Political polarization, the Egyptian media and Bassem Youssef

20 - Nov - 2013

Egyptian television broadcaster CBC’s suspension of Bassem Youssef’s show “el-Bernameg,” or “The Program,” sparked controversy in Egypt. Questions on freedom of expression in the country emerge as political polarization takes hold.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in an August report, said hopes to expand the margins of press freedoms in Egypt diminished due to the current political polarization in the country. It added that freedoms, which expanded in the wake of the January 25 revolution, decreased after the June 30 revolution due to polarization and the government’s strict control seen by their shutting down of certain private channels which aired the views of political Islamic groups.

The June 30 revolution and the Brotherhood’s rejection of its consequences led media outlets to polarize their outlook on the Egyptian crisis. They can only view the situation from a “black and white” perspective.

The current political polarization taking hold of Egypt does not allow for compromise, in the field of politics or in the media. Therefore, Bassem Youssef’s reappearance after a four-month hiatus is not enough for many Egyptians to accept satire at this moment of crisis.

Business and the media:

Owners of television channels, including Mohammad al-Amin (CBC), Ahmad Bahgat (Dream TV), Hassan Rateb (al-Mihwar), Alaa al-Kahky (Al-Nahar) and al-Sayedd al-Badawi (al-Hayat), dominated private satellite channels in Egypt since the Jan. 25 revolution.

Their interests and stances were reflected in their channels’ output.

For CBC, Amin succeeded at hiring famous media figures like Lamis al-Hadidi and Imad Eddine Adib. The channel supported Ahmad Shafiq during the second round of the presidential elections, and it led media campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood following Mohammad Mursi’s victory. Amin signed a contract with Bassem Youssef so the latter’s program is aired via Amin’s channel. Massive financial investments were made in the show which did succeed at criticizing Mursi’s regime. The latter got engaged in a “failed” battle to limit Youssef’s criticism and attempted to legally pursue him.

Some business people opposed the Brotherhood because it directly threatened their interests. This was demonstrated by Mursi’s fierce condemnation of Amin, Bahgat and others over their channels’ criticism of his policies.

Business executives’ stances towards the Brotherhood differed and they got engaged in a debate on whether it was possible for the military institution, supported by a popular revolution, to topple Mursi. Making profit entails risks and the same goes for executives’ involvement in the media, and ultimately in politics.

Sisi and limits of criticizing “the strongman”:

Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became a popular hero among many following his July 3 ouster of Mursi. This pushed some to consider Sisi as a possible candidate for president.

According to observers, Egypt, in its modern history, hasn’t witnessed such popular support of a leadership since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. But this has caused a severe case of political polarization. Despite the massive popular support for Sisi, political Islamic groups and the Brotherhood accuse Sisi of committing treason.

Sisi is at the center of political polarization in Egypt. The June 30 protesters see that Sisi plays a major role in establishing a civil state while the Brotherhood’s main aim at this point is to get rid of Sisi.

Meanwhile, private satellite channels, owned by the aforementioned businessmen, espouse their view that the defense minister will play a major role in saving them from the Brotherhood if the June 30 revolution fails. This is why they support him and consider criticizing him to be a red line. Sisi’s emergence on the political scene thus revamped the editorial policy of these channels; criticizing Sisi became a risk for them.

Bassem Youssef’s crisis:

Youssef’s first episode after a four months’ absence angered Sisi’s supporters as he dared criticize him. Many criticized CBC because it aired the episode. Meanwhile, Brotherhood supporters criticized Youssef because he mocked the ousted president and his supporters.

Reactions to the episode confirmed the state of polarization. Some supporters of Sisi called for suspending the show while others said it was important to maintain freedom of expression. The Tamarod movement said attempts to restrain Youssef’s satire would serve the Brotherhood and the parties opposing the June 30 revolution.

Activists criticized CBC’s decision not to air the second episode as they accused the government of totalitarianism and military dictatorship. CBC however emphasized that its decision was due to the episode violating the channel’s editorial policies. This drove some to conclude that the decision had been made due to Youssef’s criticism of Amin.

The future of freedom in Egypt:

One must be aware that freedoms in Egypt are in fact restrained due to the severe case of political polarization; the country does not provide an environment conducive to rational political argument.

Both parties at odds in Egypt no longer accept the presence of any voices of dissent or criticism.

Articles linked to the media in the new constitution - which is still in its final drafting stage - show a clear bias towards the freedom of the media. But providing more space for freedoms will need to be preceded by an end to the current state of political polarization which Egypt finds itself in.

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