Sunday will mark four years since the start of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. But it is also Police Day, and recent statements in the media are keen to underline this.
In Tahrir Square, the revolution’s initial stomping ground, the hubbub of protesters and the flash of graffiti have been replaced by whitewashed walls, beautification works and the not infrequent parade of heavily armored police vehicles.
The message does not need to be spelled out. Or does it?
The state’s influence on the revolution’s depiction and its remembrance is everywhere, but it is most pronounced in the media. The portrayal of January 25 as a day, a revolution and a set of societal demands has altered dramatically since the first anniversary.
Nada al-Kholy, a journalist at the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, has been covering the revolution and its subsequent anniversaries since 2011. She says that she “participated in the January 25 revolution not only as a journalist, but also as an Egyptian woman.”
But now, she says she is unable to write about it with “the same soul.” Part of that is due to shrinking media freedoms and the fact that Al-Shorouk will no longer allow her to write about “detainees, martyrs and victims of the revolution” due to political pressure.
She believes the way the media has portrayed the revolution over the past two years has inspired fear. Looking at the January 25 anniversary headlines since 2012, it is difficult not to see things her way. The tone took a decided shift from celebratory in 2012 to alarmist in 2013, and then in 2014, the war cry took the lead.
On the January 25 last year, the state-owned Al-Ahram led with, “The army pledges to the people that it will eradicate terrorism.” The word “terrorism” had crept into the public domain and supplanted “revolution.” There were no pledges to fulfill revolutionary demands.
The 2013 anniversary came in the midst of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s year in power, and speaking in the name of the revolution, newspapers highlighted rising discontent with his government.
“Clashes in Tahrir before gathering for the revolution,” Al-Ahram wrote, while Shorouk declared, “January 25: God keep this country safe.”
The privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm took the matter a step further, leading with, “Revolution on the revolution’s anniversary,” which was followed by, “Morsi’s decisions will be the reason for the revolution against him.”
Ayman Hafez, a journalist at Al-Ahram, believes the changing portrayal of the revolution has more to do with the political context than anything else.
Mohamed Mekaway, the news section head at the popular privately owned news portal Masrawy, agrees that differences in how the media portrayed the revolution over the years have to do with the political context, rather than a top-down clamp on media freedom from the state.
But when the government continues to clamp down on activists and oppositional space — protest venues, civil society organizations and university campuses — as well as targeting foreign and domestic journalists, there seems to be little need to explicitly censor the media.
The country’s papers this Sunday, however, may all bear very similar headlines. Last October, following a militant attack on security forces in North Sinai, the chief editors of Egypt’s major newspapers joined together to announce a unified media strategy in support of the state and its war on terror.
Looking back at past headlines, the announcement appears redundant.
A year after calling for a revolution against Morsi, Al-Masry Al-Youm joined the rest of the country’s major papers by using the revolution’s anniversary to equate the once counter-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood with terrorism.
“Terrorism strikes at the revolution on its anniversary,” read the headline. Al-Shorouk led with a similar message: “War on the nation and the revolution.” Both papers cited violent Muslim Brotherhood attacks and protests. These headlines reflect Kholy’s belief that the media had begun to use to the revolution to “make people afraid.”
Commentators this year have said the January 25 anniversary will be uneventful. Al-Masry Al-Youm published an opinion piece last Sunday titled, “There is no January 25.” Mohamed Amin, an Al-Masry Al-Youm columnist, writes that everything ahead of this year’s anniversary is quiet. He argues that because the revolution has falsely been equated with the Brotherhood, there will be no anniversary celebrations — only Police Day.
Last week, a former head of the Police Academy told the privately owned newspaper Youm7 that the events of January 25 were not about bringing down the police, but about destroying the Egyptian state. The police, he says, secured the state after sacrificing hundreds of their men. The interview’s message is clear: January 25 is Police Day.
Three years ago, on January 25, 2012 — the first anniversary of the revolution — newspapers universally celebrated the protests in Tahrir Square.
Al-Ahram announced that, “Millions come to the square to protest for freedom and dignity,” while Shorouk’s main headline — splashed in bright red across the front page — declared, “The revolution in all of Egypt’s streets,” and below, “The revolution returns to the square.”
As armored security vehicles began to station themselves around central Cairo last week, January 25 was set to be more police parade than protest day. However, after the Saudi monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz passed away on Thursday night, as this article goes to press state sources were reporting that all official celebrations for January 25 were postponed. Now it seems even Police Day will pass unnoticed.
As Kholy says, “This January 25 will not be like the last January 25.” Nor the one before that.