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Magda Abu-Fadil Headshot

Media Muzzled for Egyptian Elections, but Blogosphere Thrives

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It started with a clampdown on domestic, private, "independent," opposition media and bloggers, and turned to harassment of foreign news organizations, under the pretext they disseminated falsehoods about Egypt's legislative elections.

The first round of parliamentary elections Nov. 28 that secured the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) clean sweep of seats, was a prelude to next year's presidential ballot.

So the media got a taste of what to expect in 2011, while the runoff Dec. 5 just nailed it shut.

The result: The NDP secured its grip on the upcoming presidential election by sidelining the candidacy of constitutionally independent candidates, and allowed aspirants from marginal opposition parties to run, thereby providing an appearance of "a democratic picture" with a semblance of diversity, Arab media reported.

"Will Mubarak run as in independent candidate?" columnist Maamoun Fendi asked sarcastically in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

Meanwhile, the BBC Arabic Service sent a protest letter to Egyptian Information Minister Anas El Fiki decrying harassment of its local and foreign correspondents assigned to cover the event.

It said filming for one of its programs in Egypt had been halted, that production companies working with the BBC in Egypt had been threatened by a senior official in the state-run media, and that a BBC correspondent had been put under surveillance by Egyptian security.

The letter also referred to strongly-worded criticism of the BBC by the NDP days before the elections and came in the wake of complaints about the potential for vote rigging, ballot box stuffing, bribes, and muzzling of opposition media -- all of which materialized, according to various reports.

The pan-Arab daily Al Hayat headlined with "NDP wins in Egypt... but new parliament loses local, international credibility."

It said the pre-election mood reflected a step backwards as the NDP slapped restrictions on the private media after being skewered by those outlets, prompting Egyptians to assert that these media had replaced political parties. It said:

The ruling party also went on the offensive by criticizing Egyptian talk shows and foreign media coverage of the elections for being biased. Additionally, the elections saw a marked change in the U.S. administration's policies under President Barack Obama, with observers noting that the Egyptian-American spring was about to end.

An op-ed in the same paper said: "While the leaked (Wikileaks) documents demonstrated how open the world is, the Egyptian elections announced how closed Egypt is."

Enterprising citizen journalists documented the vote rigging with their mobile devices and posted countless video clips on YouTube. In one instance, a man is seen marking ballots by hand.

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Egyptian man caught on YouTube forging ballots

Al Masry Al Youm newspaper published pictures of a man stuffing ballots into boxes to his left and right with both hands.

The elections coverage was extensive in Egyptian and Arab media. It was the lead story in various outlets and shared star billing with the latest WikiLeaks bombshell, but invariably, made most front pages and got ample air time on satellite channels.

Opposition papers and dissident websites focused on stories about the ruling party "stealing the election" and how the two main opposition parties -- the banned Moslem Brotherhood and Wafd -- had been creamed.

A common thread was how most media used the words "balataja" or "baltajia" to mean hoods and thugs threatening voters, candidates, delegates and monitors -- if any were allowed in the polling stations.

Wael Abbas, a dissident blogger, has been outspoken in his opposition to the regime and has been handsomely rewarded for his anti-government activities.

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Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas (Abu-Fadil)

Journalist Ibrahim Issa, editor of Al Dustour, was fired for attacking the Mubarak government and had earlier been taken off a TV program in a bid to silence him in the run up to the election.

But he's still very present online, and anyone wanting to read his scathing criticism can do so on the paper's alternate website.

In an editorial, he lashed out at the election results, but stressed that what occurred should not come as a surprise.

"Only naïve people expect the vulture [the regime] to let go of the baby chicks [i.e. the Egyptian people]," he wrote.

Al-Dustour also ran a cartoon (center column, second from bottom) of a policeman bashing a TV set, a radio, a cell phone, as well as the Facebook and Twitter logos, representing media that broadcast or published news on election forgeries.

The government justified its actions by painting dissidents as enemies of the state whose aim was to undermine its security.

But Egyptians are becoming increasingly aware of means to circumvent restrictions and to access information from various sources.

Citizen journalists and social media users have definitely been filling a void and going to mirror sites whenever possible.

The impact may still be limited, in that not everyone is literate, much less computer literate, in the country of 80 million, and with the means and access to the Internet, but citizen media are making a dent.

Although blogger Kareem Amer was released after a four-year jail term, the message was clear: shut up, or else. He hasn't been deterred and has become even more vocal since his release by urging dissidents to keep at it.

The Egyptian blogosphere is still very noisy and in competition with an increasingly noisier Arab blogosphere, where the more governments try to clamp down, the more activists become enthusiastic about standing up to repression.

The government may have shut down religious channels, limited live political broadcasts and used licensing requirements to silence texting services, but this hasn't halted the political discourse and will likely fuel more dissent.