It has become a staple for the Egyptian regime, a regime terrified of the word, to shackle independent voices of journalism. This time, the victim is Ismail El Eskandarani, a young and bright journalist and researcher with a strong bend for standing with the underdogs, of which there are plenty in Egypt.
Before official charges were levelled against Ismail, he had been detained for attending a conference in Berlin, earlier this year, which saw members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MD) participate. Egypt has criminalised any activities related to the Brotherhood. But those initial allegations proved false, as an internal Egyptian government memo conceded and was later confirmed by Ismail’s wife Khadeega Gaafar. On Tuesday, December 1, the regime of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi threw its scarlet letter at Ismail. Only in this case, he is accused of being an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a lie, pure and simple.
This kind of lie is nothing new to a regime that registers a paltry 158 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, internationally. Per government logic, if Ismail, the same journalist, researcher and thinker who has called the MB “zombies” online is a member of the outlawed group, any opposition voice can be accused and silenced under that pretense.
Khaled Ali, a prominent lawyer, former presidential candidate and Ismail’s defense attorney, understands this well. “The intent by labeling Ismail Muslim Brotherhood is to silence his journalist colleagues…and to stop their efforts to gain his release,” he explained. The government has desperately tried to maintain its control over the dominant political narrative by silencing opposition voices and their pens. The choice for journalists is, therefore, between repeating the official line, or having their career destroyed, at the very least.
But why is Sisi’s Egypt so fearful of men like Ismail? Why does the regime systematically turn those who hold contrarian views into martyrs, either by jailing them or by killing them?
At its core, Ismail’s detention speaks of extremely nefarious reasons: a regime that fears the revelation of failing counter-terrorism policies in Sinai and its exposure to the Egyptian public. Ismail excelled where others failed, in painting a picture of Cairo’s government, which applied collective punishment to the Sinai locals as the insurgency surged.
For the regime, people like Ismail are a conundrum because they are both academically skilled, and therefore much needed (Ismail has won multiple awards), and talented journalists who influence public opinion. And when Ismail unearths the precarious situation in the Sinai, he doesn’t just embarrass the government, but he undercuts the central, and perhaps only, idea that upholds the regime – bringing security to its people. In a very real sense, Sisi came to power on a security platform that may become the death knell for the strongman.
To be clear, the regime’s fear has little to do with Ismail’s political affiliation. Only two things are clear about his political footsteps. At a younger age he had Islamic leanings, which he left behind. And, as an adult, when he became a researcher and journalist, he developed a strong disliking for political Islam. In the wake of the charges leveled against him, many Islamists took to social media and questioned how he could be accused of belonging to the MB when his articles and social media posts seen, liked and shared by thousands repeatedly lambast political Islam.
What Sisi and his cohorts fear is a clear-eyed determination to love a nation through erudite analysis and investigative knowledge. I witnessed this firsthand when I met Ismail in the reception of a large hotel near LaGuardia airport, seven months ago. I expected someone older but was met with a young person of an older mind, and eyes that had already seen a lot.
As Ismail talked, it became obvious that while his physical body was in New York, his mind and soul still resided in Sinai, thousands of miles away. The room was transfixed by a man who knew the kind of details rare in today’s political climate, because the government has done everything it possibly can to turn Sinai into a black hole of information.
At the talk, Ismail unfurled a story about a woman who had assisted Egyptian soldiers during the Arab-Israeli War, in 1967. An excellent storyteller, he was able to project a vivid image of the woman in question, transporting the rapt audience to the Sinai desert with effortless ease. Ismail had done what the government worked hard to prevent. He had humanised a people that city-bound Egyptians in the mainstream have to come to deeply mistrust. And he had deciphered for us the embitterment locals from Sinai had come to feel at the ill-treatment by the Egyptian army, which they had assisted over the years. Ismail’s abundant detail brought with it an unmatched credibility, and it is precisely that tenor which the government narrative has lacked as insurgency have continued to rage in Sinai, over the past two years.
Ismail is no naive young pup. Every post, every article, is drenched in political maturity which acknowledges that Egypt is experiencing tough times, and the only way to lessen the strain is to inform the public. Ultimately, his crime is being ethical and professional. In President Sisi’s Egypt this is a punishable crime. Follow the government’s blood stained road or be dragged under a political maelstrom by it.
Whether Ismail emerges from this ordeal in 15 days (the number of days he is currently expected to spend in jail) or 15 months, Ismail will win because he has helped in changing a narrative on Sinai, which is in desperate need of balance. If anything, it is Sisi’s regime that is the biggest loser here.
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Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst who writes regularly for Al Araby Al Jadid, Daily News Egypt and more recently for Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Tahrir Institute. You can follow him on Twitter here: @
This article was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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