Trump’s “Favorite Dictator” Imprisons Journalists

15 October, 2020

Latuff's caricature of Egypt's president, Abdelfattah el-Sisi.

Latuff’s car­i­ca­ture of Egyp­t’s pres­i­dent, Abdelfat­tah el-Sisi.

Monique El-Faizy

It’s easy to dis­miss Don­ald Trump’s anti-press rhetoric as sim­ply more blovi­at­ing on his part, but when the puta­tive leader of the free world employs the rhetoric of dic­ta­tors against the insti­tu­tion whose mis­sion it is to hold elect­ed offi­cials account­able, he is send­ing a clear mes­sage. If press free­dom is not to be val­ued in the nation that holds itself up as an exem­plar of democ­ra­cy, why should it be in more oppres­sive quarters? 

It cer­tain­ly has­n’t been in Egypt. I remem­ber the opti­mism with which the new con­sti­tu­tion was greet­ed in Jan­u­ary 2014, guar­an­tee­ing, as it did, a free press and oth­er civ­il lib­er­ties. But those hopes were quick­ly dashed; the crack­down on dis­sent that began in the wake of the August 2013 coup that oust­ed Pres­i­dent Mohamed Mor­si, dur­ing which 16,000 peo­ple were thrown in prison, slowed briefly but was ulti­mate­ly unhin­dered by the new­ly mint­ed con­sti­tu­tion­al guarantees.

The same month the con­sti­tu­tion was adopt­ed, police detained an Egypt­ian film­mak­er, Hos­sam al-Meneai, and his Amer­i­can trans­la­tor, Jere­my Hodge. Hodge was quick­ly released, but al-Meneai was held for 18 days and tor­tured. That Feb­ru­ary, a Yemeni blog­ger was arrest­ed after con­duct­ing inter­views at the Cairo Book Fair. While jour­nal­ists made up just one cat­e­go­ry on a long list of peo­ple get­ting caught up in drag­nets at the time—supporters of Mor­si’s Mus­lim Broth­er­hood being at the top—it was clear that not tout­ing the offi­cial line, which many in the press did with lit­tle prompt­ing, put one in jeopardy.

The risks have but grown since then. Accord­ing to Reporters With­out Bor­ders, near­ly 90 jour­nal­ists have been put in prison in Egypt since Jan­u­ary 2014. That’s in addi­tion to the grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple who have been jailed for offens­es as minor as tweet­ing crit­i­cism of the government.

Anti-regime protests in Sep­tem­ber 2019 ush­ered in a new round of arrests, with more than 4,000 peo­ple being detained, includ­ing at least 20 jour­nal­ists, accord­ing to Reporters With­out Borders. 

The Covid-19 cri­sis has­n’t done any­thing to slow the pack­ing of Egypt­ian pris­ons, which have long had noto­ri­ous­ly deplorable san­i­tary con­di­tions. On the con­trary: the pan­dem­ic has giv­en the regime shade to launch yet anoth­er clam­p­down, using a weapon in its arse­nal of press-silenc­ing weapons that was mint­ed in 2015 with the pas­sage of a broad coun­tert­er­ror­ism law. Jour­nal­ists now are rou­tine­ly charged with spread­ing false news, mis­us­ing social media, or engag­ing in terrorism.

Those charges were lev­eled against jour­nal­ist Ahmad Allam, who was arrest­ed at his home in April, as well as against jour­nal­ist Haisam Hasan Mah­goub in May. In June, 65-year-old Mohamed Monir was arrest­ed on sim­i­lar charges after writ­ing a col­umn crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­men­t’s han­dling of the pan­dem­ic. He died the fol­low­ing month after con­tract­ing Covid-19 in deten­tion. Also detained in June was film­mak­er and writer San­na Seif (b.1993) who accord­ing to PEN Inter­na­tion­al was arrest­ed “for inves­ti­ga­tion for offens­es includ­ing ‘false news’ and ‘ter­ror­ism’. Her deten­tion is relat­ed to her activism on behalf of her impris­oned broth­er, Alaa Abd El Fat­tah, and for oth­er polit­i­cal pris­on­ers.”  And jour­nal­ists Hany Greisha and El-Sayed She­hta were detained in August, accord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists; She­hta was Covid pos­i­tive and after col­laps­ing in the police sta­tion had to be tak­en to an inten­sive-care unit, where he was shack­led to a hos­pi­tal bed.

Clamp­ing down on protest speech dur­ing the pan­dem­ic cre­ates a poten­tial for cat­a­stro­phe. As Juan Cole not­ed in a col­umn for Democ­ra­cy in Exile on Oct.2, “Lock­ing up and mis­treat­ing Alaa Abd-El Fat­tah, Mohammed el-Baqer, al Jazeera jour­nal­ist Mah­moud Hus­sein, human rights defend­er Bahey El-Din Has­san, and tens of thou­sands of oth­er inde­pen­dent voic­es of con­science in Egyp­t’s bru­tal­ly mis­man­aged prison sys­tem dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is a poten­tial death sentence.”

“There have been so many waves of crack­downs on jour­nal­ists in Egypt, but this one seems like the worst,” Sherif Man­sour, Mid­dle East and North Africa coor­di­na­tor at the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, told the Wash­ing­ton Post in July. “The num­ber of jour­nal­ists in jail has been steadi­ly ris­ing. Since March, at least nine more jour­nal­ists have been arrest­ed. All of them specif­i­cal­ly for their Covid coverage.”

The pace of deten­tions has con­tin­ued. In mid-Sep­tem­ber, jour­nal­ist Islam el-Kalhy was arrest­ed and charged with dis­sem­i­nat­ing fake news after report­ing on the death of a man in police cus­tody. And on Octo­ber 3, free­lance jour­nal­ist Bas­ma Mostafa was detained when she arrived in Lux­or to report on the death of a young man there dur­ing a police raid. She, too, was giv­en the stan­dard array of charges of spread­ing false news, mis­us­ing social media and join­ing a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion, and remand­ed to jail. Mostafa was released a few days lat­er after an inter­na­tion­al outcry.

Exiled comedian Bassem Youssef's   Revolution for Dummies  .

Exiled come­di­an Bassem Yousse­f’s Rev­o­lu­tion for Dum­mies.

Those who weren’t arrest­ed have been forced into exile, includ­ing Tahrir Square rock­er Ramy Essam, car­di­ol­o­gist and hit come­di­an Bassem Youssef, and a num­ber of rights activists such as Bahey eldin Has­san, with whom we speak in this issue, and who, like oth­ers, was tried and con­vict­ed in absen­tia, mak­ing a return to their home­land all but impossible.

Man­i­fest­ly, Pres­i­dent Abdel Fatah el-Sisi need­ed no encour­age­ment in his dic­ta­to­r­i­al ten­den­cies, and from the get-go he showed that he felt no par­tic­u­lar need to bow to demo­c­ra­t­ic norms. (When Sisi was elect­ed pres­i­dent in May 2014, he won an eye­brow-rais­ing 96.91 per­cent of the vote. By way of com­par­i­son, when I was liv­ing in Moscow dur­ing the wan­ing years of the Sovi­et Union, Mikhail Gor­bachev won that nation’s first and only pres­i­den­tial election—in which he ran unopposed—with a com­par­a­tive­ly pal­try 72.9 per­cent of the vote.)

Sisi’s bru­tal crack­down on dis­sent is one of the most severe in the world. “The press free­dom sit­u­a­tion is becom­ing more and more alarm­ing in Egypt,” Reporters With­out Bor­ders, laments, rank­ing Egypt 166th out of 180 coun­tries in 2020, a drop of three rungs from the pre­vi­ous year (Sau­di Ara­bia is 170 and Iran is 173). The coun­try is the third worst jail­er of jour­nal­ists, accord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists

While Sisi did­n’t need Trump’s per­mis­sion to engage in such heavy-hand­ed tac­tics, which began dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, Trump has active­ly encour­aged Sisi’s author­i­tar­i­an approach.  In April 2019, just a week before Egypt held a ref­er­en­dum to make changes to the con­sti­tu­tion that extend­ed Sisi’s term in office, increased the pow­er the pres­i­dent has over the judi­cia­ry and fur­ther enshrined the role of the mil­i­tary in gov­ern­ment, Trump host­ed Sisi in the Oval Office and praised him as “a great pres­i­dent.” A few months lat­er he referred to Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”

The two cer­tain­ly seem to have found com­mon ground in their treat­ment of the press. Of course, Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists aren’t being jailed at the same rate they are in Egypt, but in cul­tur­al con­text, the assault on the pro­fes­sion in the US is no less shock­ing. The US Press Free­dom Track­er counts at least 320 vio­la­tions of press free­dom since protests against police bru­tal­i­ty broke out in late May; that num­ber includes 210 attacks and 68 arrests. Many of the jour­nal­ists were beat­en by police and pep­per sprayed.

“I believe that Pres­i­dent Trump is engaged in the most direct sus­tained assault on free­dom of the press in our his­to­ry,” Fox News anchor Chris Wal­lace said at an event for the Soci­ety of Pro­fes­sion­al Jour­nal­ists last December.

Trump’s record on civic rights has been poor as well. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has erod­ed minor­i­ty vot­ing rights, weak­ened pro­tec­tions against employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion and spousal abuse, turned back efforts to increase the num­ber of minor­i­ty stu­dents who to go col­lege and has encour­aged police violence.

All that sends a sig­nal. So does Trump’s con­stant accu­sa­tion of “fake news” and his declar­ing the press—which the found­ing fathers of the Unit­ed States deemed essen­tial to a func­tion­ing democracy—to be “an ene­my of the state,” using a phrase more com­mon­ly ema­nat­ing from the mouths of dic­ta­tors. It lets lead­ers every­where know that their oppres­sion of the Fourth Estate is not only accept­able but, in Trump’s view, warranted.

In attack­ing the media, Trump has “effec­tive­ly giv­en for­eign lead­ers per­mis­sion to do the same with their coun­tries’ jour­nal­ists and even giv­en them the vocab­u­lary with which to do it,” New York Times pub­lish­er A.G. Sulzberg­er wrote in an op-ed last Sep­tem­ber. He said a Times inves­ti­ga­tion found that in recent years more than 50 gov­ern­ment lead­ers had used the term “fake news” to jus­ti­fy anti-press activ­i­ty, includ­ing Hun­gar­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orban, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan, Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro and Pres­i­dent Rodri­go Duterte of the Philip­pines, all of whom have been tram­pling roughshod over civ­il soci­ety in their respec­tive coun­tries. (Need we be remind­ed that Trump has effuse­ly praised each of these strongmen?)

David Kaye, the out­go­ing UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Free­dom of Expres­sion, said in July that there had been a clear “Trump effect” on glob­al press free­doms, which he char­ac­ter­ized as “very negative.”

We must hope—and demand—that the next US Pres­i­dent undo the dam­age done to press free­doms and call for glob­al reform. Bar­ring that, it is up to the dwin­dling num­ber of coun­tries who uphold civic lib­er­ties to step up and insist that these repres­sive regimes do bet­ter. If we have learned lit­tle else from the past four years it is that the words lead­ers use mat­ter, and they res­onate far beyond the bor­ders of their own countries.

TMR con­tribut­ing edi­tor Monique El-Faizy is a jour­nal­ist and author based in Paris.