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The Springborg Affair: A Censorship Debacle Reflects Egypt's Future

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It began on Monday, December 5th, when English newspaper readers in Cairo learned that a new paper, the Egypt Independent, had disappeared from newsstands. They learned about the disappearance from the British press, in an article by Alistair Beach of The Independent. "A censorship row has broken out at the country's newest newspaper after staff were ordered to shelve an entire print run of 20,000 copies," Beach wrote, "over an article that suggested the leader of the governing Military Council could go to prison."

In the censored article, political science professor Robert Springborg had suggested that "resentment" might be growing in the ranks of the military against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt's current de-facto leader Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi. An edited version of the article can be read on Egypt Independent's website. Instead of the word "resentment" it used the somehow less toxic "concern," and excised the offending paragraph:

The present discontent among junior officers, Chief of Staff General Sami Anan's greater popularity than the Field Marshal in the military and among Egyptians as a whole, and intensified pressure from the U.S. could all result in the Field Marshal sharing President Mubarak's fate, The military institution could remove him to save itself. If matters became truly desperate, discontented officers not in the SCAF might decide that a coup within a coup would be the best way to save the honor of the country and their institution.

Springborg published an angry rebuttal to the censorship in Foreign Policy. Calling Egypt Independent "rather paradoxically named," he admitted, "I do not know whether [Magdy El Galad, the editor who ordered the censorship,] did so on direct orders from the SCAF or because he anticipated General Tantawi's negative reaction."

Ironically, the censorship led Springborg to more fully explain his coup theory, and speculate on how the censorship itself plays into it. "One lesson of the Arab Spring," he wrote, "is that news now travels very fast indeed. Within hours of the 20,000 copies of the second issue of Egypt Independent being pulped, the story had spread not only in Egypt, but globally, as the article in London's The Independent attests."

El Galad explained himself in Arabic. Egypt Independent editor Max Strasser published the translation on his blog. Far more remarkable than the content, which defends pulling the article on national security concerns, is the style. El Galed writes in the flowery, unsystematic fashion that is difficult to translate, and wholly foreign to English readers, which undoubtedly makes him look worse to those already unenthused with his actions. "I thank God for his several blessings, one of which is that I am thick-skinned: I only contemplate objective criticism," he began.

Waving away Egyptian journalists who are "bedazzled by the lights of the West," he grandly pronounced, "I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us, when it suppresses those freedoms to protect its interests and national security."

"For me," he continued, "one black strand of hair from an Egyptian child in the heart of Upper Egypt is of greater value than his country or the entire West." Where Springborg "derives his arrogant power from the American arsenal," El Galed himself finds "protection in satisfying a poor man in some impoverished Egyptian neighborhood."

"This ultra-nationalist discourse is a by-product of the toppled regime, and by extension the 1952 military regime," suggested an editorial published by Egypt Independent's editors. Indeed, this kind of over-the-top prose developed in the political party press of the turn of the last century, crystallizing in the weekly editorials of Mohammad Heikal, close friend of Gamel Abdel Nasser and editor of the newly-nationalized Al Ahram in the 1960s. "He writes as he talks," American journalist Edward Sheehan once wrote of Heikal, an obvious predecessor of El Galed. "His favorite subject is himself, and he is so fond of elaborate digressions that he can consume thousands of words before he comes to his point."

The censorship incident over Springborg's op-ed, and the ensuing "Streisand Effect" (in which censorship backfires) was indicative of the intellectual battles throughout the Egyptian press these days. Among Egyptian journalists I've encountered a firm divide between Western-oriented independents, many but not all educated in English and closely linked to the protest movement, and the older generation of editors and writers like El Galed, who though independent are connected to a different era of media that involves self-censorship for the purpose of stability. After all, in the 1950s the press had legitimate reasons for downplaying Nasser's mistakes and offering a counter-narrative to British papers.

Sarah Carr, who writes for Egypt Independent, is one of the younger school who El Galed might call "bedazzled." She ripped into both El Galed and his style, in a mock translation of his article. "I have learnt that being proud of my country means using it as a basis for ad hominem attacks on colleagues and others I disagree with, as well as a device for constructing fascistic, paranoid delusions," she wrote, feigning El Galed's tone. She tried her hand at the flowery, old-school writing style, in all capital letters:

"I CANNOT BE THREATENED. I AM THE FRESH WATER IN THE MOUTH OF THE THIRSTY MAN. I AM THE GENTLE MELODY OF A STREAM RUNNING PAST A HOSPITAL INSIDE OF WHICH A MAN RECOVING FROM HERNIA SURGERY FINDS SOLACE. I AM YOUR DAD'S FAVOURITE JUMPER..."

It goes on and on, and is very funny for those familiar with the old style. Carr's sarcastic humor shows the way post-revolution Egypt is confronting a generational divide evident elsewhere, but on display most clearly in the arena that is obviously most public: the press. Springborg is absolutely correct when he says that the censorship incident reaffirms the precariousness of Tantawi's rule. But it also reflects something deeper about the "Arab Spring" as it plays out in Egypt. It shows how generational and cultural divides that pervade Egyptian journalism continue to reflect the political situation, and on occasion, affect it as well.