If the Egyptian government was planning to begin a media crackdown this week following last Friday’s violence at the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in which party supporters attacked journalists (along with increasingly threatening rhetoric from President Mohammed Morsi), its incipient efforts appear to have already been undercut.
Public prosecutor Talaat Abdullah had on Monday ordered the arrest of five social media activists, including the well-known blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, accusing them of inciting violence. The charges echoed the president’s televised remarks from a day earlier, angrily proclaiming that “whoever is found to be involved in promoting violence through the media” would be punished. Many activists and journalists regarded Morsi’s statements with wariness, afraid they signaled a more concerted effort to crack down on critics of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party. However, Abdel Fattah’s attention-grabbing voluntary surrender (and release) on Tuesday is sure to throw a monkeywrench into any Brotherhood plans to scapegoat anti-Islamist activists and the media for the recent violence.
Abdel Fattah, who burnished his credentials during the 2011 uprising against former leader Hosni Mubarak, was clearly not the wisest choice for the Brotherhood’s initial assault on media freedoms. In a surprising move, the blogger responded to his arrest warrant head-on by turning up at Abdullah’s Cairo office dressed in a prison jumpsuit and surrounded by a crowd of protesting supporters. He then proceeded to live-tweet his questioning inside the prosecutor’s office, claiming that he refused to answer Abdullah’s questions due to his well known bias in favor of the Brotherhood. Abdel Fattah’s flashy surrender allowed him to not only make a statement about the absurdity of the charges against him (the evidence allegedly consisted of photocopies of comments made by other social media users), but also gave him the opportunity to publicly undermine the controversial Morsi-appointee’s legitimacy.
The increasingly unpopular Muslim Brotherhood has so far seemed to favor a strategy of neutralizing institutional roadblocks (such as the country’s mostly-independent judiciary) in order to monopolize power. The strategy has backfired thus far as dissent has mounted with each new undertaking. The country’s media has been a constant thorn in the side of the government as the popularity of privately-owned liberal channels like ONTV, CBC, and Al-Nahar have soared, with even the country’s state-owned media refusing to toe the government’s line. The efforts by Islamists to intimidate journalists at Cairo’s Media Production City this past Sunday reveal the desperation of the Brotherhood — and their lack of success as journalists simply continued to broadcast their criticisms of the government, validated by the campaign of intimidation taking place right outside their studios.
The shadow of Mubarak that clings to all these efforts make them all the riskier for Morsi and his party. Which goes some way to explaining Morsi’s comments on Tuesday — he promised to deal “decisively” with “anyone sticking his finger inside Egypt” — as an attempt to shift gears and push the (historically effective) fear of foreign meddling in Egypt as an alternative way of getting at detractors among the media. However, with the Brotherhood’s recent public fumbles on the subject, success in that vein is as uncertain as Morsi’s previous body blows to Egypt’s institutional culture — especially given the group’s own extensive financial ties outside of the country. There’s nothing, after all, riled-up journalists love to do so much as follow the money.