As President Muhammad Mursi is still on his honeymoon, the Egyptian press has not yet shown him its teeth. On the contrary, most of the media outlets treat him delicately and with tenderness. This courteous relationship is not surprising, given that he has inherited the legacy of 30 years of his predecessor President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
We were, however, surprised when we saw President Mursi dragging the Egyptian journalist Islam Afifi, editor in chief of al-Dastour (Constitution) newspaper, to court on charges of humiliating the president and instigating people against him through a news story that was published before Mursi was elected president.
Everybody is anxiously waiting. The court will give its verdict by the end of this month. If he is imprisoned, a ferocious media battle will be unleashed. Egyptian journalists are more ferocious than the military. No matter how much power Mursi uses to pursue his critics, he will ultimately discover what his predecessor had found out: It is not easy to keep the mouths of the journalists shut. Mubarak stayed mum unhappily because he failed to silence the journalists.
He vainly tried methods, other than a single case of imprisonment, to silence the journalists. He paid large sums of money to some journalists from the other camp (opposition) and transferred some of them to work in lucrative jobs in official government media establishments to gain their support, but this did not work.
Mursi and his colleagues who are in the leadership now are used to sit on the opposition benches. They have not tasted what is the worst in rule: press criticism.
The Egyptian media are famous for vociferous voice. Since the revolution of January 25, the Egyptian media have been in full control of the market. All the leading media establishments have become purely Egyptian. Previously, foreign partners jointly owned them. The secret behind this is the high degree of freedom that has prevailed in Egypt after Mubarak. How will, then, Mursi be able to lock the jinn in the bottle again? How will he be able to tame the press, which has become an important figure in the political and social process?
Mursi or his party has succeeded in placing their journalist supporters in the national (government) newspapers. There are about 50 government newspapers and magazines in Egypt against 120 officially licensed independent ones. There are over 7,000 journalists registered in the Egyptian syndicate of journalists. Will he be able to win them over?
Worse than that: How will Mursi be able to silence the big army of Egyptians involved in social media? There are about 10 million Egyptians using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and mobile messages to make their voices heard. They are, therefore, capable of annoying Mursi until the end of his tenure.
It was not a secret that during the last years of Mubarak’s rule, his relationship with the media had worsened beyond repair. This bad relationship and Mubarak’s bad mood also reflected on us, the foreign journalists.
Mubarak’s obedient Minister of Information Anas al-Faqi once attempted to follow up the foreign press. He made personal contact with a number of them. The minister was carrying a clear message from Mubarak to us: Why did we allow Egyptian dissidents to appear on our screens and discuss important issues of concern to Egypt? I reminded him that Egypt was a big regional power and larger than the power of anyone to keep in the dark and prevent journalists from covering its events.
I made it clear to him that he had no hegemony whatsoever over foreign journalists like us. I also reminded him that whatever appeared on our screens would be echoed by the independent media tools in Egypt itself. I told him that those he described as opponents, who should not be allowed to appear on our screens, were in fact members of the People’s Assembly, or they were licensed media men who worked for licensed media outlets. It was obvious that Mubarak was trying to silence the foreign media after failing to do so at home.
That was Mubarak, but Mursi was supposed to realize that the legitimacy that brought him to power was based on freedom and multiplicity. Is it possible that his first decision would be to send a journalist to court and to close down a TV space channel?
(Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published in Arab News on Aug. 27, 2012)