The country's transition to democracy ended in widespread political polarisation - and the media added fuel to the fire.
When Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) came to power on June 30, 2012, many hailed it as a watershed moment in Egypt’s nascent transition to a democracy that would fulfil the promise of its revolution in 2011.
An integral part of this transition would have to include the ambit of Egyptian media, known for a long-standing tradition of heavy-handed state intervention.
While Morsi inherited an economic mess and myriad crises, another front that he and his government were tasked with countering was an unrelenting oppositional media campaign from day one.
“When the Brotherhood started winning elections, and in particular after Morsi’s victory, private satellite channels and newspapers were deployed to produce unprecedented anti-Brotherhood propaganda,” Dr Mohamad Elmasry, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told TRT World.
It was so successful that it had a role in spurring Egyptians to openly call for the overthrow of an elected government, one that enjoyed an approval rating higher than 70 percent just months after taking office.
Exactly one year after Morsi was sworn into office, millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand his resignation and fresh presidential elections.
Three days later on July 3, the army intervened to remove Morsi in a coup.
“It's no exaggeration to say that the anti-Brotherhood, anti-Morsi media played a very significant role in the coup,” said Elmasry.
In the later years of his rule, Hosni Mubarak opened up space for the private media sector, but these were largely owned by business tycoons linked to the regime.
“Mubarak began granting private media ownership licenses in 2004, but Egypt’s new private media owners were connected to the so-called ‘deep state,’ most notably the military and police apparatuses,” said Elmasry.
As journalist and academic Fatima El Issawi argued, two features of the Egyptian media landscape persisted: entrenched self-censorship habits of journalists, who perceived their roles as guardians of the regime; and the lack of established editorial processes inside newsrooms, which rendered private media unable to preserve independence from ownership structures.
After the toppling of Mubarak, many Egyptians had high hopes for media reform.
Since the revolution broke out in 2011, an output of social media news operations, online radio and bloggers formed part of a groundswell of action against repression and posed a direct challenge to the old guard of journalists in state-run and commercial media enterprises.
Under interim Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) rule, hopes for freedom of expression and a plurality of voices increased as a slew of private satellite television channels began operating.
That media diversity honeymoon, however, was short-lived.
Following Mubarak’s fall, state-owned media glorified the revolutionaries as long as they did not contradict the narrative of the army being the saviour of the revolution.
The Ministry of Information, abolished in February 2011, was reinstated less than six months later, as state media organs pivoted their full support behind the military regime, smeared revolutionaries, and amplified attacks on journalists.
While the uprising had become synonymous with the successful use of social media to overthrow a tyrannical regime, the medium was also exploited to stifle the democratic transition process.
“Social media became a place for political contention and polarisation during the 2011-2013 transition,” said Dr Dounia Mahlouly, Lecturer and Lead Researcher at the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS.
“Some political slogans have been easily hijacked by opponents, and some parties and political actors have also used ‘legan electrony’ online agents to discredit opponents or spread rumours,” she told TRT World.
Even more divisive polarisation would be sown once Morsi was elected.
The tension between the apparatus of civil servants (the ‘deep state’) and the Islamist government would play out on airwaves and print, as the media increasingly played an active role in wedging itself into and shaping a contentious political sphere.
Given the history of suppression the Muslim Brotherhood has endured at the hands of the Egyptian state, that a conglomeration of forces would mobilise to thwart any Islamist political agenda from taking root was predictable.
The Brotherhood made their share of strategic mistakes as well.
After the revolution, liberals and leftists appealed to the Brotherhood to work together and organise effectively to confront a deeply embedded authoritarian order. Instead, the Brotherhood snubbed them to work with the military and security institutions.
And so a rearrangement of forces ensued. The old-regime network in the political system, with its presence in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and media, aligned with the revolutionaries to use their legitimacy to launch an all-out attack on Morsi and the Brotherhood.
‘Brotherhoodisation of media’
In a continuation from the previous regime, intimidation of journalists intensified during Morsi’s year in power, as efforts to prosecute reporters and commentators for insulting the leadership or defaming religion only contributed to inflammatory press coverage.
However, the forces allied against Morsi to demonise his administration were much more powerful and manufactured an effective propaganda campaign to turn public opinion against Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
The advocacy journalism model that defined the Mubarak regime was now replicated under Brotherhood rule, as print publications and talk shows began fueling popular anger against Morsi by disseminating rumours of the Brotherhood’s steady march through Egypt’s institutions.
The heavy-handed denunciation that the government was subjected to did not appear proportional to how it was governing. Criticised as being incompetent – fairly or not – was one thing, but being accused of harbouring anti-Egyptian sentiment didn’t line up with reality.
Part of the campaign was “a daily stream of messages suggesting that Morsi and the Brotherhood were destructive, disloyal, and preparing to launch Egypt into a full-fledged civil war,” said Elmasry, adding that “messages and claims were often absurd, simplistic, and completely devoid of evidence.”
Morsi’s alleged attempt to control state media – known as the ‘Brotherhoodisation of media’ (akhwanat el iilam) – was a major factor in an effort to brand the organisation as disloyal to the nation and deepen anti-government animus.
This was part of a dominant narrative prevalent across media and political discourse, that claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was determined to infiltrate and occupy all levers of the state.
This ‘brotherhoodisation’ thesis picked up steam when liberal members of the constituent assembly withdrew citing the Muslim Brotherhood’s lopsided influence upon the constitution drafting process.
Mahlouly noted how the debate over the constitutional draft was also heavily polarised online.
If there was one outlet leading the oppositional media charge, it was OnTV – a channel that espoused a secular and iconoclastic perspective. OnTV mounted a furious public smear campaign to describe supporters of the Morsi government on-air as “terrorists,” which was then picked up by other outlets like CBC.
Many channels also floated conspiracy theories that associated the Brotherhood with foreign plots to sell off Egypt and that they were in bed with Israel and the US.
Given the forces aligned against Morsi, is it fair to say that he should have done more to counter the propaganda onslaught?
Elmasry believes he could have. “For the most part, media were mismanaged, and efforts to counter false messaging were sometimes unprofessional and misguided,” he said.
Nevertheless, Elmasry understood that it was always an uphill battle, seeing the degree to which Egyptian society and media consumption was polarised.
“The overwhelming majority of private media voices were employed in the service of anti-Brotherhood propaganda. Given the fact that anti-Brotherhood Egyptians were often inclined to follow only these networks and newspapers, which usually did not even offer a pretense of balance, many were never exposed to balanced messages or pro-government messages,” he explained.
When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had Morsi ousted, presenters from major TV networks went into nationalistic celebratory overdrive, with staff cheering on-air and presenters draped in Egyptian flags.
Within hours of Morsi’s arrest, Islamist-affiliated outlets such as Misr 25, Al Hafez and Al Nas were blacked out by the army. A few months later, authorities shut down the offices of the Brotherhood’s party newspaper, Freedom and Justice.
With the return of a military dictatorship under Sisi, oppositional media has been gagged and dissenting voices are nonexistent from newspapers and TV shows.
The online media space has suffered as well.
“In the years following the military coup, the legislation changed towards increased securitisation of the internet, which has limited opportunities for the independent media sphere and online activism,” said Mahlouly.
Many staunch anti-government voices during Morsi’s brief stint have now returned to their original role as regime mouthpieces tasked with reproducing Sisi’s message to the masses.
Precisely what many hardline critics believed was occurring under Morsi has now taken place under Sisi, who Elmasry describes “is an authoritarian in the truest sense,” and has succeeded in acquiring complete control over Egypt’s media apparatus.
Using legal designs, Sisi has fostered a singular pro-regime narrative and enjoys “near-complete freedom to warn, threaten, and imprison journalists, among other means of intimidation,” Elmasry added.
Apart from the intervening year when Morsi stood in the way, the titular alliance between the Egyptian media – state and private alike – and the regime returned to crush any hope Egyptians might have had of a democratic transition.