Freedom is, and will continue to be, the most important attribute not only of genuinely democratic nations, but also of a people’s development and progress. Freedom is a gift from God that people can enjoy without burdening their respective governments. Yet autocratic rulers, who usually believe that they are right, are unable to tolerate second opinions and hate to listen to citizens who differ with them. They simply want to hear people praise their ideas, and they do their utmost to marginalise whoever differs with them.
Freedom of expression requires proper channels through which citizens can express their opinions, as well as laws that delineate responsibilities. Neither condition exists in Egypt. Egyptian rulers are fully aware of the significant role played by the media; they work from day one to manipulate it, ensuring that all different media forms support the president completely. The purpose of media in Egypt is not only to praise the president’s policies, but also – and more importantly – to unite and direct public opinion in a specific direction, one that favours the president, obviously.
In the absence of active and functional political parties, the media is the main driving force of public opinion. Egyptians adore television, but they do not like to engage in political activities. Television channels provide Egyptians with an opportunity for passive political engagement; they can observe the political scene, and debate political issues privately with friends and relatives later. Neither act contributes any added benefits to our country. Nevertheless, this situation has made television today the real engine behind Egyptian politics, an engine that aims at brainwashing the masses, shaping and directing their basic political understanding and, in general, manipulating their lives and behaviour.
The media in Egypt has therefore become the most powerful political force and tool. Apart from the traditional state-owned media channels, a number of Egyptian businessmen have set up privately owned television channels and print media. Most of these were established to empower their respective owners rather than to increase citizen awareness. These private media outlets are there simply to strengthen their owners’ personal social status in Egypt and to provide the State with an additional instrument to use in its manipulation efforts. In compensation, the State privileges them.
Egyptians are known for a lack of discipline on the part of the people, as well as a lack of organisational capabilities on the part of the leaders, which makes mobilising people always difficult. This condition constitutes a cultural challenge that needs to be addressed, perhaps in the course of early education. Giving citizens the right to produce ideas and choose from among a number of options destroys the rulers’ mass mobilisation efforts. Restricting freedom of expression facilitates the ruler’s job.
During the Mubarak era, I used to admire a very small number of journalists who were brave enough to criticise Mubarak and his affiliates. I eventually discovered that these brave journalists (who can be counted on the fingers of one hand) are not genuine; they simply enjoyed the support of other State entities that were not happy with the political role played by Mubarak’s son. I finally realised that most of the well-known Egyptian journalists either belong to, or are backed by, various political forces that they know they can count on to defend them in any crisis.
Egyptian media is not fair, nor does it present diversified opinions. It is directed primarily by less than a dozen talk-show presenters; the true Egyptian political dinosaurs. Apart from their affiliation to specific entities that support them, these talk-show presenters are fully aware of the power they wield on the political scene, and they therefore work hard to enhance their popularity. If needed, they are quite capable of threatening any citizen or politician simply by running an indecent media campaign against him. Even should the unlucky victims manage to take legal action, irreversible psychological and emotional damages will have been caused long before the courts reach a verdict. Moreover, the media never highlights indictments in this type of legal case. This phenomenon only occurs when freedom of expression is designed to serve the ruler.
Some may argue that such television presenters are rendering a valuable service to the president by praising him continuously and insulting the opposition. In my opinion, they are definitely of no value to our country or to the president; their only objective is to promote and enhance their own popularity. Although the performance of most of these presenters is poor and unprofessional (they are generally loud and claim to be experts in all fields), it seems that a large portion of society has become addicted to their style of presentation and watches their programmes regularly. They have become the voluntary victims of these presenters, who use the president as a means to help them create their own shows, reaping huge profits for their respective channels through commercials.
It is widely known that trust is the primary and fundamental component of media. Egyptians, who are continually receiving exaggerated and false stories from the media, have gradually learnt to question these accounts. While the government has the privilege of using most television and print media channels, the opposition uses the virtual media to do exactly the same thing – convey unfounded rumours about the ruling regime. Ultimately, Egyptians are exposed to numerous accounts and reports, almost all based on unreliable sources – and these are shaping our lives. Individual citizens must judge for themselves the veracity of the loads of information released by the media everyday.
A group of journalists recently announced that they would not cover the activities of the Minister of Higher Education whom they accused of only responding to television presenters and of ignoring the print media by not answering journalists’ calls via his mobile phone. I am surprised that these journalists give themselves the right to call a minister’s mobile phone and to decide to boycott his activities. They should be advised that their mandate is to cover ministerial activities, not to personalise issues with the minister.
Taking the above into consideration, there are those who believe that freedom of expression should not be our priority. They advocate focusing on issues such as advancing education and providing jobs for young people, before giving citizens their right to freedom. This opinion helps to keep Egyptians ignorant and unaware of the challenges their country is facing. If we manipulate and spoil our channels of communication, how can we enhance our people’s knowledge and free them of their poverty? Applying this point of view will conclude in keeping the majority of our citizens in the darkroom, dependent on government subsidies.
Nonetheless, some may argue that the ruler is informed of public opinion through the intensive surveillance programme that closely follows key Egyptian figures and carries out random checks on all citizens, enabling the ruler not only to learn about citizens’ opinions, but also about their intended activities. Aside from the issue of the illegality of this surveillance, it must be understood that constructive freedom of expression enables the entire society to progress by learning from one other, while surveillance does not inform the ruler of the true magnitude of any hostile actions on the ground. This practice was extensively used during the Mubarak era – yet it failed to prevent the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution.
The communication channels that are in place in society are a manifestation of the relationship between a ruler and his people. Half a century ago, the media was fully controlled by the State and brainwashing citizens was quite easy. A few decades later, the government came up with the idea of inviting a number of citizens, known to be loyal to it, to play the role of the opposition, giving the impression of democracy. Both methods helped the government to misguide its citizens, but only for a very short time; the truth cannot be hidden forever. Today, both methods are no longer valid; the overwhelming variety of available media sources means that Egyptians are able to choose what they want to listen to.
Although most of the Egyptian media plays a destructive political role for the entire society, this problem will not be solved by government manipulation. Freedom of expression needs to be regulated by a legal framework that will enable citizens to freely express their opinions, while being held responsible for what they say. Personal attacks and insults, as well as the spreading of rumours, should be penalised by law.
President Al-Sisi has the great privilege of being able to observe all opinions and make decisions accordingly. Having a large team of citizens who only work to praise him in all the media channels, all the time, will not help him to progress and certainly will not be of any value to our country. Egyptian media can play a constructive role by presenting diversified ideas and constructive dialogues that will enable the President to choose the best of many options. Working on enhancing awareness among Egyptian citizens would thus benefit everyone, including the president. Establishing genuine freedom of expression in Egypt will allow the president to know where he stands and to undertake corrective measures in due time, while at the same time diffusing the citizens’ accumulated frustration.