Saturday, 15 October 2011

BLOG: Shahira Amin on the Egyptian Revolution, Women and the Media

Optimism about the Future but ‘There’s Plenty Left to Do’ 

By: Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser

Protesters walk past a placard depicting Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), at Tahrir Square after Friday prayers in Cairo September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

14 Oct, 2011 - 
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Shahira Amin, the former deputy head of Nile TV and a freelance CNN correspondent, who made waves in the early days of the Egyptian protests when she resigned on 3 February to “be with the people,” saying that state TV was spreading only “propaganda”.

Amin has taken some flak for the timing of her resignation – popular sentiment had turned against the tightly-controlled state television anyway, and she stepped down as protests were reaching critical mass.

Yesterday she dismissed these claims of opportunism and said that one American journalist in particular had made her very angry by saying that journalists in a revolution often “grow a conscience” when they see the “tide turning”. 

Amin said she had always walked “a fine line” with her reporting. The fact that she freelanced for CNN and worked for the English section of Nile TV already meant a “higher freedom ceiling,” and according to Amin her decision to resign was a natural extension of her journalistic values.

Last night’s event, hosted by the United States Embassy, Women Without Borders and SAVE (Sisters Against Violence and Extremism), focussed on the role of women in “post-revolution Egypt,” as it was called.

But Amin also spent plenty of time discussing how the Egyptian media have and have not changed, decrying the lack of press freedom under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), and - de rigeur for any discussion of the Arab revolutions - spent some time going through the role social media played as organizing and communications tools for protestors. (She says SMS messages were more important than Facebook or Twitter, but that if former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hadn’t cut off the Internet there would have been fewer Egyptians on the street when it really counted – a miscalculation that may have cost the “soft dictator” his job, according to Amin).

Whether one thinks Amin is a shrewd political analyst and good journalist, or simply a shrewd political analyst, she is without doubt an engaging speaker.

Amin claimed that 12,000 people have reportedly been tried in military courts over the last eight months – more than throughout the entire presidency of Mubarak. 

Perhaps the best known of these is Maikel Nabil, the blogger who received a three-year prison sentence for writing that “army and the people were never one hand”. In late August Nabil started a hunger strike to protest against what he and human rights observers consider an unfair sentence handed down by a military court that has no business judging civilians.

Nabil turned 26 last week, after nearly six weeks of refusing food. Amin was able to visit him on his birthday, along with Nabil’s brother and father, because the guard mistook her for the blogger’s mother, she said. The father quickly agreed that she was part of the group, and so Amin was allowed him. She asked Maikel to drink juice, and to live, because the army would not care if he died. Nabil told her that he would “rather die than live as a slave under an oppressive regime”.

Let us hope that this is not the choice Nabil faces. The good news is that he is to be re-tried in a civilian court, where his chances of a fair hearing increase exponentially. The bad news is that Nabil has not necessarily received the public support he deserves, according to Amin, because he is not only pro-peace, he is pro-Israel and an atheist to boot – rare sentiments in the generally conservative Muslim country.

Religious criticism remains a taboo, but otherwise Amin praised private networks for hosting the opposition and “airing all views”

There are still obstacles, of course. For the press to fulfil its role, according to Amin, SCAF and its strong-arm tactics and its desire to control the economy must recede from the leadership and censorship must end, as must the intimidation that leads to self-censorship – preferably before the elections planned for late November.

She also said, as she has on many occasions, that there are too many of the “old guard” editors still in their positions, despite repeated protests against them. (IPI would argue that even those journalists have a right to freedom of expression – but that’s another story, and of course Amin is entitled to her opinion of her former coworkers).

But overall, Shahira Amin is optimistic, and spoke happily about the fact that democracy in Egypt will naturally be Egypt-shaped – women will have a leading role, as will a free press, but so will the young, moderate Islamists (including women of the Muslim “Sisterhood”) of whom she spoke quite highly. The trend, she said, is “irreversible.” The question is time and persistence.

“At best it will take years,” Amin said. “We hope it won’t take decades.”