- Middle East/North Africa
Despite its location, there hasn’t been much coverage of the Salafi sit-in outside Media Production City; possibly due to the fact that its members are calling for a potentially violent purge of all “corrupt” and “ant-Islamic” media personalities.
This reporter arrived to hear his former boss’ name mixed into the death threats rising out of a handful of protestors gathered at one of the MPC’s side entrances, while a formation of 17 men in track suits and galabeyas performed military-style drills up and down the driveway, chanting “Faith! Determination! [President Mohamed] Morsy shoots to kill!”
Watching from the gates with a bemused look on his face as a single row of officers sways behind him, a police brigadier general explains to Egypt Independent that “they do [these drills] a few times a day, every day. But if you want to see the real scene, you should to go to the main entrance.”
But he would not be held responsible for any consequences should his advice be taken, he added. “You’re kind of bearded. Don’t tell them you’re a reporter and you’ll be fine.”
Last Friday, Islamist protestors rallied outside MPC, decrying the “bias against Islamists” they alleged is practiced by the staff, and is reflected in the content of several privately-owned satellite channels such as CBC, Dream TV, Orbit, and ONTV and ONTV Live. The latter reported that its crew had been assaulted that evening outside the city gates. When Central Security Forces intervened to keep protestors from raiding the complex, tents were erected and a sit-in declared.
Three days later, numbers at the gate swelled again, as a “Sharia First” protest formed to call for enforcing Islamic law. In the meantime, the tree-lined exterior of the nation’s only Free Media Zone has become a gallery of blacklists, banners and posters promoting the arrest and eternal damnation of “un-Islamic” media figures.
At the main gate, there were more protestors and fewer officers. A long driveway separates the city’s entrances from the highway, where the first of two protestor checkpoints stands a few feet from a large model of the MPC logo, recently spray-painted with various slogans. The gardens flanking both sides and directly facing the highway are now dotted with tents, as well as herds of grazing cattle and redbrick outhouses, which the protestors built and connected to the MPC’s sewage pipes.
“Civilized people have to act accordingly,” the checkpoint guard says, as he catches this reporter eyeing the cubicles. “Here, we don’t just go in the bushes like they do at some of the other sit-ins.”
He then reassures Egypt Independent that “each bathroom has its own ablution area.” Responding to an inquiry on the cattle, the guard claims they “belong to Bedouins who bring them here to graze.”
When asked why, in the almost two-decade lifespan of the MPC, no one had reported on the “Bedouins” grazing their cattle there, he laughs: “I don’t know, I’m not from here.”
He hands back my Journalists Syndicate card after stating, “Sheikh Hazem has ordered us to treat all visiting reporters with respect,”— referring to prominent Salafi cleric Hazem Abu Ismail, who stirred controversy earlier this year by urging his followers to occupy Tahrir Square when he was disqualified from the presidential elections.
The broad-shouldered young guard then points out other signs of civility among the 500 or so members of the sit-in, as he leads the way to the “media center.” He points out the tents and the orderliness of their arrangement, which is not immediately remarkable to this reporter, and the stage that has been erected for “special occasions.”
The atmosphere is calm — men dozing in the grass, black slivers of female visible between tent flaps. Children wander around, despite it being 1:30 in the afternoon on a weekday, and, closer to the gate, two rows of vendors watch over limited spreads of socks, perfume vials, twig-style toothbrushes and CDs of Quranic recitals similar to the one playing at a low volume over the scene. Crates of tangerines, free of charge, sit on the corners of the central clearing, where a few carts sell sandwiches, mostly sesame paste and processed cheese triangles. In the background, a single row of CSF officers stretches along the last gate before the city.
Arriving at the media center, it’s clear there’s a problem. A small group of men stand huddled around a young, clean-shaven man with teary eyes. He is being held in place by the protestors under the direction of a grey-bearded man in a reflective maintenance vest, who is explaining: “You have to know what it is you’re saying. You can’t just make dangerous statements like this and expect nothing to happen.” And he gave the young man’s arm a tug.
“I swear I only came here to help,” the young man urges. “I wanted to tell you about the Facebook pages, and that I have numbers!”
“Alright, then but what’s that got to do with ElBaradei?”
Tensions briefly spike before another older man, bearded and in a grey galabeya, arrives and restores order, commanding a few individuals to “escort [the young man] to the gate, and make sure he gets out safely.”
Egypt Independent is later informed that the young man had come to the sit-in to complain about several “anti-Islamist Facebook pages” and to “give us the contact information for the people behind them.”
Once the youth is taken away, the recently arrived sheikh is shown Egypt Independent’s identification. Not offering any elaboration beyond his self-described role as an “organizer” of the sit-in, Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, referred to by all those around him as Abu Ammar, begins to list the reasons behind his personal “longing” for a media purge.
“The Egyptian media has killed the revolution,” Abu Ammar says forcefully. “They lie to promote the interests of their foreign masters. They’re working to turn Egyptians against themselves, and to cripple the nation.”
“Ever since the revolution, the media has been warning us of another one to follow: the revolution of the so-called starving masses. Where is this revolution, and why would the starving masses revolt now when they’ve always been starving, when all they’ve ever known is starvation.
“Remember Algeria,” he fumes. “When the media was telling us we were going to go to war against Algeria, over a soccer match [the 2010 world cup qualifications round]. Tell me, when did this war happen, and who won it?”
“And now they’ve created this myth of the ‘Couch Party’ and are telling us the ‘Couch Party’ is out to get us,” he says, to increasing grumbling from the crowd. “I’m telling you, there’s no such thing as a ‘Couch Party.’”
He shoves a newspaper into Egypt Independent’s hands, a copy of Hadith Al-Madina (Talk of the Town) carrying the apparently offensive headline “New York Times: Church orders followers to rally against Morsy.” Abu Ammar is outraged. “What is this filth? What if my neighbor is Christian? How can I even look his mother in the face now?”
Egypt Independent suggests this might be an overreaction, which further infuriates Abu Ammar. “There is an active movement within the media aiming to nudge the Egyptian people out of their naturally pious mind frame and into an area of Islamophobia. They want us to think that the Sharia is a restriction of freedom, when it is the in fact the very essence of it.” He then lists, at length, the practicalities of government-imposed religious law, before concluding, “and we will defend it with our last drop of blood.”
“We are not the ones to fear,” Abu Ammar says, turning his attention back to the media. “We are not the ones who kill when we protest, or start fires. Show me one of our protests where a single store was forced to close. Yet, these media personalities, these supposed purveyors of the truth, paint us as monsters and then won’t even let us on their shows to defend ourselves.”
The whole time he’s talking, men from the small surrounding crowd have been taking turns praising his words. It goes too far, though, when one of them attempts to film Abu Ammar’s sermon with his mobile phone. “Put that camera away,” the sheikh snaps. “No photography allowed, you know that.” The rest of the crowd admonishes the man accordingly.
Abu Ammar refuses to directly answer most of Egypt Independent’s questions, offering instead claims that cannot be immediately verified — “Eighty percent of the Egyptian people are supporting us”; an allegation countered by a random crowd member who shouts “Ninety!” — as well as some Quranic verses.
Abu Ammar then ends the interview, indicating wordlessly that no further questions be answered by anyone else, while members of the crowd put the request into words for him. That does not, however, prevent Ashraf Omran — a councilor, political analyst and legal expert, according to the card he slips into Egypt Independent’s hand — from stepping up and promptly dictating his point of view on the matter. As the only man in the crowd wearing a suit, he seems exempt from their restrictions.
Before leaving, Egypt Independent is stopped by Ahmed Mohamed Abu Zeid, secretary of the Salafi Nour Party’s Monufiya branch and self-proclaimed cousin of opposition heavyweight Hamdeen Sabbahi. He claims that he personally saw former MP Mohamed Abu Zeid, who was brutally attacked last Saturday, infiltrating an Islamist rally and “firing his gun and insulting the Prophet in the midst of protestors.”
“He was also clearly drunk and had taken lots of painkillers because he knew he’d be attacked for his actions,” Abu Zeid adds.
As the same young guard leads the way out, the platoon from the side entrance jogs into view, knees rising to their chests, repeating the same chants as earlier. When asked about the military-style drills, the guard smiles. “Those are just morale-boosting exercises,” he says, failing to specify whose morale they’re meant to boost.
No sooner has the cab started moving then the driver pulls out his phone and dials a number. After a rushed greeting, he asks the other end, “Have you heard the latest? Morsy shoots to kill!” before bursting out in laughter.