Politics & Policy

Cairo Packs Egypt’s Media

Can Washington drop the happy talk about Morsi?

The recent sacking of all of Egypt’s top military officials by its new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, was met with considerable approval in the West, including the United States. After all, the argument goes, he was elected, and don’t we all favor civilian control of the military? Why call this a Brotherhood power play rather than the proper result of this year’s elections?

That optimistic view cannot be maintained when the Brotherhood is simultaneously making a power play to stop any press criticism of its actions and to pack Egypt’s media with Brotherhood sympathizers. These actions have received little attention and less criticism in the West, and recent American visitors to Cairo — Secretary of Defense Panetta comes to mind — haven’t even mentioned it. “American officials generally think that the Morsi government is off to a good start,” David Ignatius recently wrote in the Washington Post. Ignatius is a faithful stenographer for U.S. officials, and his columns on Egypt reflect no official concern about freedom of the press there. Nor does Ignatius, who as a journalist might be expected to think about the issue occasionally, show any concern himself.

But he ought to, and our government ought to, for Morsi has in fact moved to put the press under Brotherhood control.

On Sunday, the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, reported:

New issues of privately-owned daily Al-Dostour were confiscated from the paper’s offices. . . . 

A number of complaints have been filed against the newspaper’s chairman Reda  Edward and editor-in-chief Islam Afifi, accusing the newspaper of insulting president Mohamed Morsi and inciting sectarian strife in Egypt. . . . 

Hassan Badie managing editor of Al-Dostour accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the charges and the decision to raid the offices. Al-Dostour newspaper is known for its anti-Brotherhood coverage. . . . 

Although many revolutionaries and activists are deeply critical of the editorial policies of Al-Dostour, they are also critical of the judicial moves being taken against the paper. Ibrahim Eissa, Al-Dostour’s former editor-in-chief, sacked in 2010 for his anti-Mubarak views, described the confiscation of the newspaper as a return to “the time of one-party rule.”

Al-Dostour has been accused of sedition and of “harming the president,” charges reminiscent not only of the Mubarak days but of Iran and Cuba. And the actions against Al-Dostour are only the tip of the iceberg: Last week the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament, named new editors for the country’s 50 state-run newspapers despite protests from journalists and their union, who wanted a freer press. Here is the analysis from the Atlantic Council in Washington:

The union accused the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Shura Council of trying to regulate state-owned media in the interest of their party, earning a comparison to Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) stranglehold on the press.

The appointments also come shortly after President Mohamed Morsi named a Freedom and Justice Party (FJP [the Brotherhood’s party]) member, Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, as his new Minister of Information. The announcement dashed the slim hope that the archaic propaganda ministry would be abolished, one of the many unfulfilled demands of the January 2011 uprising. The latest moves highlight a concern that the FJP aims to take control of state media outlets, put an end to unfavorable reports about their officials and instead ensure a press more sympathetic to the dominant party.

And it gets worse. The new editor of Al-Ahram is a former Mubarak toady who the Atlantic Council commentary notes was suspended in 2010 for incendiary words attacking Egypt’s Christian minority, and the new editor of another key paper, Al-Gomhuriya, was involved in vicious verbal attacks on Baha’is in 2009. The new minister of information is a veteran of Muslim Brotherhood publications. As the Atlantic Council explained, “one of his first decisions as minister was to ban state-run media from broadcasting comments made by Israeli analysts.”

We will be hearing a lot more about this from human-rights and press-freedom NGOs, which are tracking these developments. But what about Washington? Can we drop the happy talk about Morsi and instead judge him by his deeds? After meeting him recently, Secretary of Defense Panetta said, “It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government.” Of course, Panetta also said that “President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together toward the same ends.” Unless the “same ends” are kicking Tantawi into retirement days later, that statement reveals how little Panetta knew — or any of us knows — about Morsi’s actual goals.

Recent developments suggest that the Brotherhood is committed not to a free press but to the kind of press that Hosni Mubarak had: supportive, uncritical, and controlled by the ruling party. We may not be able to prevent that, but we ought to see what is happening and call it by its proper name.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and a deputy national-security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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