It is election week in Egypt, but an observer would not know it by the coverage of local newspapers, whose pages are not occupied with political forecasting or statements by presidential campaigns. Instead, local coverage is fixated on the festive atmosphere created by the poll, reveling in a meager voter turnout that it considers a “bullet in terrorism’s heart.”
Images of patients in stretchers along with elderly and disabled persons who made their way to the polling stations, as well as images of celebrations in different parts of the country, dominated the local media as they gloated over the success of the electoral process. In a virtually single-candidate election, Egyptians were still urged to head to the polls to boost the turnout and quell reports of voter apathy reiterated by foreign media.
The truth is, other than the impromptu dance parties on Cairo’s streets, there is very little to report on in this 2018 election.
The beginning of this year saw a flurry of news regarding the nomination of several candidates who had stepped up to contest the upcoming presidential election. Soon enough, the news centered on the sentencing, arrest, and withdrawal of these candidates, leaving current President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi as this election’s main contender, running against the lesser known Moussa Mustafa Moussa. A vocal supporter of Sisi, Moussa was cajoled into running to include another challenger on the ballots.
This void echoed in newsrooms, where plans for the election coverage were thrown off. Not only were journalists left to report on a race that is virtually not taking place, they were expected to maneuver around rules and restrictions put in place by the Supreme Media Regulatory Council and the National Elections Authority to ensure that this vacuum remains. However, rather than profiling the different candidates and providing space for their campaigns and electoral programs, the empty playing field left the spotlight on one man. With virtually no other candidate to scrutinize, most of the content coming out of independent and foreign media is now focused on the president’s performance during his first term, the overall status of Egypt, and what most are dubbing a farcical election. The election vacuum was then inadvertently working against the regime.
Last week, the Economist ran an article saying Sisi’s threatening tone and talk of conspiracies indicate that he is fearful rather than confident despite a guaranteed second term. The Washington Post also questioned the absence of Sisi’s challenger, Moussa, from the scene, saying he had neither given speeches nor campaigned via television commercials or newspaper ads.
The fact that a high turnout is the main aim of this election despite a guaranteed result is not lost on foreign media. With that, Sisi and the media were trapped in a vicious cycle. The more he tightened his grip on public space, the more the media scrutinized him; the more scrutiny he got, the further he tightened his grip. At the end of his first term, Sisi could have done without that kind of attention and remained confident in his chances for a second term.
Over the past weeks, several journalists have been arrested or handed down sentences, rendering the practice virtually banned. The Times of London’s Cairo correspondent was expelled from Egypt last month. The State Information Service (SIS) defended the decision, saying that she violated “Egyptian law and regulations governing the work of foreign correspondents in Egypt” by practicing journalism without valid press accreditation. Two journalists who were arrested this month for filming for a feature on the tram face charges of filming and documenting without a permit and possession of audio and video recordings with aims of disseminating false news that threatens public safety. Khairy Ramadan, a talk show host and state mouthpiece, was also arrested and investigated for charges of defaming the police and broadcasting false news after he discussed police officers’ poor pay. He was later released on bail pending investigations.
The state is also facing off with the BBC after it ran a report about forced disappearances in Egypt, in which it interviewed a mother who claimed her daughter had been forcibly disappeared and tortured. The girl later appeared on a local talk show denying she was ever arrested, instigating a wave of attacks on the British network and resulting in the arrest of the mother herself and the disappearance of her lawyer. The next day, Egypt’s top prosecutor instructed his staff to closely monitor the media and take legal action against those who publish false news that damage Egypt’s national security. There is currently a lawsuit calling for the closure of the BBC’s office altogether and the withdrawal of its license to operate in Egypt.
On its part, the SIS was already issuing statements long before the poll condemning foreign media coverage, saying such reporting relies on sources from one side only—especially in the case of former armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan’s arrest—and that foreign media falsely link the cases of Anan and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, who had intended to run in this year’s election. The media regulatory council also formed a committee to monitor any violations in the election coverage by the media.
Since he took office, Sisi’s regime has thrived on a state of political stagnation and promoted a faux stability. The president has long relied on the security and stability mantra to position himself as the protector of the Egyptian state, when contrarily a state cannot endure a one-man show. For it to grow, a state needs fully functioning intuitions, varied political parties, and independent media. It needs political debate across the spectrum and a functioning civil society, all of which are quashed by the current regime. Perhaps Sisi should have taken a page out of his predecessors’ dictatorship handbook and allowed a small margin for the above to function.
A week following Anan’s arrest, an aggravated Sisi warned the public against following those who tamper with Egypt’s security.
“Don’t let anyone take you for a ride and destroy your country,” he said while addressing Egyptians at the inauguration ceremony of the Zohr natural gas field, adding that whoever wants to tamper with Egypt’s security has to get rid of him first. “What you see here would’ve never seen daylight if it weren’t for stability, security, and your steadfastness. … I would die for your stability and security.”
Sisi’s second term was a safe bet even with other candidates in the running. It is hard to ignore the possibility that the process would have gone more smoothly had he not eliminated his opponents. Not only would he have gotten credit for allowing a legitimate election to take place, he would not have had to resort to creating an intimidating climate and using threats in his addresses. Then journalists would have more to cover than a show of force to the naysayers.