In Leaked Video, Egyptian Army Officers Debate How to Sway News Media
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — A leaked video of senior Egyptian Army officers debating how to influence the news media during the months preceding the military takeover offers a rare glimpse of the anxiety within the institution at the prospect of civilian oversight.
In the leaked six-minute clip of a private meeting led by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in the period before his July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the officers express their dismay at public scrutiny of the army, unknown in Egypt until after the 2011 uprising. Calling even mildly disrespectful news coverage “dangerous” and abnormal, the officers call for a restoration of “red lines” that had protected the military for decades. And they urge General Sisi to pressure the roughly two dozen big media owners into “self-censorship.”
Mixing humor and cool confidence, General Sisi tells the officers that they must adjust to the new reality of public and parliamentary oversight, but he also counsels patience while he recruits allies in the news media.
“Building a statewide alliance takes a long time and effort,” he continues. “It takes a very long time until you possess an appropriate share of influence over the media.”
“The revolution has dismantled all the shackles that were present — not just for us, not just for the military, but for the entire state,” he says at another point. “The rules and the shackles were dismantled, and they are being rearranged.”
The officers’ winter uniforms and references to last December’s constitutional referendum suggest the meeting took place around that time. But the conversation foreshadowed the broad media crackdown that has played out since the military takeover. The new government has shut down Islamist television networks and the main newspaper supporting Mr. Morsi, and the police have arrested several journalists perceived as critical of the government or the military. And for whatever reason, privately owned newspapers and satellite networks now resound with cheers for the army and demonization of its Islamist opponents, just as the officers hoped.
The leak of the video, though, may raise different alarms. The clip was one of several snippets of the same meeting released Wednesday night and Thursday by RNN, an Islamist Web site, and in an interview, its acting director, Amr Farrag, said the material was obtained from “sources inside the military.” Military officials said Thursday that the army was starting an investigation.
Analysts said the video offered insights into motivations that might have helped propel the military’s takeover. “It betrays a real fear of what democratic discourse might look like and what that would mean for the military, in terms of what might be talked about and what might be exposed,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a researcher on Egypt at the Century Foundation in New York.
The officers’ thin skin about the loss of the military’s “red lines,” he argued, is symptomatic of a much deeper worry. “If the military can be talked about in these unprecedented ways, the concern is that it erodes the stature of the military in the public imagination, and then the role of the military as an institution is potentially under threat.”
A senior Egyptian military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized as a spokesman, argued that the video showed General Sisi in a positive light. He appears to defuse the anger of his officers and encourage them to adjust to democracy, including the possibility of facing questions from an independent Parliament.
The military cannot “take things back to the way it was before, when nobody mentions your name or talks about you, not yet,” General Sisi tells an officer, addressing him by his first name. “We have entered a new situation, and we will be forced, Omar, to deal with it.”
“A Parliament is still coming,” General Sisi says. “This Parliament may request hearings. What are we going to do about that, I wonder?”
He adds, “We have to be prepared to face these changes without being too negatively affected by them, but they will affect us.”
But at the same time, General Sisi also appears to share much of the officers’ frustration. The officer named Omar argues that in any state, “there are red lines to protect the armed forces from the media, and the truth is we have enjoyed this protection for 50 years.” But because of the “lack of discipline” after the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, he says, “these lines were lost, and people and the media rode roughshod over us in a way that isn’t normal.”
“Correct,” General Sisi replies.
“These red lines, Omar, are for all of us,” he adds. “The law, the law, the law does not permit, even now, media outlets to cover any news about the armed forces, Omar, even if just a name in an obituary, without the approval of the military intelligence.”
Omar argues that the military must restore protections, but “in a more developed way than the old system,” using “a new approach to deal with the media or enlist it, to create red lines in a respectable or new or realistic way.”
He notes that a group of about two dozen businessmen own most of Egypt’s media outlets, and suggests “a dialogue with those people in an unannounced way, individually, to cajole or intimidate those people.” He says many of them are eager for positive relations with the military — a major political force with its own commercial empire — and suggests that “showing a red card to those people will make them, even if they don’t cooperate, stop at a certain line or limit through self-censorship.”
Perhaps General Sisi should replace the military’s boyish-looking spokesman, Col. Ahmed Aly, with an officer with more gravitas, the officer suggests, “to satisfy the people’s mental image of the military.”
General Sisi jokes to ease the tension. “I know about cajoling, but tell me how to intimidate!” he responds, laughing. As for the young spokesman, General Sisi explains, deadpan, “Ahmed Aly is very attractive to women.”
He reassures the officers that he is working to address the media problem. “We have been concerned with the media ever since the first day of the council,” he says, referring to the military council that ruled for more than a year after Mr. Mubarak, a period when the military was widely criticized for killing protesters and sexually abusing women, as well as mismanaging the economy and the transition. “We have tasted fire,” General Sisi recalls.
He says he has already begun to carry out some of the officer’s suggestions, including new military outreach to private media, to operate alongside the government’s official spokesmen. “We want to have the opportunity to present ourselves through more than one officer and in more than one form,” he says.
“We are working on this, for sure,” he tells the officers. “We’re achieving better results. But we haven’t reached what we want.”