Facts and footballers

For those of you worried about about terrorism in Egypt you will be glad to hear that a two-pronged assault is in motion. In addition to the Armed Forces’ continuing battle with a ferocious insurgency in Northern Sinai, Egypt is cracking down on facts and footballers.

Egypt has had something of a terrible seven days; the assassination of the public prosecutor, full on armed conflict in Sinai that led to the death of 17 soldiers, an earthquake and this dickhead.

Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi wasted no time after Hisham Barakat’s murder and declared at the funeral that the law would not be allowed to hold back justice, by which he meant that the state of legal exceptionalism that currently exists in Egypt will be put on turbo charge. And here we are, less than a week later, with a draft terrorism law that will amend the provisions on terrorism that were themselves made in the wake of Islamist attacks in the 1990s. There is the usual murky definition of terrorism (the term should be abandoned altogether. Not because bad people don’t do horrible things but because the nomenclature doesn’t add anything to either our understanding of their crimes or our treatment of them, I think) and draft article 33 proposes that anyone who publishes false information or statements about any terrorist operation which contradicts official statements about said operation be banged up for two years.

Youm7, a local newspaper which enjoys toadying to the state and writing lascivious pieces about sexual “deviants” on thursday published this thing with the longest headline in the world:

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Translation: “Youm7 calls on Egyptian newspaper editors to join its initiative to ban the publishing of news reports from wire agencies and Arab and foreign publications about army operations in Sinai before official statements from the Armed Forces Department of Morale Affairs and its Spokesman have been issued”

Youm7 likened the publishing of incorrect information to psychological warfare against the Egyptian people and banged on about the media’s duty during “this wide-ranging war” against Egypt.

You know, it’s funny that this news website should mention psychological warfare because when reading Youm7 and other newspapers I often feel like I am under assault mentally, by which I mean that I feel that either they are treating me like a simple minded mothafucker or are themselves morons. Shit media is not unique to Egypt of course but we are dealing with a special blend of failure here whose main problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the press. A reporter, after all, is meant to see and hear stuff and convey it to readers as accurately possible without letting bias interfere in the presentation of the facts as far as is humanly possible. In practical terms hearing the story from more than one source is the 101 of good reporting, but if the state and its Youm7 sycophants had their way journalists would be replaced with ambulant photocopiers that spit out official statements about everything and play tinny nationalist pop songs when they move in reverse. What prompted all this is that some news outlets incorrectly reported the number of soldiers killed last week, which is indefensible but remember that there is a news blackout on Northern Sinai – reporters are not allowed on the ground there. The answer the state and its friends are suggesting, is for the state to be the only source of information about the state.

Foreign correspondents have, for a while, been receiving emails from a group called FactCheckEgypt (this is how it breathlessly writes its name) challenging “anonymous sources” quoted in their stories or factual errors and inviting them to run corrections.The sign off states that FactCheckEgypt is part of the result of free training by iMediaEthics and is developing with State Information Service (SIS). What SIS discovers after fact checking and investigating factual claims by media outlets will be published in daily reports. Their conclusions and documentation will be available on FactCheckEgypt (FCE). No propaganda. No opinions. Only facts, methods and media standards will be addressed in FCE reports about international news coverage”.

One can only wonder at the motivations of a media group that agrees to train a bunch of people to harangue journalists by sending tedious emails, especially since there is a high likelihood that the state is probably funding this sad little outfit. The draft terrorism law adds a new dimension of sinister to proceedings, too.

One wonders whether FactCheckEgypt is GoingAftertheLocalPress too or whether its mission starts and stops with the pesky foreigners disseminating news about Egypt around the globe rather than being motivated by a sense of obligation towards the country during her fight against terrorism. Again this is not to suggest that the foreign press never gets anything wrong (simply by existing Fox News gets everything wrong) but if – as the group claims – its reason for existing really is to correct fact rather than ensure news outlets stay on message they will have rich pickings with the local press.

While the media scene in Egypt is isn’t as bad as it was in the 1980s and 1990s before independent newspapers were allowed to come into existence it is still pretty dire, hamstrung as it is by off the record intimidation, the constant threat of prosecution and, again, voluntary self-censorship in the name of protecting The Nation. It seems self-evident that it is precisely at times of crisis – when an administration is prone to taking knee-jerk responses to emergencies, often motivated by the short term objective of its own survival rather than the country’s interests – that the media (and the general public) are under a duty to scrutinise its action even more than usual and hold it to account. Unfortunately however the opposite is often true and the regime and the general public’s fears feed each other symbiotically and terrible decisions are made. Example: the US decision to go to war in Iraq following September 11.

Local media outlets’ abdication of this responsibility renders it little more than the PR arm of the state, with disastrous results. The best recent example of this was the Koftagate incident, when the Egyptian Armed Forces claimed to have found a cure for HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, involving what doctor Mostafa Hussein described a little more than a “dowsing rod or ouija board”. It was a farcical claim but, this being a state enterprise, the local media did not do its job of ripping it apart. Bassem Youssef’s satirical comedy show El Bornameg, and Facebook piss-taking filled that gap.

Media co-optation by the state is of course part of a greater strategy of control through outsourcing of policing, by which is meant the famous and enterprising “honourable citizen” who beats up anti-state demonstrators, or the satellite channel owner who bans political dissidents appearing on his channel because it will ensure that advertisers renew their contract and thus the channel stays afloat, or the actress who shrieks about Sisi saving Egypt to ensure she stays in the political black and she continues to land parts.

But not everyone is willing to sell out. Last week, following the events in Sinai professional football player Ahmed Marghany Mohamed wrote this status:

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Translation: “You told people to give you a mandate to fight terrorism and people went out and filled the streets – despite the fact that that is your job and you don’t need a mandate to do your job. But ok, we’ll let that pass. Since that time civilians, soldier and policemen have been dying and where are you in all of this! All that we get from you is talk…You are a failure and responsible for every drop of blood in this country. Oh, by the way: will you or will you not announce official mourning for the men who died in Sinai and cancel the Ramadan soap operas like you did for the public prosecutor?”

As a direct result of these comments, Marghany’s contract with the Wady El-Degla football club was terminated. Marghany appeared on Wael El-Ebrashy’s talk show, where he correctly observed that when Egyptians die in circumstances such as what happened in Sinai this week, their deaths happen with impunity, no one is held to account. El-Ebrashy, questioning the tone of Marghany’s Facebook status – notably his accusation that Sisi is a “failure” – relied on that tired old argument that the state could have turned into Syria, Iraq or Libya [were it not for Sisi]. El-Ebrashy brought on two guests, Azmy Megahed, head of media at the Football Union and motormouth Mortada Mansour.

Megahed said that he is “very upset” with Marghany and suggested that this is not the right time for differences of opinion, and we must all stand behind our army and our president. He declared that remarks about the President require a certain tone, and that the President “represents Egypt”. He even used the phrase “red card” bless him and then proceeded to ask Marghany bad-temperedly THAT question: “do you want Egypt to be like Iraq, Syria or Libya?” What do people expect as a response to this. “Yes”? Megahed followed up with the accusatory, “does Marghany want us all to go back to the tents in Tahrir Square?”, for the easiest way currently to spot a traitor is to ask him if he supports January 25.

“There has to be limits to… criticism of Egypt’s boss, Marghany. Does this country not have a boss or what”. Megahed barked. “Do you not think that young people should respect their elders and that we must respect our President?” he continued.

“I respect him but I have the right to criticise him,” Marghany replied, sensibly.

This is the crux of the problem and in fact almost every problem in Egypt, which is that status and respect is conferred by virtue of age and seniority rather than ability or achievements. There is altogether too much forbidding respect for elderly arseholes. The problem is compounded by Egypt’s paternalistic culture, whose effect on politics has been to turn citizens into children permanently relegated to eating at the kids’ table while the grownups talk about things far too complicated for them at the adults table.

It is almost another incarnation of this outsourcing of policing I was going on about above. The dissing of the aged by young people is genuinely frowned upon in Egypt in a way that perhaps it isn’t so much any more in say, Britain. When this happens in the political context it sort of becomes a tool of censorship, and is employed as such. It was a central argument of the Pro-Hosny Mubarak bunch immediately after the revolution; that this is a man who has served Egypt and should not be insulted. Never mind that he and his geriatric friends robbed the country for 30 years, and groomed a new generation of eventual geriatrics to take their place.

Mortada Mansour was telephoned in to say something scandalous, and duly obliged by refusing to address Marghany directly and calling him a “servant” and “bawwab [doorman]”. Background: Marghany is of Nubian origin, and bawwab is a belittling, racist epithet directed at Nubians. It is similar to the use of the word “boy” to address an adult black man during America’s segregation era. Marghany dealt with Mortada with consummate class; he did not stoop to his level. Mortada is a clown, but he serves a purpose; to make noise and distract us from the central issue, to rabble rouse, to intimidate, and there are plenty like him.

To his credit Marghany maintained his composure throughout the interview and apparently stands by his comments despite the fact that they could possibly mean the end of his football career, at least in Egypt. I salute him and hope that his football career continues.

At one point in recent history Egypt briefly celebrated its young people and their abilities and achievements. It must have been having a funny turn. Now they’re all either in prison or left the country or dead, buried under a mountain of mothballs and camouflage uniforms.

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