Lina Attalah, chief editor of Egypt Independent, said President Mohamed Morsi’s government seeks only to hold power and Egyptians are dreading the possibility of a return to pre-revolutionary times. “The current regime’s aspirations are limited to keeping the power that they have reaped through the electoral process as much as possible.” She said there is no conversation between the government and stakeholders, and that the troubled state of the country “gives us a sense of lack of strategy from the current regime to basically find durable political and economic solutions to the country.”
Ms. Attalah said Egyptians remain wary of the $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) currently being negotiated by the government. “People’s perception of the IMF loan is that this is the loan that will lead to very critical austerity measures that are unprecedented even in pre-revolutionary times, that will lead to very aggressive taxation, for which the poor will have to pay most of the price,” she said, adding, “And it will also mean the removal of critical subsidies on very critical commodities.”
She said there is wide recognition that the economic problems need to be solved, but “if you are building a whole platform of economic reform solely based on trying to bridge this budget deficit, I am afraid this is not going to solve the problem.”
Ms. Attalah also discussed the current media landscape, including Bassam Youssef’s arrest and what it means for freedom of the press, and her relatively new newspaper owned by businessmen but run by journalists keen on identifying themselves as “young.”
“Young not in the sense of “young and foolish,” or “young and innocent,” and not all that cynical. But young in the sense that we are ready to always challenge already established conceptions of everything around us. And this is the possibility that is not there amongst the elderly, who, unfortunately, rely so much on what they already know, and are less interested in exploring new possibilities. I think this is where our forté lies.”
The interview was conducted by Nur Laiq, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Nur Laiq: This is an IPI interview with Lina Attalah, the chief editor of Egypt Independent, on the situation in Egypt today. Before she joined Egypt Independent, Lina worked for Reuters, Cairo Times, The Daily Star, and The Christian Science Monitor. And before that, she worked as a radio producer and campaign coordinator with the BBC World Service Trust in Darfur, Sudan.
Egypt is going through a rocky period right now, with instability and turmoil both in the political and economic spheres. The government cannot govern; the opposition doesn’t seem to oppose; and the gap between the people and the state is growing wider.
As a journalist, you have access to all sides. To start off with the political situations right now: the unfortunate sectarian tragedy last week left 7 people dead and has been read as a microcosm of the chaos permeating the Egyptian political scene. Can you comment on the wide implications of that, and what’s happening in the transition in terms of the politics of the government, the opposition, and the street?
Lina Attalah: The sectarian violence that happened again last week falls into a wider context of sectarian clashes that have been common in Egypt for decades, but that have also intensified in the last decade, and particularly in the last few years.
The sectarian tensions reflect deep societal problems pertaining to people—sentiments towards people’s differences, and so on—but they also give a face to how efficient or inefficient the political management of the crisis is.
In the past, the political management of the crisis by the former regime of President Hosni Mubarak has been completely failing at finding durable solutions to the problem of sectarian violence, and this was reflected at the discursive levels. So for example, the regime would not admit that there is a societal problem, it would always externalize the problem by saying that these are outside forces who are basically trying to destabilize the country by engaging in these acts of violence, on a judicial level by not bringing anyone to justice, any of the perpetrators of these attacks to justice.
And now what’s going on in Egypt, post revolution, first, relatively free and fair elections of a president after the revolution, we see a reproduction of these tactics and these policies. So, what happened after this incident of sectarian violence: we found a regime-engineered discourse basically blaming Christians for the violence, although the violence was not perpetrated originally by Christians, and at the same time, also sweeping the problem under the rug and not trying to hold those responsible for the violence accountable.
Now this is the face of consistent state of political failure by the regime of President Mohammad Morsi and his government, and it is extended to other aspects and areas of the country pertaining to dealing with the question of freedom of expression in the media, pertaining to questions of economic troubles, pertaining to questions of labor unrest, and, if anything, it gives us a sense of lack of strategy from the current regime to basically find durable political and economic solutions to the country.
But, at the same time, it also shows us that the current regime’s aspirations are limited to keeping the power that they have reaped through the electoral process as much as possible, and if this is not going to happen through engaging on political levels and finding political solutions, it would unfortunately happen through the repression of the security apparatus, which brings us back to pre-revolutionary times, and this is something that everyone is dreading at this point in time in Egypt.
NL: You mentioned the economic turmoil and the lack of political strategy when it comes to that issue as well. But as a journalist with a unique vantage point, could you tell us a bit more about the lesser point of view from the street, and what people think about the IMF loan, as well as the Qatari aid that’s been flowing into the country, most recently the announcement of the 3 billion that they’re offering in April?
LA: The economic thinking of the current government and of President Mohammad Morsi is completely concentrated, in fact reduced to the question of bridging the budget deficit which has reached an unprecedented level, and which is promising of a very critical crisis. So, we recognized that there is a crisis, the crisis is not manufactured.
The problem is, if you are building a whole platform of economic reform solely based on trying to bridge this budget deficit, I am afraid this is not going to solve the problem. So, on a state level, what people are perceiving with those attempts to bridge the budget deficit is that it is not something that concerns them.
People are perceiving both the IMF loan but also the cash injections that are taking place in the form of gifts or loans from Qatar, from Saudi Arabia, and from other countries, as money that is essentially entering into the state budget, but that is not paying off on the ground in terms of raising employment, in terms of social justice, in terms of things that affect the lives on a daily basis. And this is why we always say in order to have a more farsighted economic reform program, you need to engage on a more infrastructure level. So you need to be talking about legislations related to minimum wage; you need to be talking about labor rights for organizations and the ability for the unions to organize freely; talking about how you can encourage investment in heavy industries that employ thousands and thousands of labor; you need to be talking about how to solve the employment problems.
And there is no conversation on these levels at all; we’re just talking about how to bridge the deficit in the budget, and we all know that at the end of the day, with no information laws, with no transparency, there is very little known about what’s happening with the budget and how this budget is being spent and on what allocations, and with what societal consensus are the different allocations made within this budget.
So, essentially, people’s perception of the IMF loan is that this is the loan that will lead to very critical austerity measures that are unprecedented even in pre-revolutionary times, that will lead to very aggressive taxation, for which the poor will have to pay most of the price, because, again, the regime refuses to levy some of the taxation on the poor. And it will also mean the removal of critical subsidies on very critical commodities. So this is how the news about the IMF is essentially consumed at this point in the state.
NL: I just want to pick up on what you said about the lack of information and the lack of transparency when it comes to decision making, and to hear your views about what’s happened to the revolution in terms of the institutions, and actually trickling down through institutions, whether it’s within the government or even within your industry, the newspaper industry, and whether there’s actually been a change in the way business is done in these places.
LA: This is something I like to reflect a lot about, because in general, when people like to evaluate whether the revolution has succeeded or failed, which I think an irrelevant question at this point, there is always a tendency to look at results, consequences or products, and there is no focus on processes. And I think there are a lot of interesting processes, actually at institutional levels, not only in the realm of the oppositions, but even in the realm of government institutions where there are small pockets of dissidents within state institutions, be it the bureaucracy, be it the state media, and so on; that are basically trying to question the very status quo of institutional proceedings.
So for example at the level of political parties, and this is something that we’ve just talked about, there are a lot of conversation about how we need to write new bylaws, and how we need to institute how decision-making processes take place, and are the product of conversations, consensus, and not just a few people up in the ladder of the hierarchy who actually decide for the whole party.
This is also happening in a lot of media institutions, even in the privately owned media, which are supposed to be non-state, but at the same time have been operating with no democratic practices. In fact, these are places that are witnessing voices of decent coming out and saying no, we need to have a bit more of a representational system that could basically allocate for people participating and informing the decision-making processes at least. So, there are these processes across the boards, and I think it’s very interesting, and this is part of the larger transformation that we’re talking about, if we want to consider this revolution from a wider perspective.
NL: Talking of the wider picture, I want to just ask you about yourself as a young and active member of the revolution. Do you feel much have changed with the regards to the generational divide that used to permeate the Egyptian political scene? In other words, in what way have youth groups become more enfranchised, if at all?
LA: Again, the common belief now is that the youth who essentially made this revolution, my opinion and by the saying of many of us, have been highly disenfranchised and marginalized from the political process, and on a formalistic level that’s true. So you find a very small number of youth in formalistic structures such as the constituent assembly, or the presidency, or the team of advisers to the president, it’s true, on a formalistic level, there is a lot of marginalization, but on an informal and less-known level, I think there is a strong presence again at the level of media organizations, political parties, even in the bureaucracy, whereby a younger generation of people are basically unsettling the logic of the elderly who’ve been engaging in politics for decades and decades, but who don’t necessarily have bright solutions for the current configuration of the country post-revolution.
And I take pride in the very example of our newspaper, which is a group of young journalists. When we went to our retreat and sort of pinned down what describes us, we were very keen on calling ourselves young. Young not in the sense of “young and foolish,” or “young and innocent,” and not all that cynical. But young in the sense that we are ready to always challenge already established conceptions of everything around us. And this is the possibility that is not there amongst the elderly, who, unfortunately rely so much on what they already know and are less interested in exploring new possibilities. I think this is where our forté lies.
NL: I am glad that you’ve mentioned the newspaper, because I want to end with the question on the media. Following the revolution, it seems that the press has been allowed more freedom than before, but at the same time now, there are worries epitomized by the incident with the popular television satirist Bassem Youssef, that progress is being hampered. Could you comment on that, and the freedom of the press?
LA: Like we’ve said before, there is a proliferation of content and platforms after the revolution, and there is more media diversity, and there is more keenness to tackle a whole set of issues with a lot more freedom, and basically it’s an opening that is becoming so hard to shut again, particularly if attempts at shutting it are reproductions of the regimes.
So basically, what has happened recently is that the current regime has been copying from yesterday’s books how to silence the media by resorting to very conventional tactics of summoning journalists, threatening to close channels, and the effect of all these tactics has proven to all of us, if anything, the regime is shooting itself in the foot by doing this, because what happens is that any issue or person that becomes a subject of censorship flags much more attention than the case producing fear, and people basically being scared of saying more. So, these tactics are not useful.
However one must not say that it’s all good and we shouldn’t worry about freedom of expression because people have just become empowered and everything. What concerns me is attempting to enshrine legislations around freedom of expression within the constitution, and this has happened already. So, there are series of clauses in the constitution that are extremely aversive to the notion and the spirit of freedom of expression, and these develop into further draft laws and legislation. They can promise serious restrictions on the landscape of freedom of expression, and this is where we should worry.
NL: There are many more questions I’d love to ask you, but we have to end. So Lina, thank you very much.
LA: Thank you.