Editor’s note: as this piece was published, news broke of a raid on Mada Masr’s offices. Security forces left after over three hours, having detained at least three staff members including the editor-in-chief, Lina Attalah. Shady Zalat, the subject of this article, was released from detention on an outlying Cairo road an hour after the raid ended.
In the early hours of Saturday morning there was a loud banging on Shady Zalat’s door. He will have known they had come for him.
Zalat is an editor at Mada Masr, the last independent news outlet operating under the military regime that came to power with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s coup d’etat in 2013.
Two weeks ago three plainclothes policemen came to Zalat’s building, asking questions about him. They asked his doorman if Zalat lived in apartment X, if that was his car, what his job was. They came back again a little later, with more questions. And again a third time. Each time the doorman told Zalat what was happening. Zalat sat up the whole night, waiting to be arrested.
And then they finally came for him. Four men in plain clothes, without a warrant, without any ID, took him from his home in front of his wife and daughter. Zalat, his phone, their laptops and a stack of printed articles he was editing were spirited away. Armed men in uniform waited outside the building. At the time of writing, nobody knows where they took him.
Egypt has been an unrelenting stream of bad news for many years now. It has featured consistently among the top jailers of journalists since Sisi’s coup. We do not know how many political prisoners there are, but Human Rights Watch’s estimate is 60,000. Since September, the regime has arrested at least 4,000 in a widespread crackdown after a series of destabilising whistleblower videos.
The prosecutor’s office and the judiciary, working with the military executive, have used the courts to systematically shut down civil society. In some instances this has been via long, drawn-out cases attacking international and domestic NGOs, book publishers and authors. In others with quick, high-profile cases against singers, celebrities or people posting videos on Facebook. In yet more, with underhand threats that have driven popular comedians, actors and footballers into exile.
British colonial legislation has been resuscitated outlawing the publishing of the very word “army”. New “cybercrime” legislation has been passed establishing any social media account with more than 5,000 followers as a publisher – and liable to be prosecuted on charges of “disseminating false information”. A range of digital surveillance technologies has been purchased from Italy, Israel, the US, UK, Germany and France in the service of what the interior ministry calls its “electronic grip”.
And yet, somehow, Mada Masr has managed to maintain its journalistic integrity and standards and keep working. There has been pressure, of course: the website is blocked inside Egypt, so articles are circulated domestically through a constantly changing “mirror” protocol. Threatening phone calls have been received and partner organisations warned off.
But Mada – run by the inspirational Lina Attalah – has managed to keep publishing bold, challenging writing in Arabic and English. Nobody can be certain why the regime has not shut it down, but the consensus is that the newspaper’s international reputation is too strong.
Today the regime is experimenting. They have arrested Shady Zalat as a test. Zalat is not well known, he works as an editor with a limited public profile, he has no international protection. They came for him late on Friday night, when the news cycle is slow and Twitter quiet, and now they will watch for a reaction. They are counting on fatigue, confusion, boredom – the friends of all authoritarians. They are counting on Egypt having dropped off the news agenda.
But if there is no reaction, and if they keep Zalat, it will be the beginning of the end of the last sliver of free speech, of credible reporting, of verifiable facts. Foreign correspondents are increasingly being deported and denied entry. This predatory regime does not stop – it is always testing the boundaries of its power.
If there is no reaction to Zalat’s arrest, they will come for someone else, then another, and another. So, if you’re reading this, whether you’re a Twitter user or a newspaper editor – right now paying attention to Egypt can have a real effect. The regime is watching for the world’s reaction, for noise and outrage – let them see it.
Omar Robert Hamilton is a film-maker and writer