On Saturday night, a video of a National Council for Women (NCW) press conference went viral. The footage shows representatives of the European Union Electoral Observer Mission (EUEOM) leaving the press conference after being berated and criticised for the mission’s preliminary report by attendees at the press conference, including head of the NCW Mervat Tellawy.
Following the incident, the NCW released a statement in which it said the EUEOM’s findings “run contrary to the reality on the ground”.
What aspects of the EU’s report did the NCW and others find so controversial? The report itself speaks highly of the voting process on election days last week. The mission reported that observers assessed the conduct for polls as “good” or “very good” and said that security forces respected PEC guidelines.
The document, however, was more critical of the political environment, which it characterised as “falling short of constitutional principles”. Such an environment, the report stated, “undermined universal participation in the election”.
A media analysis by the mission indicated that Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi received twice as much media coverage than Hamdeen Sabahy, and the former received close to no negative coverage among Egyptian outlets.
Two days after the EUEOM were unceremoniously rejected at the press conference, satirist Bassem Youssef announced that his programme, Al-Bernameg, would not return.
Youssef did not detail the circumstances in which Al-Bernameg was denied from airing again, and cited possible accusations of treason if he were to carry on with his programme from abroad. The satirist also referred to concerns for the safety of him and his family.
The development was bad news for his supporters and others that understood the importance of Al-Bernameg for Egypt’s struggle for freedom of speech. But it was expected. A period initiated by the shutting down of dissenting satellite channels has gradually strangled voices that present alternatives to mainstream government-promoted narratives.
Similar to now, public discourse in 2012-2013 was very dysfunctional. Very little of the dialogue on both sides of the table was rooted in facts, and many fell to the temptation of using conspiracy theories to explain developments.
Unlike Morsi’s year in power, a focused part of the spectrum has been magnified and dominated mainstream media and the public space.
In post-30 June Egypt, even respected figures like Mohamed ElBaradei, who supported Morsi’s ouster, have been alienated, vilified, and slandered by the media and a segment of society that influences public opinion.
Al-Bernameg, which was always under threat amid a string of legal complaints and issues with satellite channels, was subject to intensified public hatred, threats, and legal actions, simply for challenging the roaring adulation for Al-Sisi across television media.
Many of those who eagerly tuned in to watch Al-Bernameg on Friday nights a year ago publicly called for the cancellation of his show, accusing him of espionage and cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood, simply for challenging a narrative that championed the military chief beyond any criticism.
Youssef’s platform is only the latest to be confiscated over the last year. Journalists have been arrested, prisoners of conscience remain in prison cells, and the media has been encouraged to peddle the absurd within the confines of a narrative.
Protections enshrined in the new constitution serve little protection at all when authorities are able to circumvent them through intimidation and manufactured public pressure.
Al-Bernameg’s closure encapsulates that. When Youssef left CBC, it wasn’t long before he signed a contract with MBC Masr. This time, however, the political environment has created a bleak outlook, and it looks like it will be a long time, if ever, before we see Youssef host his own programme on any channel. This is a clear indication that what once might have looked like issues with a private channel has evolved into a situation in which critical satire has lost its place in Egypt.
There are many ways to handle criticism of an unhealthy political environment. If you decide to do it by shouting at your critics and kicking them out of a press conference or stamping out their voices, you do nothing but reinforce that criticism.
Basil El-Dabh is the Politics Editor at Daily News Egypt. You can email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BasilDabh.