on 24 August.
“Amr Hamzawy, a former MP and head of the Egypt Freedom Party; Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement; Bahaa Abu Shaqa, a Wafd Party deputy; and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, an activist, are among those who have refused to take part in the anticipated protests,” reports suggest.
It is time for the president to address the ambiguities in his political discourse – what he means by being inclusive, what he means by respecting the civil state (a code word by which the Brotherhood means something that very much sounds like an Islamic state), and what he means by supporting an inclusive, consensual constitution.
“Morsi and his Islamist brethren could very well decide that they don’t need to reach out and simply impose their ideas,” he notes. “They might even decide that the only interlocutors they need are the generals. If they do so, Egypt will have missed the opportunity to begin a genuine democratisation – one that goes further than majority rule.”