“As Egypt struggles with [economic] difficulties, it is quite clear who our friends are, and whose support we can count on,” wrote Ahmed Abu Zeid, the spokesman for Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs in August 2016. “It is obvious that The Economist has chosen to take sides with those bent on undermining Egypt.”
The Economist, for which I am Cairo bureau chief, had just published a series of articles criticising the Egyptian government. So I was now viewed as something of a conspirator – in cahoots, perhaps, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was thrown out of power in 2013 and is now blamed for most of Egypt’s problems. If my “deplorable” and “disgraceful” reporting was not proof enough, I also have a Brotherly-looking beard.
The ministry’s rebuke was a slap on the wrist compared to the treatment of other foreign journalists in Cairo. Some have been branded as spies on local newscasts. Several have been kicked out of the country. The risks are greater for Egyptian scribes who challenge the state. At least two dozen of them sit in prison, more than in any country save Turkey and China. “Don’t listen to anybody but me,” says Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the president. He means it.
But Sisi is also trying to get his message – that Egypt is stable and safe – out to the world. Foreign journalists, as deplorable as some of us may be, are therefore needed to spread the word. So the state often veers from one extreme to the other in its treatment of the press. We are blocked from reporting stories and berated for our bias, and then invited to grand events and fancy conferences – where we are often blocked from reporting and berated for our bias. All authoritarian states seek to control the media, but in Egypt the experience tends toward the absurd.
Take the country’s elaborate celebration of a project to expand the Suez Canal, billed as Egypt’s “gift to the world”, last summer. Journalists were invited to watch Sisi ride up the waterway in full military regalia, as crowds cheered and warplanes flew overhead. Official transportation was provided. But upon their arrival in Ismailia, on the west bank of the canal, reporters were herded into a tent some 100 metres from the festivities. The doors were shut and military guards placed at the entrance. A video feed of state TV at least gave them a sense of what they were missing. Sisi blasted those who cast doubt on the economic value of the project, as had many in the foreign press.
I avoided the celebration based on similar experiences at past events. At a big investment conference put on by the government in 2015 in Sharm el-Sheikh, a coastal resort, Egypt was declared “open for business”. But the big speeches were closed to reporters. At a conference on African trade in the same location, I was allowed into the main hall to watch some panels – and then kicked out by a state-security guard. Confounded, a public-relations person guided me to a side entrance. The officials on stage spoke in vague terms about tariffs and trade pacts. The room was half-empty. Perhaps the guard was trying to spare me.
Why does the government invite us to their boring parties and then act like we’re crashing them, wondered a reporter who had flown 20 hours to cover the conference on African trade. We commiserated over the official lunch, from which we were banned (a sympathetic businesswoman helped us sneak in). The odd thing is that the government pays millions of dollars to Western public-relations firms to organise these events and promote the official line. But the flacks are undermined by officials who are deeply suspicious of the press, and by a security state that views us as threats. Even our colleagues in the state-run media say we are purposely harming Egypt (sometimes for publishing stories that they themselves run).
Conspiracy theories that blame foreign actors such as Israel, Iran and America for Egypt’s problems are common. The vilification of the foreign press is a natural extension. When a particularly nasty battle with jihadists in the Sinai peninsula resulted in conflicting reports of dead soldiers in 2015 (with the foreign press reporting a higher death toll than the government), the army claimed it was also fighting “a tendentious and fierce war, run by foreign media”. In response, a new law was written that mandates prison for anyone who intentionally publishes “untrue news or data” that contradicts the official line. In the case of the Sinai battle, the officials themselves could not agree on a death toll, but I didn’t turn them in.
Harsh laws aside, it is the small things that make life difficult for foreign journalists in Egypt. Sisi tells us to listen to him, but the state press centre fails to issue the requisite credentials to attend presidential events. On the morning of the Suez Canal celebration, it was still not clear who had been approved to go, or where they should meet. In the evening, several reporters were left in Ismailia. Ministries respond to interview requests weeks after stories are published, if ever. But moving ahead without a comment reinforces their suspicions.
Supporters of Sisi like to say that at least Egypt is not like Iraq or Syria. I’ve always seen that as a low bar, but it is true that life is harder elsewhere, including for reporters. Even in a country like America, my home, access to officials is guarded, the security is overbearing and the press is demonised. That was true even before Donald Trump, a friend of Sisi, was elected president. So perhaps Egypt isn’t so bad. Are you reading Mr Zeid?
Editor’s note: When this article was first published, a sentence in the third paragraph read: "At least two dozen of them [journalists] sit in prison, more than in any country save China." That was correct when the piece was written. It has now been updated to reflect new data published by the Committee to Protect Journalists.