“We live in the most glorious time of democracy and I cut out the tongue of anyone who says otherwise,” Bassem Youssef said, summing up Egypt’s current freedom of expression environment shortly after his political satire talk-show was cancelled, another harsh blow for the country’s democratic transition.
According to General Hani Abdellatif the government has stepped up its monitoring of Facebook and Twitter, announcing that around 70 members of Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested due to their opinions posted online. Online behaviour is now closely monitored including for example hash tags such as “Elect the Pimp,” which was poking fun of the newly elected President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. “We are looking at those people who are insulting religion, taking part in terrorism and insulting public figures,” Abdellatif said in a public statement.
The decision came shortly after comedian Bassem Youssef, often referred to as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, announced that his popular weekly show El Bernameg (“The Program”), which has been airing since 2011 and had become a symbol of freedom in post-revolutionary Egypt, had come to an end. “We consider the shutting down of the show a message in itself that is stronger, clearer and much louder than its continuation,” Youssef announced, not leaving any explicit reasons to the show’s cancellation yet the forever satirist made it clear, adding, “The message is delivered.”
The political satire show had not yet poked fun of Al-Sisi explicitly but touched on topics such as the worship-like adoration of the former army chief. However, already in Al-Sisi’s first televised interview the degree of the general’s humour (or lack thereof), was unveiled, emphasizing that there is a law against insulting the president and declaring that “it will be enforced.” The show was also paused during the election campaign in order to not interfere and affect the public opinion declared a public statement.
But this is not the end of political satire in Egypt, argued political analyst Amro Ali. “The regime shot itself in the foot by cancelling the show because political satire is deeply rooted in the Egyptian society and the revolution.” Youssef told Ali that the show was coming to an end a month prior to the decision, “the establishment had put a lot of pressure on him,” Ali explained. “But many people are disappointed.”
The government’s decision to increase Internet surveillance is not criticized by everyone, many Al-Sisi-supporters welcome the law and consider the legislation to represent what the country needs in order to move forward and ensure security and stability.
However, at the same time the law represents a worrying development for the country’s freedom of speech. Operating as a journalist in Egypt today is becoming increasingly dangerous. Since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 a number of journalists have been imprisoned by the military-backed government. Three Al Jazeera reporters are among the most well-known, charged as terrorists for having connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the disproportionate media attention they represent only a fraction of a large number of imprisoned national journalists. Egypt’s development is shedding light on an increasingly worrying international phenomenon where counter-terrorism laws are used to crack down on freedom of speech and political dissent. Of the 232 imprisoned journalists in 2012, more than half have been imprisoned based on anti-terrorism charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The same organization has classified Egypt as the third most dangerous country for journalists after Syria and Iraq and the country is ranking 159 out of 180 in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders “Press Freedom Index.”
Egypt has a large number of vocal Twitter users, who may be affected by the new Internet surveillance law. However, it is difficult to know what will be deemed as “offensive” explained Middle East analyst and commentator Holly Dagres from Cairo, a frequent Twitter user. “There is a fine line to cross now and I’ll be attempting to stay within its boundaries without knowing exactly what they are, which means staying clear of insulting the Egyptian government and military,” she explained. “Everything else is fair game.”
At the same time the country is well known for its fast moving politics, where the set of rules can change over night. “Egypt will always surprise us,” Dagres explained, “The important thing to take away from curbing freedom of speech is that things will likely become more oppressive before things get better,” the young analyst said and added, “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, only time will tell.”
Christine Petré is editor at Your Middle East and a freelance writer based in Tunisia. Follow her work at www.christinepetre.com and on Twitter @ChristinePetre.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.