Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 April 2005
Issue No. 738
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Osama El-Ghazali Harb

Fear of freedom

Hacks and conservatives may have a grip on the media but they paint a thin veneer over their hidden agendas, writes Osama El-Ghazali Harb*

If you were to trawl through Egyptian history from the moment Mina united the North and South some 51 centuries ago right up to the present day, you'd find nothing to compare to what the country's going through today. That's no exaggeration. In fact, there's no conclusive evidence that the Egyptian people -- whether ruled by the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mamelukes or the Ottomans -- ever chose their leaders. Following the French Expedition to Egypt, and the collapse of the Mameluke rule, when the Egyptians asked the Sublime Porte to appoint them a new leader, they got Mohamed Ali, a non-Egyptian! Egypt's first Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, came to power through a coup not an electoral process and then set about constructing an entirely undemocratic regime.

This current phase is almost certainly the direct result of President Hosni Mubarak's historic and unexpected call to amend the Egyptian constitution and allow direct popular elections for the president of the republic from amongst a number of candidates. Six weeks on from this surprise initiative, it's clearer that the call goes beyond dry debate and legislative tinkering. Indeed, it's an attempt to reform the political regime or -- more simply -- to inspire the construction of a second, democratic, republic and bring an end to the first, which 50 years after its inception has exhausted all its possibilities. There's no reason to suppose this process will be easy. The forces of reform and change, struggling to retain their unity, face a bitter and entrenched opponent in those who wish to fight such change, or at least deprive it of any meaningful content. In this context, it is impossible not to take seriously the sudden flowering in political and civil society that began after the call for constitutional change.

After 26 February many of these movements and organisations, which had sprung to prominence over the last few years with the growth of a wider reform movement and which had started to grow even within the NDP itself, gained new momentum, legitimacy and credibility. In recent weeks the new atmosphere has been reflected in a positive, democratic movement taking hold in a number of unions, renewed activity from political parties both old and new and unprecedented frankness from the independent and party-affiliated press. These developments all suggest that far from being dead and buried popular political forces were merely lying dormant, awaiting their chance, and that the Egyptian people are no different to men and women from other nations in their desire for freedom and democracy.

There can be no doubt that the demonstrations, the election debates within the unions and media criticism of the political leadership has occasionally gone beyond what is acceptable. But then again, such excesses have always been part and parcel of any such democratic change. The real cause for alarm is that the official media, be it the press, radio or television, has shown itself largely incapable of absorbing these new developments and continues to address its audience in an outdated language fundamentally at odds with the logic of political development.

In dealing with this new reality, the official media coverage wavers between the following three strategies:

First, completely ignoring it! This is an old strategy based on the premise that to ignore any protest -- be it demonstration, strike or sectarian conflict -- denies it recognition and helps limit its "negative" impact. The information revolution has rendered this strategy obsolete. No state can stem the tide of international media. All one does is force citizens to turn to papers, radio and satellite channels run by foreign media companies for their news and commentary. The official media, in turn, becomes nothing more than propaganda. When we realise that satellite television reaches all levels of Egyptian society -- no matter how devious some have to be to get hold of it -- and the formidable media potential of the Internet, the shortsightedness of official media policy quickly becomes clear.

Second, down-playing the significance of the event by burying a few short lines about it on the inside pages (if not the crime pages!) or at the end of another news story, in the deluded belief that mentioning it at all verifies "freedom" and "credibility" in coverage while leaving an impression of the insignificance of the event. This is an even greater mistake, since it announces the event to the hitherto ignorant reader who then goes searching for proper coverage in other press outlets, or on satellite channels.

Third, the attack strategy. Here, the news is not just announced, but analysed and commented upon. Sometimes it employs commentary from experts or academic researchers. It is designed to condemn and distort the nature of the protest in question, to pass it off as the deviant, irresponsible action of a small minority often described as "sick", "delinquent", "anarchic", or even as political operatives of some kind. These are the very terms that have recently been wheeled out to describe the demonstrations by the Kifaya movement and the Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy only serves to highlight the fact that large swathes of the official media continue to live in the 1950s, a proud example of the very worst in state- controlled, dictatorial media even as dictatorships and the absolute state are on the wane. The government and the NDP are presented as having a monopoly on wisdom and virtue, while their opponents are nothing more than enemy agents, fools and scoundrels.

It will take bravery if we are to change this. It makes no sense to bombard citizens with calls to participate in the political process, if we then try and control every aspect of this participation. It's disgraceful that citizens be attacked for nothing more than honestly and bravely expressing their views within the law and constitution, regardless of whether some go a little far every now and then!

But most dangerous of all, these policies threaten to erase the positive aspects of current political developments in Egypt and send a highly negative message about the credibility and authenticity of these developments to the outside world. The message tells them -- and tells us, too -- that these are merely cosmetic changes, and not the start of Egypt's true democratic transformation.

It's the wrong message! The process of change, democracy and freedom is ongoing and won't be stopped by those opposed to democracy and fearful of freedom.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.

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