Egyptian media coverage of Sudan protests: Here today, gone tomorrow

Last January, amid expectations of price increases in bread and fuel, cities across Sudan erupted in widespread protests. Demonstrators chanted, “No hunger, no price hikes.” After several protestors were killed in clashes with security forces, which also began arresting opposition leaders and confiscating newspapers in an attempt to quell the growing unrest, demonstrators demanded the fall of the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.

The Egyptian media celebrated these protests, airing them live on television. Newspapers turned over their pages to expert analyses of the events, while satellite channels housed in Egypt’s Media Production City opened up their screens to Sudanese opposition leaders in Sudan and abroad, who railed against Bashir’s Brotherhood regime as “the author of crises that kill his people, through hunger here and weapons there.”

Back then, Egyptian dailies unanimously condemned the Sudanese government’s decision to increase prices on basic goods to unprecedented levels, particularly sugar, electricity and wheat. They relayed statements from Sudanese opposition leaders urging the continuation of peaceful acts of resistance against government decisions, asserting that the only way out of the predicament was the removal of the Bashir regime and the return of power to the people.

The Egyptian media’s engagement with these protests was not motivated by conscience or a desire to serve Egypt’s readers by informing them of events across its southern border. Rather, they were appeasing the authorities and carrying out their directives, either to avoid their anger or to curry their favor.

At the time, Egyptian-Sudanese relations were extremely strained after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan. From Khartoum, Erdogan announced that Bashir had agreed to grant Turkey redevelopment and management rights over the Red Sea port of Suakin for an unspecified period of time. This is what set off the Egyptian media, which attacked Bashir and his regime for “selling a piece of national territory for money, letting the Turkish president achieve his ambitions of reviving the Ottoman Empire.”

The Egyptian media offensive and accusations of “collaboration and treason on behalf of the Turkish enemy” spurred Khartoum to recall its ambassador to Cairo, Abdel Mahmoud Abdel Halim. At the time, the ambassador accused the Egyptian media of demagoguery, saying it was “poisoning ties between the two countries, using the opportunity of the Turkish president’s visit to Khartoum to discredit Sudan and disparage its people.” He called on the Egyptian media to take note: Sudan was not a banana republic, he said, and it had its own regional and international relations.

Eleven months after the protests actively stoked by the Egyptian media, a fresh burst of anger has erupted in several Sudanese provinces because of the increased price of bread and deteriorating living conditions. At least 22 demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces. Several offices of the ruling National Congress Party were set on fire, schools and universities have been shut down, and many opposition leaders arrested. Meanwhile, the Egyptian media hasn’t made a peep, as if events in Sudan are of no concern to the Egyptian public. With the exception of a handful of online news sites — some of them blocked in Egypt — the press has not provided even cursory coverage of events across the border.

With a virtual gag imposed on conventional media, Egyptians have turned to other news sources. Since the protests began on Wednesday, social media users have been trading links to international sites and opposition Sudanese media to track events, whose slogans and demands echo those of the January 25 revolution. In the first days of the protests, the Arabic hashtag “Sudan’s cities rise up” was trending on Twitter.

Earlier this month, 294 parliamentarians forwarded a bill to Sudanese Parliamentary Speaker Ibrahim Ahmed Omar that would amend the Sudanese Constitution to grant Bashir a third presidential term. News of the proposed amendments was not covered in the Egyptian press, and, of course, received no analysis or critique on satellite TV. Someone seems to be sitting in a glass house.

After all, the Egyptian press has maintained the same silence about news that some Egyptian parliamentarians intend to present a similar bill this coming January to amend Egypt’s Constitution. Issues of several newspapers were even held back at the printers, and stories covering the expected amendments were scrubbed from various websites.

It’s clear that the Egyptian media was ordered not to address the political controversy in Sudan, due to expectations that the protests would be political against the proposed constitutional amendments. When protests did erupt, but in connection with social and economic issues, decision makers here feared any link being made between Bashir’s political failure and his attempt to shore up his rule through a constitutional referendum with a predetermined outcome on one hand, and the protests that began on the periphery in Sudan and soon reached Khartoum and the presidential palace on the other.

The Egyptian media blackout on events in Sudan has only one explanation: The Egyptian authorities fear the contagion of protest will spread to Egypt and so they have quarantined it. Shielding the public from any coverage in the local press or satellite television, the authorities imagine they can somehow block out the news entirely in the age of social media and open channels. Yet, the public that cannot satisfy its desire to be informed from Al Jazeera and other Arab channels — which have assiduously avoided events in Sudan as well — will turn to alternative media.

This is not the first time that cost-of-living protests have been absent from Egyptian media coverage. Print and satellite media ignored the general strike in Tunisia in November and demonstrations in Jordan over increased fuel prices mid-year. The Egyptian media has even falsified news of the Yellow Vest protests that erupted in Paris and other French cities several weeks ago in response to increased fuel taxes.

But denial will not work. It’s useless to ban newspapers no one reads and gag satellite channels the public no longer watches. The news is there for the trading, and alternative media has won the trust of a public that has lost all confidence in our command-model media.

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Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz