Egyptian reporters find refuge in the past

Discussing issues that outwardly seem nostalgic is a form of escapism from the present, due to the feeling of helplessness in dealing with Egypt’s crises.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Subliminal news. An Egyptian vendor reads a newspaper outside his fruit and vegetable stand in  Cairo.    (AFP)
Subliminal news. An Egyptian vendor reads a newspaper outside his fruit and vegetable stand in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Much of the material broadcast or written by Egyptian media outlets resembles an archive. In a phenomenon that reflects mounting restrictions on freedoms rather than nostalgia, journalists are recycling content in various forms instead of directly exploring current issues.

Discussing issues that outwardly seem nostalgic is a form of escapism from the present, due to the feeling of helplessness in dealing with Egypt’s crises.

Some members of the media opt to focus on high points of Egypt’s past. Some find what they were looking for in the history of the pharaohs and bring up rulers they thought were good to their people.

Others resort to Arabic literature and another group jumped on the commemoration of the death of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to fill the airwaves and print papers with the man’s exploits.

Messaad Saleh, a professor of media studies at Cairo University, said when journalists delve into the past they are projecting previous times into the present because they are either unable to deal with the present or they are not willing to face the consequences of an unpleasant present. They hope their audiences will pick up the hidden messages.

For example, when a newspaper discusses the role of Talaat Harb (1867-1941) in building the Egyptian economy, it has in mind current economic policies, which differ greatly from Harb’s principles. This absolves the paper from accusations of being anti-reform or of criticising the government.

There are many examples that demonstrate that nostalgia represents an explicit condemnation of the present. When the January 2011 or the June 2013 revolutions are discussed or when the death of an intellectual is commemorated, the political situation of the time is talked about at length. The implication is that today there is political and social stagnation.

While such celebratory commemorations avoid criticising the current political situation, its authors could find themselves embarrassing those in power who may want to defend them.

This scenario was played out when the media poured exaggerated attention to the memory of Nasser and his achievements. Some praised his pan-Arabist, pan-Africanist and pan-Islamist roles and his sense of initiative and leadership. Nasser’s time was depicted as one of concrete actions, dictated by an awareness of Egypt’s regional responsibilities and roles. Naturally, the media was replete with analyses, discussions and visions.

Arab issues are virtually absent from most Egyptian media because of the long list of prohibitions and taboos established by security services that control most of Cairo’s Arab concerns. Their extremely secretive nature leads to a dearth of information.

Most Egyptian newspapers fail to deal with bitter realities. Most cannot figure out practical solutions for the crises plaguing them, such as declining readership and mounting debt. These challenges jeopardise the future of many media outlets.

Saleh said the limited room given to criticism and freedom of speech renders escaping to the past a safer alternative. All journalistic forms engage in nostalgia, even caricatures, which are the weapons of choice in dealing with the harsh realities of life. Some cartoonists prefer to reprise Salah Jaheen’s famous quatrains or scenes from Salah Abdel Sabour’s plays to refer to a current issue.

Some journalists face problems when links to or passages from articles they published years ago resurface on social networking platforms. Some are reported to the public prosecutor because issues they wrote about during the transitional period after the revolution when the press was significantly free, are considered untouchable now. Many figures acquitted in corruption cases went on vendettas once they regained their freedom to retaliate against those who criticised them or even mentioned them in passing.

Saleh contends that the nostalgic phase of the printed press is part of the generalised state of nostalgia that all Egyptians are experiencing. They do it to escape the dreariness of the present for the beauty of the past, like one rushing to an old song of Oum Kalthoum or Fairuz after hearing some of the songs offered in festivals.

Journalists and other media professionals seem to have found a source from which they can glean without accountability. They do not realise that resorting to history is a trap in its own right, not because the issues that they are allowed to treat today are substandard or incompatible with the current moment but because relying on the past implies and exposes a professional and political poverty.

The first thing that comes to mind when reading about irrelevant topics is: Why do I care? Do this journalist and his paper have anything to say about my current problems? Isn’t there anything worth reporting about the crises and pressing problems plaguing the country?