The Egyptian military's arrest and imprisonment of blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad does not bode well for the country’s transition to democracy. Ironically, by trying to silence Sanad's voice, the military has only augmented it – not to mention given credence to his assertion that “the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator, but not of the dictatorship”.
The Egyptian revolution is not going very well for Maikel Nabil Sanad. Two full months after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the outspoken blogger, who describes himself as the only pro-Israeli Egyptian in the blogosphere, finds himself languishing in prison, sentenced to three years confinement in a secret trial which not even his lawyers were allowed to attend. And it wasn’t even the former regime that put him there. Mubarak had been enjoying his sun-soaked Sharm el Sheikh retirement for six weeks when the trial took place.
Sanad’s crime? Publishing a lengthy, detailed and well-reasoned blog post analysing why the military should not be trusted. “In fact the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not of the dictatorship,” he wrote on 8 March. “As I participated in the revolution since day one, I’ve witnessed the majority of the events. In the following study I will present all the evidence and documents which prove that the army did not stand by the people’s side, not even once during this revolution and that the army’s conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests.” Sanad argued the military was complicit in Mubarak’s regime as well as in his counter-revolutionary measures, and only pushed Mubarak out of the way when it became clear they could only save themselves by doing so.
And, it seems, he was right. Twenty days later, Sanad was arrested in his home, charged with “insulting the military establishment” and “spreading false information”. The trial was brief, and mysterious. His lawyers turned up one day to be told the court would not be in session until the next. They duly arrived the following day to find Sanad had already been sentenced. His blog has not been updated since.
But Sanad’s story is not the only unsettling indication that the Egyptian armed forces are continuing Mubarak’s tradition of muzzling the media. A letter was sent by the sinisterly Orwellian and oddly named morale affairs directorate of the military to local newspaper editors. The letter, which has been verified by the Committee to Protect Journalists, ordered editors not to “publish any (topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures) pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces without first consulting with the Morale Affairs Directorate and the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering, as they are the authorities specialised in reviewing such issues, [in an effort to] ensure the security and safety of the homeland."
In other words, it instituted pre-publication censorship over anything written about the military, Egypt’s de facto rulers. It’s blatant, old-school censorship, which does reveal one crucial difference between the military and the former president: Mubarak was much more subtle in his media control.
These troubling developments, happening in the aftermath of what has been widely seen as the victory of the Egyptian people against their tyrannical government, tell us two things. Firstly, we now know for sure that what Sanad was telling us in his blog post was right – the military are not of the revolution, but against it, and the fight against censorship and authoritarianism must continue. That the military can so blatantly demand pre-publication censorship shows how comfortable they feel in power, and probably means they are practising more insidious and less obvious techniques of media control as well.
This will undoubtedly play a role in the upcoming Egyptian elections, where the military will have their favoured candidates and the ability to tilt propaganda in their favour. If Egyptians want this to be a genuinely democratic election – and they do, they really do, otherwise millions of them would not have risked life and livelihood demonstrating – they need to remember the revolution is not yet over and the media needs to be treated with the same scepticism as always.
Secondly, these developments are proof the written word is still as dangerous as ever, even in the blogosphere where millions of words are published every day. That the Egyptian military top brass are prepared to risk their carefully cultivated, if fully undeserved, reputation as the guardians of the Egyptian revolution to arrest a solitary blogger, readership unknown, shows just how scared they are of words. The message in this for journalists – professional or citizen – is simple: keep writing. And those of us writing from the relative safety of other countries have a duty to protect the writers of Egypt by publicising their stories and, in the worst cases, what happens to them.
Anyone in power can silence an individual. But nobody can silence everybody; that is the power of journalism in this age of instant communications. Mikael Nabil Sanad may be in prison, but his blog post has received more hits than he could have dreamed of before his arrest; the story is out there, far bigger than it was before his arrest. Hopefully, this experience might just make the military think twice about arresting the next blogger or journalist who has the temerity to criticise them. FAM