Journalism Becomes a Crime in Egypt


Joshua Hersh
New Yorker
February 3, 2014

When Montaser Marai, a senior producer for Al Jazeera, covered the Egyptian uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak, in early 2011, he hid in an empty apartment above Tahrir Square and stole naps on a cot in the protesters’ field hospital. Fearful that he might be arrested by the police or the military at any moment, he didn’t leave the square for nearly two weeks, until the day Mubarak stepped down. A camera that he set up to gaze down on Tahrir from the apartment provided overhead shots of the revolution that were seen by millions of people around the world. Those weeks exhausted Marai, but they were exhilarating. When I met him one afternoon that month, near a large sheet in Tahrir onto which television images—many of them from his camera—were being projected, he looked haggard, but he grinned mischievously as he pointed in the direction of the room where he’d stashed his gear.

Three years on, the situation for journalists in Egypt has grown so dire that Marai, now based in Doha, won’t even risk travelling there. The new military-led regime has subjected journalists to months of passive-aggressive treatment (obtaining press credentials has become a bureaucratic nightmare) and a few episodes of outright aggression (arresting several reporters on trumped-up charges, including support for terrorism). On Wednesday, the government opened a new front in its crackdown on the press, announcing that it would formally bring twenty journalists to trial. All of the accused are employees of Al Jazeera, a network that made no secret of its sympathy for the revolution and for the Muslim Brotherhood. But four of the accused are foreigners, with résumés that include work at places like CNN and the BBC. For Marai, who hasn’t been back to Egypt since the military came to power, in July, the message is clear: stay away. “It’s gone crazy,” he told me by phone this week from Doha, where he now works as a consultant and instructor for Al Jazeera. “At this point, people are hoping it only goes back to the way it was during the Mubarak era, and not worse.”

Six months after the military overthrew the country’s first democratically elected President, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi—in what the military called a “restoration” of democracy—all of Egyptian society appears to have been upended. The Brotherhood, which breezed into power two years ago, today stands disenfranchised and incapacitated, its members scattered or arrested; in December, the government declared it a terrorist organization. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Army boss who led last July’s coup, seems poised to run for President, cementing the formal restoration of the military as Egypt’s preëminent authority.

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