From one tyrant to another

By John Lloyd
June 28, 2013

CAIRO—This week marks the one year anniversary since an Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Mohamed Mursi was formed.

In that year, the economy has slumped, in part because tourism — a staple of a state that has little to export except an experience of its storied past and fabulous monuments — has all but disappeared. Disconsolate restaurateurs lean on their doorposts, beckoning a foreigner in to empty tables.

Enormous lines that are five or six hours long pile up at gas stations; two power outages, hours long, yesterday afflicted the Cairo suburb where I am presently staying with a friend. Prices are rising even though nearly half of the population is trying to live on two dollars or less a day. The patchwork of groups and forces opposed to President Mursi are assuring everyone that the dire state of the economy, and the lack of a program to address it, are what have solidified ordinary people behind their call for new elections now, three years ahead of the end of Mursi’s term of office.

In Tahrir Square, the international symbol of a revolution that dethroned one tyrant and appears to have opened the route for another, groups of mainly young men and some women stand about and talk and sometimes speechify all day. Behind them, wall paintings of martyrs killed in the early days of the 2011 revolution stare out into the crowds.

At night, the big square is filled with people, ever more as the days pass. In the evening, the many opposition TV channels show live pictures from other cities — Alexandria, Port Said — where the same thing is happening. The same Egyptian flags are waved; the same slogans are chanted. On Sunday June 30, vast demonstrations are planned across the country, backed by a petition with many millions of signatures calling for Mursi to go.

The pushback is already going beyond demonstrations. Earlier this week, supporters of Mursi and his opponents clashed in at least two separate incidents in the cities of Mansoura and Zakazik, with some three people killed and many injured. The violence was also, reportedly, sparked by Sunni-Shi’ite hatred. Egypt, largely Sunni, has become a part of the internal Islamic civil war between the two main currents that produce bloody outcomes in Syria, and much less dramatically, Iraq.

The regime’s resistance this past week has focused on the media — at once the most obviously annoying institution, and the weakest and most vulnerable because it’s the most easily shut down. In a three hour speech on Wednesday evening, Mursi said at one point that he had been insulted, lampooned and satirized for a year, but now enough was enough. He mentioned Mohamed Al Amir, owner of the CBC channel and Ahmed Bahgat, owner of Dream TV, as men who were: “attacking the administration instead of paying what they owe the state.” Al Amir is now reportedly being sought for tax evasion on a grand scale.

A warrant has now been issued for the arrest of Tawfik Okasha, owner-presenter of the Al-Faraeen channel, who nightly lambasts Mursi and the Brotherhood in two-hour rants, sometimes funny, mostly plain insulting. The rants are a conservative, pro-military, even pro-old regime perspective. He’s already had jail sentences imposed (then suspended) and is accused of “spreading false information” — which he almost certainly has, but such is the price of freedom.

All of this is inciting revolt closer to the heart of the state. On Thursday evening, a talk show on a state TV channel was interrupted by its presenter, Gamal al-Shaer, who silenced his guests and exploded with rage into the camera, saying that he must apologize to the audience for the fact that the Information Minister, Salah Abdel Maqsoud, had ordered the show cut “because the show does not please him.” Al-Shaer was later given a chance to air his anger more comprehensively on an opposition channel, ONTV.

The experience in all authoritarian states that undergo a revolution, or a breakdown (the two have usually been linked) is that journalists, many of whom know of, or have been trained in, western news values, go for broke. They denounce, defame, proclaim guilt without proof, and insinuate. They also begin to lay the foundations of a better type of journalism: one young scholar I met earlier this week, Ramy Aly, is working with others to start a tradition of narrative documentaries, exposing the many social ills of Egypt, starting with the appalling state of its provincial hospitals (of some 550 hospitals built in the last decade, he discovered, less than 50 are functioning). Bassem Youssef, a wildly popular satirist on the CBC channel, does a program modeled on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” — only harsher, more pointed, and more dangerous. He’s already been suspended for insulting the president. Last week, Stewart turned up in Youssef’s studio — and told the audience, to wild cheering, that satire offers no violence and breaks no bones, but is “just words.”

Yet words hurt — especially when they are designed to. Mursi has been deeply hurt: a pious man from a dirt poor farming family, he sees Youssef and other members of the urban elite as spoiled rich kids with no morals. This is a culture clash, as well as a struggle for power in a country even more deeply riven than it was while Mubarak still ruled. On Sunday, June 30, the opposition will be out on the streets; it may be days, and may be bloody days, before they are off them. Whose hands will the power be in then, if anyone’s at all?

PHOTO: Anti-Mursi protesters chant anti-Mursi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans in Tahrir square in Cairo June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

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