The most popular political satirist in Egypt, Bassem Youssef, who models himself after U.S. television host Jon Stewart, was pulled from Egyptian television Friday night much to the shock of his millions of fans who were glued to their TV screens at 9:30 pm waiting for his show to appear.
The Capital Broadcast Centre (CBC) television channel said only that Mr. Youssef’s program, called The Program, recorded on Wednesday, “violated editorial policy” and thereby broke the contract between Mr. Youssef and the channel. Those few people who have seen the program say Mr. Youssef spent most of his show lampooning Egyptian media, such as CBC, that have sucked up to the new military authorities.
A week earlier, an official of the privately-owned channel apologized to viewers for some of Mr. Youssef’s jokes that night, especially those that came at the expense of Army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Gen. el-Sisi is the defacto ruler of Egypt these days and the man who brought down former president Mohammed Morsi on July 3. According to public opinion surveys, Gen. el-Sisi would easily win election as president if a vote were held now.
Last week’s show was the first program Mr. Youssef had presented since Mr. Morsi’s ouster and people were anxious to see how much freedom the heart-surgeon-turned-comedian would enjoy. In March, he had been arrested for his mockery of Mr. Morsi; then released on bail, pending trial. If he had been found guilty of insulting the president, he would have faced up to three years in prison.
One of the first decrees issued in August by the interim President, Adly Mansour, was to remove the punishment of prison for a conviction on such charges. Those found guilty of insulting the president would still face a fine of 30,000 Egyptian pounds (about $4,500).
Those who thought the new administration would usher in freer speech seem very much mistaken. Yanking Mr. Youssef’s program is just the latest of a long line of efforts to rein in any criticism of the military authorities, though much of it, as in the Youssef case, is done through self-censorship by editors worried about military reaction.
Within hours of removing Mr. Morsi in July, the military closed down several privately-owned religious channels for their excessive support for Mr. Morsi. The stations had, indeed, been seen to incite followers, spreading hate speech and even encouraging violence. On more than one occasion, religious sheiks called on people to go and protect Mr. Morsi’s Presidential Palace from protesters.
The authorities also shut down al-Jazeera television, the international satellite channel broadcast from Qatar. In this case, the new Egyptian authorities accused the channel of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement from which Mr. Morsi hails. While there is a lot of truth in describing al-Jazeera this way, the channel did nothing to incite viewers the way the private religious channels had. Closing it down sent a very worrying message to the rest of Egypt’s media.
Since that time, television and print media have begun to resemble government PR outlets. One after the other, media have backed off any criticism of the authorities. It’s become, in the words of a bookstore clerk I spoke with Saturday, an age of “one-way media.”
“Everyone says the same thing,” he concluded ruefully.
That’s not the only way dissenting opinion is being curtailed.
The authorities have made a concerted effort to prevent protesters from assembling at landmark points in the capital. Iconic Tahrir Square [the word means “liberation”] is now shut to traffic and pedestrians on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath and the day that most major protests have taken place since the campaigns against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011.
This past Friday, with the Morsi trial scheduled to begin Monday, the closure was especially tight. A dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers blocked the entrances to the square, with another dozen held in reserve on a small street at the southwest corner of the square should anyone challenge the blockade.
Soldiers screened any pedestrians who want to walk around the armoured vehicles and cross the massive intersection. I walked past the guards without any hesitation, but several Egyptian pedestrians – not all – were barred. As the Israelis do on many Fridays around the Old City of Jerusalem, where the al-Aqsa Mosque square is a magnet for post-prayer protests, the Egyptian soldiers appeared to be blocking younger men from entering the square. In a walk across the plaza that once had held hundreds of thousands of protesters, no more than a dozen people were to be seen.
Black uniformed special operations forces were the second line of defence, ready to be deployed should any large group attempt to break the blockade. These especially well-trained forces have been a factor in Egyptian disturbances for years but only recently have they been used with such deadly effect. Their snipers provided cover to the police forces that led the charge against the Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the Rabaa Mosque August 14 in which hundreds were killed, many by snipers.
On Friday, these men were being kept back a block or two on all sides of Tahrir. At Talat Harb Square, a smaller intersection to the northeast, special ops officers lounged around a table, commandeered from a nearby café, sipping tea. With their snappy black duds, shaved heads, muscular bodies and a studied relaxed look they had the look of elite brigades everywhere: cocks of the walk.