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Controlling Egypt’s Narrative, Controlling Egypt’s Streets

In a region as volatile as Egypt, control of the media can mean running the country's politics.

by Tom Dale
Feb 5 2014, 7:50pm

Al Jazeera English

Abdullah Elshamy, an Al Jazeera correspondent, has now been in prison for 175 days, and on hunger strike for a little over two weeks.

"I've lost a number of pounds. I only rely on liquids. The littlest effort makes me feel dizzy," he wrote in a letter smuggled out of his prison cell, where pens and paper are banned. "But it's what I feel compelled to do in order to raise awareness about the importance of freedom of speech."

Abdullah – who was arrested during August last year when armed police violently cleared a sit-in by supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi – is one of four Al Jazeera journalists in jail, held on vague charges while prosecutors prepare formal proceedings. They are among the dozens of reporters in Egypt who have been beaten up or detained over the past six months. Nine more have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011.

These arrests and a number of the deaths are symptomatic of what the country has turned into since the army ousted Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate Morsi last summer. Egypt's interim government are doing everything in their power to silence Brotherhood sympathizers, crushing the country's revolutionary street movements by issuing a law that effectively bans any form of public protest.

In a country as volatile as Egypt, control of the narrative can easily translate into control of the streets, and control of the streets into political power. For much of the past three years – although it's now been removed – a heavy machine gun emplacement was an awkward presence in the international press center of the state television building, a reminder that the power to broadcast is a security asset. So journalists giving Brotherhood supporters a platform to tell their side of the narrative are unlikely to be welcomed by the authorities.

Al Jazeera's Arabic language services are seen as partisan supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, in line with the foreign policy of their owners in Qatar. And that view is held with some justification; Qatar's rulers heavily propped up Egypt's finances during the one-year that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood held power. However, Al Jazeera Arabic is no more partisan than the rest of Egypt's media – it's just that they hold a slightly different bias.

During the recent referendum, "the media became a one-note mobilization campaign [for the constitutional amendments made by the military-led government], with the only dissonant note offered by Al-Jazeera [Live] Egypt".

Elshamy's three Al-Jazeera colleagues, who work for the English language service, were arrested after a raid on their makeshift studio in central Cairo's Marriott hotel on the 29th of December. In a statement, the public prosecutor's office has said that the team were producing "fabricated footage" to aid “the terrorist group [the Muslim Brotherhood] in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion". It was after the interim government came to power, they officially designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, despite the lack of any evidence to that effect.

Egypt's State Information Service say that the team was working without broadcast permits, providing a copy of an accreditation application letter from Al Jazeera that lists three staff members, but none of those who have been detained. A source close to Al Jazeera's Egypt operation said that, after a raid on their offices in August last year, it was clear that official permits would not be granted to the network, and the decision was taken to work unofficially. In the video of the raid, however, one of the journalists is seen claiming in Arabic that an application had been made.

The award-winning former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, another Al Jazeera journalist currently being detained, has managed to smuggle two letters out of prison.

"Our arrest doesn't seem to be about our work at all," he wrote. "It seems to be about staking out what the government here considers to be normal and acceptable. Anyone who applauds the state is seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anything else is a threat that needs to be crushed.

Greste was being held in a cell next door to several secular youth activists, more collateral victims of the crackdown on public dissent. They were able to pass him books and magazines sent from outside, but on Monday – according to a family member of one of the imprisoned activists – he was moved from his cell. His whereabouts are currently unknown, and in Egypt's tediously slow judicial system the accused can be kept in squalid conditions for months while prosecutors prepare their cases.

The gradually shrinking arena for free media is not just about Al Jazeera. One of the few critical journalists to write a regular column in a major newspaper resigned this week after one of his articles was censored by the editor; filmmaker Hossam Meneai was snatched from his flat on preliminary charges of "spreading false news"; and a Dutch journalist has fled Egypt after she was accused of being part of the Al Jazeera operation, although her only connection was that she'd met one of the detained journalists on one occasion.

In the first of his letters from prison, Elshamy described the scene in his cell: "It's three in the morning. While everyone in the cell is fast asleep, a breeze of air penetrates the ceiling full of iron rods... 16 of us are lying in an space of 12 meters...There is no life here."

However, despite the hugely bleak situation he's found himself in, the Al Jazeera reporter seems to be well aware that his imprisonment isn't going unnoticed – that, to the international community, it's the perfect representation of the blanket crackdown on dissent and stifling of free speech being inflicted by Egypt's interim government.

"I do not regret any day I've stayed in this place," he wrote. "We are witnesses of freedom and will always be remembered as that."

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