A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Springborg Censorship Controversy and SCAF's Intentions

The past two weeks in Egypt have been so busy with the elections that I haven't mentioned some of the other things that have been going on, including an egregious bit of censorship that involves my longtime friend, and sometime colleague, Robert Springborg. I first met Bob in Cairo back in the 1970s at the American Research Center in Egypt, even before Husni Mubarak was President, and though he was a political scientist and I was a historian, as Egypt specialists we've been crossing paths for years. Bob has had a distinguished academic career in the US, Australia, the UK and Egypt (many years at Macquarie University in Sydney, other posts at SOAS in London, and now at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey; administrative posts as Cairo Director of the American Research Center in Egypt, and as Director of the London Middle East Institute; consulting positions with USAID and private consulting firms (including a stint in DC in the 1990s where we saw each other fairly frequently). Bob's a true old Egypt hand, and one of his persistent interests for some time now has been the role of the Army in Egyptian society. I seem to recall that back in the 1980s he wrote something that ran afoul of then Field Marshal Abu Ghazala, hindering his travel to Egypt until Mubarak purged Abu Ghazala; now he seems to have gotten in hot water with Field Marshal Tantawi, but only for saying what a lot of us are thinking. I've said similar things on this blog, but not in an Egyptian newspaper.

Personal background aside, here's the story. A new weekly English-language Egyptian independent newspaper, the Egypt Independent, published one issue on November 24; its second, scheduled to appear on December 1, was due to carry an article by Bob Springborg dealing with the Army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He questioned, among other things, whether there were divisions between SCAF and the Army rank and file, and within SCAF itself, which often seems to reverse itself. Now, the Egypt Independent is an offshoot of the English language online site of Al-Masry al-Youm, and Al-Masry al-Youm's Editor Magdy al-Galad objected to the article. Changes were made accordingly, but it was still not allowed to appear. As the staff of the Egypt Independent noted in this post:
After making the requested changes, the censored version was still never reprinted. We never received any calls from authorities outside of the institution to halt the printing process and, to our knowledge, the decision was internal. The editorial team of Egypt Independent was not part of this decision.
The Egypt Independent staff have decided not to publish their paper until they receive an independent license separate from that of Al-Masry al-Youm. Meanwhile the Arabic Al-Masry al-Youm published an article attacking Springborg and the correspondent of the British newspaper The Independent, Alastair Beach, who wrote a sympathetic piece on the issue, as foreign influences trying to undermine Egypt: Beach as linked to intelligence agencies, Springborg as promoting a coup. While ostensibly the decision to block publication was Al-Masry al-Youm's, the assumption that SCAF was either behind it or that Galad acted to avoid a confrontation with SCAF is pretty universal.

In the Internet age, of course, most people in Egypt have not just heard about the controversy, they've heard more or less what Springborg wanted to say, which he explains in some detail at Foreign Policy. (Note that it runs two pages; read both.) Among his points:
But clumsy censorship simply exacerbates his and the SCAF's problems. One lesson of the Arab Spring 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. It did not used to be this way. A previous publisher of al-Masry al-Youm, Hisham Kassem, former chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, clashed several years ago with the owners of the paper over the issue of editorial freedom. He ultimately resigned. That the ostensibly liberal owners of the paper, including Naguib Sawiris, founder of the possibly misnamed Free Egyptians Party, were not then revealed as having endorsed censorship suggests the profound enhancement of information flow over the past three or four years, to say nothing of commitment to that flow. (Indeed, the bravery of the staff of Egypt Independent provides ample evidence of that.)
Exactly. It's a classic case of the "Streisand effect," where clumsy censorship draws far more attention to the original argument than if it had appeared quietly and without publicity. And it makes Bob's questions even more timely.

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