A one-man war for media freedom in Egypt

Mansour in New York on a campaign to free Alaa
Written by: 
Mutumba Geofrey

When the events of January 2011 began unfolding in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, Abdelrahman Mansour was there. Eighteen days of public demonstrations in the centre of Cairo climaxed with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, bringing to an end a 30-year reign.


Mansour, an Egyptian journalist now based in New York, USA, has since been a tireless foot-soldier at the front fighting for press freedom at home in Egypt. Writing in the Foreign Policy magazine, in 2019, he reminisced: “When Wael Ghonim and I called for protests through the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” in January 2011, we—along with millions of Egyptians who subsequently took part in the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak—dreamed of building a new republic based on democracy, justice, and freedom…”

Mansour added that, for a short while, it seemed like their hopes were being realized until what he calls a “full force of counterrevolution”, in 2013, gradually turned gains turned into losses. This period coincides with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rise to power.


“Other authoritarian leaders in the region were emboldened, and they were convinced that a counterrevolution, led by security and military authorities and the old guard, would secure their dominance over popular movements once and for all,” he writes.


Indeed, when vice-president Omar Suleiman announced the resignation of President Mubarak, he made it clear that he had handed over authority to the Supreme Council of the armed forces. By 2019, eight years after the protests, Mansour strongly believed the “revolution” was still alive, not only in Egypt but in neighbouring countries such Sudan and Algeria. In April of that year, Cairo-like protests in Khartoum forced the military to turn against and overthrow President Omar al-Bashir.


As we write this, there’s violence in Sudan between two factions of the military that took power after the fall of Bashir. Mansour was, therefore, spot-on in his 2019 analysis when he said “new waves of protests have gained traction every few months…and will not end anytime soon.”


Social media censored


Mansour’s campaign in particular and the use of social media in general did not go unnoticed. In 2018 parliament passed a law giving the state powers to block social media accounts and penalize journalists for publishing fake news. Under the law social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites are treated as media outlets and are subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.


A 2022 Freedom on the Net country report by Freedom House describes Egypt as “not free” and gives the country a score of 27 out 100.  The report says Internet freedom and the rights of internet users are severely constrained and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) continues to block independent news sites and force publishers to “remove online content deemed critical of the government.”


SCMR is the government authority that licenses the practice of media work for the media outlet or the website in Egypt. Thanks to its unlimited power, there’s a growing culture of self-censorship as internet users fear criminal penalties, harassment, and constant surveillance. Independent media outlets and government critics are particularly targeted.


Journalists, activists and bloggers continue to face arrest and imprisonment. Mansour’s efforts have resulted in the release of some of the journalists.


In February 2020, on the ninth anniversary of the 2011 revolution, Mansour spoke to Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian online newspaper, founded in June 2013 by former journalists of the English-language newspaper Egypt Independent following the shutting down of its editorial operations. In a way, it’s the events of 2011 that provided a fertile ground from which Mada Masr germinated.


Mansour says he was raised between Egypt and Saudi Arabia until he was through high school and this gave “an outsiders’ perspective and curiosity in exploring Egypt”. While at the university, Mansour picked interest in journalism and public affairs and began writing for a number of newly established websites.


Mansour later launched a university magazine, which picked up immediately with articles and poetry by opposition figures. The journalist and activist was born. His love for the practical side of journalism kept him more in the field when he should have concentrated on his course. Eventually he earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and broadcasting from Mansoura University in 2010.

In January 2011, Mansour chose to turn National Police Day into a Facebook event, "Revolution of the Egyptian People" Dubbing it "We Are All Khaled Saeed" in memory of a young Egyptian who had been killed by police, it ended up growing into pro-democracy demonstrations. Mansour would later explain this on his Twitter handle @ARahman_Mansour: "This campaign was named to commemorate the death of Khaled Saeed, a young Egyptian who was tortured to death by police in Alexandria in the same year.”


With this, at only 24 years, Mansour found himself at the centre of the revolution, reporting from Cairo’s Tahirir Square.


Shortly before diving in, Mansour was in a military camp training to become a soldier. He had to make a choice between the training and the events that were developing very fast in Cairo.


In 2014 he would find himself running into exile, ending up in the United States. On his Twitter handle, the signature message tells it all: “In New York dreaming of a better world, and fighting for change every day.”


Through his articles, tweets, and campaigns, Mansour has become a powerful voice for free press and human rights in Egypt. On one day he will say “The Arab Spring is not yet over”. On another, it will be “Sisi’s Last Stand”. Or “Egypt Needs Democracy to Fix Its Economy”. Either way he will speak and write.


A decade later, he is still fighting.