With Egypt's presidential campaign entering its second week, rival candidates — former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi — have spent the last seven days unveiling their electoral platforms, hoping to widen their public appeal and win over converts from the opposing camp.
Controversial statements on press freedoms made by El-Sisi on Thursday may have had an opposite effect, however, costing him the support of rights advocates and some liberals.
The former defence minister and current presidential candidate El-Sisi on Thursday warned top editors of Egypt's main newspapers against pressing for freedom of speech and other rights, adding that media freedom should take into account national security. El-Sisi urged editors to focus instead on rallying the public behind "the strategic goal of preserving the state."
In a meeting with the editors, the retired army chief — who is widely expected to win the 26-27 May presidential election — also said that full democracy is "an idealistic goal" that can take up to 25 years to achieve. He cautioned against coverage that "fuels tensions and scepticism," insisting that calls for freedom of speech and democracy pose a threat to national security.
"Egypt cannot bear more uneasiness. I fear that if we practice democracy, we won’t find a nation," he said, adding that calls for free speech by some journalists encourage protests that are "disrupting people's lives" to continue, making it exceedingly difficult for the poor to earn their livelihoods.
"There are millions of people and families who cannot earn a living because of the protests. It is one of the manifestations of instability," he told the editors.
El-Sisi's statements came amid a widening security crackdown on dissenters of all stripes. Following the toppling of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi by military-backed protests last July, the army quickly moved to shut down Islamist TV channels and publications. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters have since been arrested and detained while at least 1,400 others have been killed in clashes with security forces. What started as a clampdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters has in recent months expanded , targeting secular activists and journalists as well.
Over the last 10 months, 65 journalists have been detained with 17 of them still languishing behind bars, according to a recent report released by the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). Three journalists working for Al-Jazeera's English-language network have been in jail since December, charged with "spreading false news that harms national security" and "aiding a terror group" — accusations the international news network has categorically denied.
Several prominent activists have also been imprisoned for participating in protests against a draconian law banning demonstrations without prior permission from the interior ministry. Last week, an Egyptian court outlawed the April 6 Youth Movement — the group that mobilised public support for the 25 January 2011 uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. A lawyer who filed the legal complaint against the group had accused its members of "espionage" and "defaming Egypt." The charges were based on leaked telephone conversations with some members of the group that were aired on an Egyptian satellite channel. Prosecutors used the leaks as "evidence" that the youth movement had "colluded with foreign powers to destroy the country." The verdict follows a December court ruling designating the Muslim Brotherhood as "a terrorist organisation." The court also outlawed the Islamist group's activities and froze its assets.
Moreover, El-Sisi told the editors that he had voiced his "reservations about foreign funding to civil society organisations" in talks with Western officials, adding that some of these groups were seeking to "topple the state." Amid nationalistic fervour and a rising tide of xenophobia in Egypt, the local media has been awash with foreign conspiracies of plots to "destroy the country." Any journalist who deviates from the state narrative or is remotely sympathetic to the "terror group" is labelled a "traitor," "fifth column" or "spy" by the "patriots" in society. In the climate of intimidation and fear, many journalists have opted to go with the flow and have fallen back into the old habit of practicing self-censorship.
Contrary to expectations that El-Sisi would ask journalists to adopt a zero tolerance attitude towards corruption, he instead requested that they hold off on holding officials accountable and attempting to unveil corruption cases. "Give officials four months to do their jobs before you attempt to expose corruption," he said.
El-Sisi's latest statements are in line with earlier remarks he made to senior army officers during the months preceding the military takeover of the country. In a video, leaked on social media networks before Morsi's ouster, he had sought to allay the concerns of some officers who had expressed their dismay at public scrutiny of the army. Responding to the officers who had called for the restoration of "red lines" to curb criticism of the military, El-Sisi had pledged to recruit allies in the news media. He told the officers to be patient, adding that "building an alliance with the media takes time and effort."
"The revolution has dismantled all the shackles that were in place — not just for the military, but for the entire state. These shackles are being rearranged and it will take time until you possess an appropriate share of influence over the media," he had said at the time.
The leaked video and El-Sisi's recent statements to the local editors signal a continuation of the restrictive media atmosphere that has prevailed since 30 June 2013, should El-Sisi win the election. His recent comments have dashed hopes of the state loosening its tight grip on the media and a possible reversal of the repressive policies currently in place to silence critics.
In sharp contrast to what many young revolutionaries perceive as El-Sisi's "counter-revolutionary" plans, leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi — El Sisi's sole rival in the upcoming election — has sought to allay rights activists' growing concerns over the dwindling space for free expression, vowing to do all he can to "protect freedoms."
"A successful administration is one that is held accountable for its actions and allows the people to monitor government performance," he said in an interview broadcast on the independent Al-Nahar Channel last week.
Sabahi — the more viable of the two candidates for Egypt's secular revolutionary activists — also vowed to revoke the "stifling" and much detested anti-protest law, if he were elected.
He also said that the "path for development would start with new legislation, including the establishment of an independent commission to promote transparency and fight corruption."
Meanwhile, Sabahi has announced plans to appoint three vice presidents, each tasked with overseeing development, democracy, and transitional justice and security respectively. The Nasserist politician has also promised to be a "president of the poor," vowing to "bring justice to those who have been wronged for so long."
Sabahi's campaign message of being "one of the people" rather than a member of the political elite has won him a large following from among the country's teeming poor, liberals and revolutionaries. Many of the young activists who led the protests that toppled the autocratic Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 are seriously concerned about a return to oppressive military rule and the police state they helped dismantle three years ago.
Meanwhile, three years of civil unrest, demonstrations and economic stagnation have taken their toll on the majority of Egyptians. Consequently, Field Marshal El-Sisi's electoral campaign message prioritising stability seems to resonate well with Mubarak regime remnants, the majority of Egypt's Coptic Christians (who were terrified of Islamist rule) and weary Egyptians yearning for security and a return to a state of normalcy. Many Egyptians are turning a blind eye to the rights violations practiced by the interim military-backed authorities, including the lethal use of force by security forces against "anti-coup" protesters. Some have even condoned the killings and mass detentions of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as "necessary" to rid the country of the people they call terrorists whose aim, they say, is to destroy Egypt and plunge it into chaos.
And those people are telling us "freedom can wait, stability must come first."
Shahira Amin is an Independent Journalist and Egypt contributor to Index on Censorship.