Egypt: The Boundaries of Acceptable Dissent

5 MINS READMay 5, 2016 | 20:43 GMT
Journalists outside the Cairo headquarters of the Egyptian press syndicate on May 4 call for the interior minister's resignation two days after two reporters were arrested in an unprecedented police raid.

One of the most powerful mechanisms of control the Egyptian government has at its disposal — the press — is pushing back. Weeks of protests became even tenser this weekend when two journalists were arrested during a raid on the national press syndicate headquarters in Cairo, sparking a larger debate over how much government interference the Egyptian media should tolerate.

Cairo, of course, is as firmly in control of the country’s security today as it was before the weekend protests. Still, the treatment of the press has emboldened the opposition. After the Arab Spring of 2011, the government tightly controlled the flow of information, but now, as the press pushes back, the boundaries of acceptable dissent could expand some — especially since Cairo is still focused on its depressed economy and on security issues throughout the country.

After days of tense demonstrations, 2,000 journalists met in an official congress at the Egyptian press syndicate May 4 in Cairo to discuss their response to what they see as transgressions against them by the Interior Ministry. Hundreds of protesters joined on the steps outside while many more gathered beyond the limits of a heavily fortified police line. The weekend raid on the press syndicate with its symbolic front steps — a site of opposition protests over many decades — tipped simmering frustrations over the edge. Interior Ministry emails leaked May 3 instructing ministry employees on how to react to the press without admitting wrongdoing exacerbated the issue. The final resolution after the May 4 emergency meeting included an agreement to declare a journalists' strike May 10 if Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar had not stepped down by then. The journalists also demanded a formal apology from President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi for infringing on the syndicate, which had never before been raided in its 75-year history, even under the tight control of Hosni Mubarak.

In addition, members of the media demanded that legislation be drafted to bar imprisonment for publishing-related crimes and that all journalists detained in "publishing-related cases" be released. Those are the most daring requests the press has made — and ones that reveal that dissatisfaction with the Interior Ministry is a general expression of frustration against the state of the Egyptian government itself, long accused by the opposition of detaining too many citizens unnecessarily. It is also a demand that might be heeded, at least in part, so long as the imprisoned journalists do not have ties with the government's ultimate villains: Islamists and their sympathizers.

In many ways, Wednesday's meeting was the strongest display of media defiance since 2011 against the perceived increase of police brutality in Egypt. And in Egypt today, no demonstration is restricted purely to its announced purpose. Similar to the weekend's protests against the Interior Ministry, the demonstrations over the past weeks over the territorial sovereignty of Egypt — focused on the islands of Tiran and Sanafir and the government's surrender of the territory to Saudi Arabia — were hardly about the unused land but were more about the frustration of relying on the handouts of wealthier outside patrons. To be sure, all such recent demonstrations pale in comparison to the Arab Spring protests that toppled Mubarak, and most have been accompanied by pro-government demonstrations as well. Nonetheless, the recent demonstrations, while comparatively small, are a more direct means of negotiating opposition than is traditional. Before the Arab Spring, such expression of dissent would have been unheard of, but since the uprising, there is a lingering feeling of empowerment to express a small degree of dissent, though many of the economic and political problems that fueled the uprisings remain.

The Double Bind

On one hand, if al-Sisi and the government decide to acquiesce to any of the journalists' demands, it will exhibit a weakness that could establish a precedent for further protests and further demands in the future. But answering to demands by pushing the Interior Minister to resign or by releasing prisoners incarcerated for publishing-related crimes will mollify an important artery of government stability — the relatively independent but largely government-supporting press. If al-Sisi and the government opt to clamp down tighter on the press syndicate and do not acquiesce to any of the demands issued, the planned strike will galvanize other groups, like the doctors' syndicate and the lawyers' syndicate, to join with the media in solidarity against perceived government rigidity and brutality. The space for dissent that the opposition carves for itself will only continue to grow, bit by bit, but the government will have communicated that it considers the issue of dissent to be under control.

In any case, supporters of the opposition and supporters of the government all know that there is no other viable replacement for the current Egyptian government and that firing the interior minister will only result in his replacement by another similar figure from within the government's ranks. And responding to periodic demands enables leaders to answer problems with all the means at their disposal. After all, the issue of militancy in Sinai is more relevant than ever: The Islamic State is engaged in a slowly growing insurgency there, and the Multinational Force and Observers is discussing adjustments to its tactics to contain the threat, including bringing in new technologies to replace some soldiers.

On the day of major strikes over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, al-Sisi was inaugurating an economic development project in the Red Sea, part of Egypt's broader strategy of managing unemployment and deterring recruitment of militant groups in the area. And as the emergency press syndicate meeting unfolded, al-Sisi extended the state of emergency in Sinai by an additional three months. In a sense, the Egyptian government and al-Sisi are working as best they can to focus on the issues that most deeply threaten Egypt's stability. Thus, even if the journalists' demands yield a new interior minister, not much else will change.

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