by Joe Stork
CBS’s flagship news program 60 Minutes provocatively promoted its interview with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as “the interview Egypt’s government doesn’t want on TV.” After CBS recorded the interview, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States as well as Egyptian intelligence officials asked the network not to air it. After 60 Minutes did broadcast the interview on January 6, Egyptian intelligence officials instructed key media outlets in Egypt to refrain from any coverage whatsoever.
According to the well-informed independent Egyptian news organization Mada Masr, whose website is banned in Egypt, two sources in the Cairo-based Egyptian Media Group told its reporter that the presidency’s media office sent “explicit orders” to avoid any coverage of the CBS program. This was unusual given how Egypt’s media, most of which operates under the government’s thumb, usually trumpet all Sisi appearances on the “world stage.”
In mid-December, Mada Masr reported that Eagle Capital, a private equity firm owned by the country’s General Intelligence Service, had purchased a significant share of the Egyptian Media Group, which owns a number of leading broadcasting companies.
Another media company, D media, owned outright by the General Intelligence Services, confirmed to Mada Masr that it had issued similar instructions to its subsidiary network, DMC. An Egyptian human rights activist who monitors the country’s media confirmed that, as of close of business on January 8, there has been no coverage of the 60 Minutes interview in any Egyptian print or broadcast outlets.
60 Minutes, in a background statement to the interview, said that Sisi’s office had requested that CBS provide in advance the questions it planned to ask, a request the network refused.
In the 60 Minutes interview, Sisi denied that there are any political prisoners in Egypt, disputing interviewer Scott Pelley’s citation of Human Rights Watch’s calculation that the number may be as high as 60,000. Egyptian officials themselves have cited numbers as high as 34,000. Egypt’s jails and prisons are bursting at the seams with Islamists, secular opponents, bloggers, artists, and poets. According to Sisi, “We are only dealing with extreme Islamists carrying weapons.”
When asked about the army’s one-day massacre of more than 800 Egyptians in August 2013 protesting the Sisi-led military coup (he was then defense minister) that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Sisi claimed there were “thousands of armed people in the sit-in,” although the Interior Ministry said in the days following the massacre that officials had seized a grand total of 15 guns.
All of Sisi’s blatant denials and lies are standard fare in Egypt’s state-dominated media. They can hardly explain the effort to deep-six the 60 Minutes interview or the orders to Egyptian media to remain silent about it. What got Sisi’s intelligence handlers in a twist seems to have been his response when Pelley asked about Egyptian-Israeli military collaboration in Sinai. “We have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis,” Sisi responded.
This was the first public official Egyptian acknowledgement of an open secret. At least since 2016, “unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign” inside Egypt, “frequently more than once a week—all with the approval of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” The New York Times reported in February 2018, citing unnamed “British and American officials involved in Middle East policy.” But approval had never before translated into acknowledgement, which would sit uncomfortably with hostile Egyptian public attitudes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which explains why Egyptian intelligence officials and diplomats tried to squelch Sisi’s unscripted performance with 6o Minutes.
The enforced silence in Egypt about Sisi’s 60 Minutes interview comes as no surprise. Since the 2013 military coup, the state has enlisted all major print and electronic media outlets in cheer-leading Sisi’s jingoistic anti-terrorism campaign and suppressing criticism of government policies. Newspaper and website editors have been enrolled in mandatory “strategic training sessions in media and national security.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 25 journalists were in Egyptian prisons (19 or them on “false news” charges”) and others in hiding. In May 2018, a military court sentenced journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani to 10 years for allegedly publishing unspecified “secret information” (after he had already spent nearly three years in pretrial detention).
Joe Stork is the former deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, where he supervised the organization’s work on Egypt.