For African strongmen with an unflinching and violent proclivity for distorting, suppressing or disregarding the truth, US President Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. In his blinkered world, journalists are crazed lunatics; media organisations are enemies of the American people; and the truth is an abysmal impediment to “making America great again”.
When need be, Trump will denounce factual reporting as “fake news” and instead build self-validating, shameful and slanderous fabrications disguised as “truths”: Barrack Obama was born in Kenya; I didn’t say African shitholes; Mexicans are rapists. White nationalists who murdered a woman in Charlottesville, meanwhile, are “very fine people”.
With Trump, the truth is a malleable political device and an insubstantial afterthought at the best of times. Worryingly, like a bad influenza virus wreaking havoc in winter, his insatiable appetite for disseminating political fabrications has afflicted Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Last June, Egypt enacted an anti-fake news law, which allows government authorities to monitor and regulate private social media accounts. It also allows the authorities to punish any person who “publishes or broadcasts fake news or anything (information) inciting violating the law, violence or hatred”. This being Sisi’s Egypt, in the age of Trump, “anything” can truly mean anything.
From expressing critical viewpoints about the Egyptian military, like journalist Ismail Alexandrani, who is serving a 10-year sentence for “divulging state secrets” and “membership of a banned group”; to working for Al Jazeera, like Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa, who has been imprisoned for over two years without charge; to posting YouTube videos deemed malicious, like Shadi Abuzeid did; to documenting human rights infringements, like Mahmoud Abou Zeid, an Egyptian photojournalist, did; to “anything” fairly innocuous or scholarly which can be regarded as fake news or an act of inciting violence. All are fair game in Sisi’s Egypt.
After granting an interview to American broadcaster CBS, Al-Sisi found himself in the strange and unfamiliar position of having to answer tough questions and deal with the truth for a change, so Egyptian government officials asked to see the questions he’d be asked in advance. When that illiberal demand failed, the officials attempted to stop CBS from actually broadcasting the interview. This was a brazen attempt to gag an interview that was given voluntarily, but the move fell flat and exposed Sisi’s – and Trump’s – expansive propaganda about Egypt’s appalling human rights situation and war on media freedom and intellectual discourse.
In April 2017, Trump declared the US to be a “great friend and ally” of Egypt, and praised Al-Sisi for doing a “fantastic job in a difficult situation.” Sisi, in return, described Trump as “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.” The Egyptian President should try telling that to the 800,000 American workers furloughed by Trump’s insistence on Congress-approved funding for an ego-driven 2020 presidential campaign gimmick that is the $5.7 billion wall that he wants to build on the US-Mexico border. Moreover, while Sisi is hardly “unique” in any discernible way, and can’t claim to have achieved the “impossible” in Egypt through propagating falsehoods or using strong-arm tactics, he has effectively criminalised critical discourse and normalised an abnormal and violent surveillance state.
To be sure, the CBS interview exposed Sisi’s desire to create an extensive, defective, deflective and singular political narrative about his North African nation’s troubles. When questioned about more than 800 innocent protestors who were killed in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya and Nahda Squares in Cairo on 14 August 2013, the Egyptian leader avoided answering the question and instead challenged the interviewer’s source of information.
When asked about the estimated 60,000 political prisoners claimed by Human Rights Watch to be locked up in Egypt’s jails, Sisi replied, “I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology we have to intervene regardless of their numbers.”
Sisi’s contrived “truth” is, in his warped and disingenuous imagination (the disturbed and disturbing mind of an aggressive and over-indulged despot), the one and only opinion that should matter or even be heard. That’s the standardised narrative that the Egyptian dictator wants the world to believe. His perceived adversaries are not economists, journalists, bloggers, civil rights activists, or non-governmental organisations working for humanitarian, civil, progressive or objective causes; they are fundamentalists, who should be silenced.
Never mind the tyrannical reality on the ground, in Sisi’s, and Trump’s, political playbook, the truth can be devoid of, or strongly divorced from, simple facts: rights group Reporters Without Borders describes Egypt as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”.
To understand Sisi’s illogical, largely sinister motive for granting CBS the interview, look no further than Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. In 2018, the latter hit the global interview circuit and presented his imaginary version of Saudi Arabia’s economic and political realities to the world. Bin Salman gave interviews to well established media outlets such as Time Magazine and Bloomberg News.
Talking with Bloomberg – and selling his social and economic Vision 2030 to the Western world — Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler was in fine “Trumpian” form: he feigned ignorance about the whereabouts of Jamal Khashoggi, who went into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October and never came out again; slandered jailed female activists who campaigned against the ban on women driving in the Kingdom; claimed that advocates of media freedoms – journalists and bloggers – promote extremism and terrorism, and equated them with Al-Qaeda founder (his fellow Saudi) Osama Bin Laden; and dismissed allegations that Riyadh is clamping down on media freedoms.
All the while, Saudi Arabia had been violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, bombing civilians and attacking schoolchildren. All the while, Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the consulate. All the while, Saudi Arabia had been operating a troll farm in Riyadh, hounding critics on Twitter, jailing dissidents and women activists, like Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah. Yet the Crown Prince with absolute control in Saudi Arabia had the nerve to give these grand interviews and manufacture humungous lies.
So, like Trump and like Bin Salman, having discovered that lying and smearing blameless people works wonders, Sisi must have believed that he could pull it off and tell the world his version of Egypt’s truth in the CBS interview. As long you evoke murderous crime, Islamist fundamentalism, terrorism and national security, the thinking goes, lying can weave a diplomatic and electoral refuge for promoting racist national discourse, political repression, torture, enforced disappearances, wanton lies and extrajudicial murders.
As Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi prepares to chair the African Union for 2019, how much damage will he, Trump and Bin Salman inflict on world politics? Judging by his nonsensical responses to the CBS interviewer, the future for Egypt and Africa looks anything but bright.