New brushstrokes on Egypt’s canvas

New brushstrokes on Egypt’s canvas

Modern Egypt has been compared to a surrealist painting: difficult to decipher and comprehend, dominated by dark, abrasive lines at the centre yet giving way to softer, more hopeful brush strokes at the periphery. Tarek Osman, the excellent writer who conceived the metaphor, used it to describe the politics, society and culture of the nation as a whole. But it also works when applied to the country”s complex media landscape, the shifting contours of which – in print, on television and through the web – have been thrown into sharp relief in recent days.

The big news has been the presidential pardon of the controversial editor and outspoken regime critic Ibrahim Eissa, who sits at the helm of al-Dostour newspaper. This phenomenally popular daily has been a constant thorn in the government”s side since it reopened in 2005 – seven years after being shut down for publishing an Islamist statement. In August last year, as whispers regarding Hosni Mubarak”s health swirled through the streets, Eissa had the mendacity to write:

The president in Egypt is a god and gods don”t get sick. Thus, President Mubarak, those surrounding him, and the hypocrites hide his illness and leave the country prey to rumours. It is not a serious illness. It”s just old age. But the Egyptian people are entitled to know if the president is down with something as minor as the flu.

In an Orwellian doublespeak world where the president declares his belief in press freedom to be “unshakeable” and promises that no journalist will go to jail for doing their job, that paragraph was enough to land Eissa in court, where he was accused of single-handedly undermining international confidence in Egypt”s stability and wiping $350m off the stock market.

The protracted legal drama that followed finally came to an end this week, when Mubarak used the occasion of Armed Forces Day to publicly revoke Eissa”s two-month prison sentence, a sentence which Eissa had warned would “open the gates of hell for the Egyptian press.” The blogosphere was underwhelmed by the president”s generosity. “Mubarak is most misericordious and most merciful, is He not?” commented a particularly earnest fan.

On the face of it, Eissa”s pardon does little to change the reality of press censorship in Egypt. As the Cairo-based journalist Will Ward has pointed out, the case against Eissa was more about “touching up” the invisible red line prohibiting reports on the health of Mubarak, who turned 80 this year, than putting any individuals behind bars, and in this respect the state has got what it wanted. It”s clear that any genuine commitment to freedom of expression can”t be dependent on the arbitrary whims of a corrupt autocrat – hence the continued presence of those dark, abrasive lines at the centre of the painting, where control over information seems to flow in one direction only.

But look closer and you”ll see the picture become more complex. As the political analyst Khalil al-Anani has observed while exploring the efforts of the Egyptian state to protect itself by silencing civil opposition, “the dilemma of authoritarian regimes is that they are stupid”. I”ve written here before about how the ruling elite”s ham-fisted attempts to handle the independent media sector have backfired; in a globalised media environment it”s simply impossible for the regime to “get the cat back in the bag” when it comes to the broadcasting of opposition voices in public.

Moreover, legal attacks on prominent figures like Eissa are a source of keen embarrassment to the younger generation of party high-fliers clustered around the president”s son Gamal, who preaches the rhetoric of openness and transparency (while climbing into bed with some of the country”s most dishonest businessmen). This younger cadre is expected to make its voice heard at the ruling NDP”s annual conference next month.

The result is that such intermittent media crackdowns, the repainting of those thick dark lines on the picture, actually serve to blur the lineation of power in Egypt, creating new opportunities for other political actors to stake a claim.

And the really interesting thing about the media landscape in Egypt is the way in which those other political actors are also being emboldened, checked and divided by the opening up of the country”s media scene. The spread of internet access, while still largely restricted to the urban middle class and increasingly monitored by the government, is funnelling a plurality of voices into the political mix, and the NDP aren”t the only organisation to be shaken up by the ensuing turmoil.

The Muslim Brotherhood, technically Egypt”s largest opposition group despite being legally outlawed, is facing a tsunami of dissent from within its own ranks as young Islamist bloggers attack the conservative leadership for their stance on religious freedom and women”s rights. The bloggers “have gone beyond their role as a media tool” for the brotherhood, according to a recent edition of Arab Insight, and have emerged instead as “rebels, freed from ideological and organisational constraints.” The dynamism of Egypt”s new media has proved a double-edged sword for the Brotherhood”s old guard, who have discovered, perhaps too late, that your enemy”s enemy isn”t always your friend.

Despite the bitter setbacks faced by journalists across different formats trying to expose injustice and improbity at the heart of the Arab world”s largest country, the government”s suffocating grip on the media here is slowly weakening. There is nothing linear about this process: writers and activists whose work is channelled through the net are routinely rounded up; the explosion of foreign satellite channels in recent years has been accompanied by police raids on programme-makers; the rise of independent ownership within the Egyptian newspaper industry is undermined by court cases against non-compliant editors.

But the critical feature of this media environment is that these shocks to the system, the heavy-handed application of black lines on the canvas, are constantly creating new opportunities for colourful and unexpected brush strokes on the margins – and those margins are encroaching upon the centre day by day.