Egyptian journalist and blogger Wael Abbas has been a strong critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and security services for years. Abbas’s exposure of police brutality and political corruption has resulted in his arrest and continuous harassment by state officials. He spoke to Maclean’s in Ottawa, where he is speaking at a seminar organized by Rights and Democracy on free media versus repressive regimes.
Q: What’s the state of the media in Egypt today?
A: There is no such thing as free media in Egypt. All the traditional media are subject to interference and censorship. Journalists are either harassed or they censor themselves. Five editors of the biggest newspapers in Egypt were recently taken to court for writing stories about the health of the president. Some were sentenced to fines and jail time, until the president himself pardoned them. Journalists often times are sent to court or jail for accusation of slander or insulting some religious or military institution. The same thing applies to bloggers; only bloggers don’t have a syndicate to protect them.
Q: What have you experienced personally?
A: My experience is different. They target my reputation and my credibility. There are rumours that I converted to Christianity or that I am a homosexual. I was accused on television of having a criminal past. I’m harassed at the airport all the time when I travel. They confiscate my laptop, memory cards, CDs. I was the Middle East correspondent of a European news agency. I lost my job in 2007 and have not been able to get a job since.
Q: If you were employed by a foreign news agency, how did the Egyptian government get you fired?
A: Like you, I used to think that state security had no influence on foreign media in Egypt. I found out the dirty truth. They cannot operate without government cooperation. They need their offices open. They need to have channels of communication open. They need access to officials, the president, ministers, stuff like that.
Q: What did you write that got them so upset?
A: I don’t know really, because I wrote about lots of stuff back then. But there was a specific interview with the nephew of the late president, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981. The guy said that Mubarak took part in the assassination and that what happened back then was a military coup. Also police torture and harassment of women, election rigging, violence during peaceful demonstrations.
Q: Why do you persist with your criticism of the government?
A: Because I need my country to be a democratic country, to be more free, to have more representation of real people in the parliament, to have less power in the hands of the president, to have real presidential elections. This way we’ll be able to combat corruption, and we’ll be able to fight poverty, unemployment, and lots of problems that Egyptians are facing, especially the young.
Q: How do Egyptians react to such extensive state control over their lives and the lack of basic freedoms?
A: In the beginning we were living the lie: that Egypt is a democratic country, that Mubarak is not a dictator. But people started gradually being aware of the charade we are living. We’re starting to demand our rights. We have lots of workers’ strikes. We have demonstrations. Women who are subjected to sexual harassment report on what happened to them. The issue is not taboo anymore. People who suffer police torture are now going forward to report on the officers who tortured them. This is something that didn’t happen before. People were afraid.
Q: What’s the state of the opposition in Egypt?
A: We have all the colours of the political spectrum in Egypt. It is claimed that the strongest and most organized is the Muslim Brotherhood. But I claim the Muslim Brotherhood is chicken shit. They go into alliances with the government, even when the government suppresses them and arrests lots of people from their movement. They are not really serious about changing this regime. They are only after reform, which is a vague word. If you are wearing a very torn shirt, and it has holes everywhere and cigarette burns, how can you reform that? You need to change it. You need to get a new shirt.
Q: What about non-Islamist who are opposed to the government?
A: They are starting to take ground. They were not really influential or active before. The scene was dominated by the Islamists, who had manpower and money. They infiltrated society by doing charity and work with the poor. But now the liberals and the socialists are becoming more powerful. We had presidential elections in 2005, and the person who came second, Ayman Nour, was the head of one of the new liberal parties called the Tomorrow Party. He was accused of forgery because he dared to challenge the president and gained all those votes. He was sent to jail.
Q: The United States fears that the only viable opposition to Hosni Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood.
A: This fear is being fed by Mubarak himself. He is using the Islamists as a scarecrow to frighten the West, to convince the West that it’s either him or them. This shows how keen he is to cling to the chair he’s sitting on. But it’s not true. There are lots of other activists. And the Islamists in Egypt are not that dangerous. I believe they are just hypocrites, and people are going to realize their hypocrisy once they have their own political party or are in power to some extent.
Q: How does American support for Mubarak affect the way Egyptians feel toward the United States?
A: I can’t speak for the rest of Egyptians, but for me, if you are aiding my enemy than you are my enemy, too. I supported Barack Obama. But after he came to power, I found that Mubarak became more aggressive toward the opposition. It was as if he got a green light from Obama. This was not the case during the Bush presidency. Bush was critical of human rights abuses and was for freedom of expression. Obama, when he came to Cairo to address the Muslim world, didn’t talk at all about these issues. He only recited some versus from the Koran and said some words of the prophet Mohammad, and he expected people to be happy because he said that. He was just addressing the religious sentiments of Muslims, not their minds. I felt insulted then. He was acting just like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: George W. Bush spoke about human rights and democracy in the Arab world, but you turned down an opportunity to meet with him.
A: Of course. Because he’s a war criminal. He’s an imperialist and a war criminal. The United States was always perceived of as a world power, but it was never perceived of as an imperialist power. But Bush taking over Iraq, killing all those Iraqis, and taking over the oil resources of the country made me hate him. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my country, even if Mubarak is a dictator.
Q: What do you think of the United States?
A: Mubarak cannot do anything unless the Americans are okay with it. The Americans are the only ones who can pressure Mubarak. I’m not asking Americans to pressure him. But I want them to be neutral. Give us a chance to fight our own war.
Q: I mean how do you personally feel about the country? You’ve been to the United States several times. You’ve completed internships there. There must be some attraction it holds for you.
A: The attraction is the experience of freedom–the experience of free media, the experience of the civil society. Anybody, anytime, without permission, can have a demonstration in front of the White House. They can start an NGO. They can start a newspaper. This is what I want in Egypt: freedom to start newspapers, freedom to assemble, freedom of the civil society. I have some criticisms of political life and the media in the United States. But still, our case is worse.
Q: It seems that no media in Egypt are willing to hire you now. What will you do?
A: I don’t know. I freelance. I have no steady income. I’m 35, and I still live with my family.
Q: Do you see any reason for optimism regarding Egypt’s future?
A: I’m working because I think something can be achieved. If I became pessimistic, I would stop and I would flee the country.
Q: Are you ever tempted?
A: I could leave anytime. I don’t want to.
Q: Would you meet with President Obama if he asked?
A: Only as a journalist to interview him. I don’t like him anymore.