July 07, 2015
MADRID â€" Spanish authorities warned me that I was at imminent risk of being arrested and prosecuted. I was shocked, because I had never been directly harassed by Egyptian authorities or had any problems renewing my press card at the Foreign Press Center.
Given recent precedents, I decided to follow the advice of the Spanish government and not return to Cairo. According to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 18 reporters currently incarcerated in Egypt, although the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information suggests this number actually exceeds 60.
Among them is Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan. He is a young photojournalist who has been in preventive detention for more than 23 months for taking pictures at a demonstration. He is currently very sick.
Although brave Egyptian reporters who move away from the official narrative are in the gravest danger, foreign journalists have also been targeted. Australian reporter Peter Greste spent more than a year in jail before being deported for his work for Al Jazeera English channel. His colleague, Mohamed Fahmy, who at the time had dual Egyptian and Canadian citizenship, along with Baher Mohamed, is still locked in a legal battle to regain his freedom.
As I explained in an article for my Spanish newspaper, El Pais, I still donâ€™t know why I was singled out among the community of correspondents. Certainly, I had contacts with the opposition, but most of my colleagues also have them. It is part of our work as neutral reporters. My newspaper has been very critical of the current government in its editorials, and I wrote several articles on thorny issues. However, our coverage has not been of particular exception in the international press.
Maybe my problems stem from the publication of the book, Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which I analyze the trajectory of the Islamist movement after the Egyptian Revolution. However, my book was published in March, and it is not less critical of the Brotherhood than it is of the current regime.
The Egyptian government reacted with a public note titled, â€œThe false claims made by Ricard Gonzalez,â€ signed by Badr Abdel Aty, spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This text suggests that I fabricated the story of my departure for political reasons. Abdel Aty argues that my aim was to damage the image of the Egyptian government. This is completely false. I insist that I received a very clear warning by the Spanish authorities, advising me to leave Egypt urgently.
On Sunday, El Pais published an editorial supporting me and criticizing the lack of press freedoms in Egypt. In fact, itâ€™s very easy to prove that Iâ€™m being truthful. The editor of El Pais was also aware of the warning by the Spanish government regarding me, as they were in close contact with Spanish Ambassador Arturo Avello Diez del Corral.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that I failed to provide any evidence that Egyptian authorities were going to take legal action against me. I just can't provide any evidence, because I was not the one who made the assessment that I was at imminent risk of being detained. Maybe the assessment wasnâ€™t accurate, and the Egyptian authorities were not planning to indict me. I don't know. I just decided to trust my government, because the consequences of not doing so could have been dire.
I would just like to add a final point. Given the wide constraints that Egyptian journalists face, the work of foreign correspondents is especially important. They are able to cover issues that could never get through the filter of censorship or self-censorship in mainstream Egyptian media. For example, it was thanks to the presence of foreign media and the courage of some activists that secret prisons where horrendous abuses take place came to light. Without the coverage of foreign media, the voices of many would be buried in a spiral of fear. Hence, it is crucial that Western governments are committed to preserving spaces of freedom for foreign correspondents in Egypt.
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The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.
October 18, 2021
The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.
This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.
Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.
Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."
The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.
Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.
Governing under threat
As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.
Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:
There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.
Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:
I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.
Another, this time in South Africa, said:
What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.
In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.
Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.
It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.
New Zealand's parliament in Wellington
Compassion and education
While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.
Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.
A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.
Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.
Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.
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