Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Democracy Now! correspondent and Nation Institute fellow based in Egypt.
Egypt is facing a major escalation of a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other critical voices. The military government has designated the Brotherhood a "terrorist organization" after a suicide bombing last week that killed 14 people. The announcement came even though the Brotherhood condemned the attack and an unrelated jihadist group claimed responsibility. Using the "terrorism" label, the Egyptian regime has arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members and seized their assets. It is the latest in a crackdown that began with the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July following mass protests against his rule. The crackdown has also spread to opposition activists and journalists. Two leading figures behind the 2011 uprising, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Maher, remain behind bars following their arrests for opposing a new anti-protest law. El-Fattah is awaiting trial while Maher and two others have been sentenced to three years in prison. Meanwhile, four journalists with the news network Al Jazeera — correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and cameraman Mohamed Fawzy — were arrested in Cairo on accusations of "spreading false news" and holding meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Fawzy has been released so far. Egypt’s military government has repeatedly targeted Al Jazeera, raiding offices, ordering an affiliate’s closure and deporting several staffers. The arrests come as a new report details the dangerous conditions for journalists in Egypt and other troubled areas around the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, conditions in Egypt "deteriorated dramatically" in 2013, with six reporters killed, more than in any previous year. Egypt trailed only Iraq, where 10 journalists were killed, and Syria, where at least 29 journalists were killed. Overall, the Middle East accounted for two-thirds of at least 70 reporters’ deaths worldwide. We are joined by two guests: Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin in Egypt, which is facing a major escalation of a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other critical voices. The military government has designated the Brotherhood a "terrorist organization" after a suicide bombing last week that killed 14 people. This came even though the Brotherhood condemned the attack and an unrelated jihadist group claimed responsibility. Using the "terrorism" label, the Egyptian regime has arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members and seized their assets. It’s the latest in a crackdown that began with the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July following mass protests against his rule. Since Morsi’s overthrow, the Brotherhood has been banned from political activity, hundreds of its members have been gunned down in the streets, and thousands more have been placed behind bars.
Meanwhile, the news network Al Jazeera is demanding the immediate release of four journalists who have been arrested in Cairo. Correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and cameraman Mohamed Fawzy were detained on accusations of "spreading false news" and holding meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s military government has repeatedly targeted Al Jazeera, raiding offices, ordering an affiliate’s closure and deporting several staffers.
The Al Jazeera arrests come as a new report details the dangerous conditions for journalists in Egypt and other troubled areas around the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, conditions in Egypt "deteriorated dramatically" this year, with six reporters killed, more than in any previous year. Egypt trailed only Iraq, where 10 journalists were killed, and Syria, where at least 29 journalists were killed. Overall, the Middle East accounted for two-thirds of at least 70 reporters’ deaths worldwide.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Sherif Mansour is with us here in New York, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. And joining us from Egypt, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, fellow at The Nation Institute.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sharif, let’s begin with you in Egypt for the overall picture. Talk about the categorizing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and then what’s come out of that.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, that designation, as you mentioned, came in the wake of a suicide bombing that—a car bomb that attacked a police headquarters in a Delta city north of Cairo, killed at least 15 people on December 24th, and really was the deadliest bombing on the Egyptian mainland, outside of Sinai, in nearly three years. And the Cabinet, in the wake of that, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, despite providing no evidence, and even Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi later admitted he had no clear evidence linking the Muslim Brotherhood to the bombing. A Sinai militant group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the bombing. They have claimed responsibility for other high-profile attacks, including the assassination of a high-profile, high-ranking state security officer last month in Cairo. But despite that, the crackdown has really targeted the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Cabinet used that decision of the terrorism designation to freeze the assets of hundreds of charities linked to the group, including hospitals and health clinics. And this is part of a—as you mentioned, part of a widening crackdown on the group. Just this past Monday, just yesterday, a court in Cairo sentenced 138 pro-Morsi protesters to two years in prison on charges of rioting and vandalism, and we’ve seen thousands of people be thrown behind bars. Reports are now that even the doves of the group, people like Amr Darrag, who were prominent figures of the group who were not imprisoned, have now fled the country. And so, the political process, or if there was any left of it that could have included the Muslim Brotherhood, has all but been completely destroyed in 2013.
And really, we continue to see instability. The government, the military-backed Cabinet and the military and the police forces continue to say this is a war on terror, and they’re trying to provide stability. And Egypt is extremely unstable right now. We’re seeing increase in militancy, especially in Sinai. We’re seeing a huge number of protests that are centered a lot now on university campuses, with students, some linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, some not, protesting, and students have been killed. And this is all coming with a referendum on the constitution set to take place in just two weeks in the new year.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to the journalists, three leading activists have been sentenced to three years in prison as part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, Mohamed Adel helped lead the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They were the first to be sentenced under a new law that effectively bans public protest by requiring seven different permits for rallies. After the sentencing, the three men chanted "Down with military rule" from their cage inside the courtroom. Democracy Now! spoke with one of the protesters, Ahmed Maher, when he was here in New York back in 2011.
AHMED MAHER: We must to keep struggle and keep fighting until we have a real democracy and a real country and a good regime and social justice. So, we think that will take more than five years in transition period, so we must keep fighting now, and didn’t look to our interests or political party or parliament elections or candidates. That’s our goal now, to finish or complete our revolution. Then we can think about political party.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, can you talk about the significance of these arrests and now the sentence of three years of Ahmed Maher and the others? He was here actually visiting Occupy in 2011, Occupy Wall Street.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, this crackdown has extended beyond supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the ousted president, and beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to target now really a lot of the activists that really launched and sustained the revolution. April 6, the youth movement, was a major player in the revolution. Ahmed Maher was a key figure in that. He’s been charged, as you mentioned, three years in prison for breaking this draconian protest law. Another very prominent activist, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who’s been on Democracy Now! several times, along with 24 others, are—Alaa has been in prison now for over a month, awaiting charges, criminal charges, on breaking the protest law, as well. So, we’re seeing really the police state, a re-empowered police state, really flex its muscles now to try and clamp down on any outspoken dissent or any opposition to the military or to the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to turn to Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the leading blogger, activist, charges now he faces to do with a call he allegedly made for protests against military trials of civilians. You interviewed him for Democracy Now! about youth organizing and the long-term goals of the Egyptian revolution back in 2011.
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: We are continuing the pressure because we want what happens next to be power to the people and to be through democratic Egypt that represents all of its people. We should also remember that the initial slogans were not just "Topple the regime" but were also [speaking in Arabic], which is "Bread! Freedom! Social justice!" And we will need a lot of pressure in order to achieve something like social justice, because that doesn’t just hit the interests of the regime, but, you know, broader interests, although the unity that you see here, the number of people representing all classes, I think it means that even the very rich—you know, the ones who didn’t flee the country—agree that the need for social justice and for bread and freedom is universal.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, his is a particularly interesting story because he was imprisoned under Mubarak—in fact, his baby born while he was in prison, and he, himself, was born when his father was in prison years ago.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, his sister was born while his father was in prison. And, yeah, I mean, he’s one of these activists, like Ahmed Maher, similar, and others before him, who have been jailed by these successive authoritarian regimes in Egypt, that have—and, you know, under Morsi, as well, he was targeted with an arrest warrant. And so—and, you know, it’s these people now that are also in prison. And it’s a very troubling time as we’re coming up to the third anniversary of the revolution, which began on January 25th, 2011, to see the state of where Egypt is three years later appearing to be in a more aggressive authoritarian order than the one the people rose up against. And the likelihood of any significant reform or change in the near future seems quite dim.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the four Al Jazeera reporters now. Peter Greste is one of those four detained by the Egyptian government. This is a clip of one of the reports he filed just a few days ago from Al-Azhar University as clashes erupted between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and security forces.
PETER GRESTE: As you can see, that the protests, the clashes are still ongoing. We understand that the Muslim Brotherhood students or the pro-Muslim Brotherhood students entered the university in some of the exam halls. They tried to tear up some of the exam papers and enforce a boycott of the exams in protest at the government. We understand that the authorities, the police moved in and fired tear gas. And it was the heat from the tear gas canisters which apparently set fire to some of the exam papers. Either way, what we have there is an ongoing clash that really represents the broader divisions that we’re seeing, that we saw yesterday, where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the anti-coup alliance took to the streets in open defiance of the government’s ban on protests, and in particular challenging the government to arrest them and enforce this five-year prison sentence, which the government has been threatening to impose on anybody who is convicted of taking part in these demonstrations.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Peter Greste, one of the four Al Jazeera English reporters who have been arrested in Egypt. Sherif Mansour with us, as well as Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Sherif Mansour is Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Talk about these reporters.
SHERIF MANSOUR: Well, they’re just reporters doing their work. They have been working with Al Jazeera reporting on ongoing protests. And they just use their hotel rooms to do what reporters do: interview different perspectives on ongoing events, including those who are considered to be on the opposition side. And in this case, they are the Muslim Brotherhood. They had in their custody some of the coverage of the Brotherhood protests, some of the material that was distributed in the protest. And the Egyptian government, the Egyptian authorities arrested them on Saturday night. And the next day, they issued a statement saying that they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, they hosted Muslim Brotherhood, what’s now they want to cast as an act of terrorism, a promotion of terrorism. If a journalist is doing their work, for them, they want to consider that as part of the widening net to go after activists, go after media people, who would present any critical or independent view from the government position.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk, overall, about the situation for reporters in Egypt, and then extend to this—your year-end report, which talks about the Middle East as being the deadliest place for journalists in the world right now.
SHERIF MANSOUR: Well, Egypt this year has had a lot of precedence. For the first time, Egypt was ranked among the top 10 jailers of journalists in our annual census for imprisoned journalists this year. And recently, yesterday, we’ve issued our census for killed journalists, and Egypt was number three, the third, around the world, which is also unprecedented. We’ve been working on Egypt since 1992. We’ve documented 10 cases of killed journalists. Out of those 10, six happened this year, 2013, alone. So this is an unprecedented number for Egypt. In addition to that, we’ve been working on documenting a wide censorship effort by this interim government, that are backed by the military, that includes raiding TV stations, detaining dozens of journalists and also harassing them, portraying them as agents, spies for the outside world. So, Egypt has seen the most deteriorated we have documented since 1992 in the past year.
As part of our report, we also talk about other countries. On the top of the list, there is Syria. This year, 29 cases of journalists have been killed. That raises the total number of journalists who have been killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad to 63 journalists who were covering the events in Syria. Also, that—also, that doesn’t mean there is just killing. We have documented a lot of kidnapping cases. This has been the most worrying sign in Syria. We’ve seen 53 kidnapping cases happening this year, which also raises the total number of kidnapping to 76 since the uprising. We’ve seen more and more the opposition is engaging in anti-press tactics. They are more and more kidnapping journalists and also enforcing censorship on foreign reporter.
In addition, of course, Iraq is—the violence that has erupted in Iraq has also resulted in a lot of targeting for journalists there. For the first time, last year, in 2012, we haven’t documented any killed cases for journalists in Iraq, and it was the first year after 10 years of continuing attacks against journalists where Iraq has seen the most deadly environment for journalists with 155 journalists over 10 years since the occupation of Iraq. In 2012, there was none. And this year, we’ve seen for the first time a return to that era with 10 journalists being killed, and all of them throughout the last quarter of the year. And in one city, Mosul, most of those attacks happened, with seven journalists being killed in one city, a also unprecedented rate.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the—what is the Committee to Protect Journalists calling for?
SHERIF MANSOUR: Well, we call for basically fighting impunity. We don’t want the perpetrators and those who violate and attack journalists get away with it. We tried as much as possible with media campaign, with advocacy, to pressure governments and use international organization like the U.N. to be a venue to have this discussion. And most recently, we’ve managed to, with the help of other organization and other governments, to pass a resolution in the General Assembly in the U.N. that supports the right of journalists in conflict zone. And also, for the first time, there will be a day in November every year where all the governments can fight impunity. There will be a lot of attacks will be happening. We’ve already, like, documented more than a thousand killed cases since 1992. And this year, we are up to 1,040. So those should not go unpunished. And we are following up with all the governments who do this every year.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, the two Sharifs, Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Egypt. Sharif, stay safe in this new year.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Hamburg, Germany, to the Chaos Communication Congress. We’ll hear from Julian Assange and Jacob Appelbaum. Stay with us.