Critics battle Egypt’s media gag

Critics battle Egypt’s media gag

IBRAHIM Eissa, the newspaper editor at the centre of a political storm over press freedom in Egypt, likes to pepper his arguments with references to Hollywood movies.

To illustrate Egypt”s recent experience of democratic reform, he chooses the film Awakenings, in which Robert De Niro plays a catatonic patient who wakes up and enjoys a brief taste of life — only to lapse back into paralysis.

“Go back and watch that film and you will understand the bitterness of getting freedom and then being denied freedom,” Mr Eissa told The Age through a translator.

As editor of the anti-government newspaper al-Dostour, Mr Eissa has become a lightning rod for attacks by the ruling National Democratic Party.

In his latest troubles, he faces three years” jail for “spreading false information that causes national instability, panic and public disturbance”. The complaint is that he ran stories questioning the health of the 79-year-old President, Hosni Mubarak, amid a wave of rumours that Mr Mubarak was ill or perhaps dead.

Mr Eissa is the most prominent of several editors facing jail for various alleged publishing offences that have brought the Government into confrontation with an increasingly boisterous independent media over freedom of speech. But he is not alone in his assessment of the prospect of democratic reform in Egypt.

Analysts may differ in their reading of the complex undercurrents that swirl beneath the surface of Egyptian politics, but they agree on one thing. The decision by the United States to step back from pressing Egypt to make democratic reforms has contributed to a crackdown on journalists, bloggers, opposition politicians and other government critics.

“They have got the message from Washington that this is no longer an important item on the agenda, so they are moving much more harshly against all forms of criticism,” said Joel Beinin, director of Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo.

Hints of democratic reform including the first multi-party presidential election in 2005 have been followed by the jailing of opposition candidate Ayman Nour, fresh attacks on the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, which shocked the Government by winning a fifth of the seats in parliament through independent proxies and, now, the crackdown on independent newspapers.

The expression of concern by the White House about Mr Eissa”s case and the Egyptian Foreign Minister”s swift rebuke of this “unacceptable interference in Egypt”s internal affairs” were widely seen here as a by-the-numbers exchange.

Hisham Kassem, a respected dissident journalist who recently received a democracy award from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington and met US President George Bush, said the electoral victory of the militant group Hamas in the Palestinian parliament, the war in Iraq and the lingering possibility of US military force against Iran meant American pressure for democratic reform among its Middle Eastern allies had waned.

“I”ve given up on the Bush Administration. We are not going to get any support,” he said.

The prosecutions of editors have produced an outpouring of protest from journalists” organisations and human rights groups, both in Egypt and internationally. But analysts say the demand among ordinary Egyptians for greater freedoms is being trumped by worries about high inflation and unemployment.

“Egyptians really do care more about prices, job opportunities, the crappy health-care system than about democratic reform,” said Patrick FitzPatrick, managing editor of the influential Egypt Today magazine. “The big issue right now is food in the tummy.”

Mr Mubarak has been in power since 1981 and has maintained a permanent state of emergency, allowing him to override some elements of the constitution, including freedom of the press.

One popular theory, espoused this week by Harvard professor and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Noah Feldman in The New York Times is that the crackdown on the press stems from Mr Mubarak”s effort to smooth the way for his son, Gamal Mubarak, to take power.

But many commentators here say the succession question is a furphy.

“Gamal isn”t up to the job,” Mr Kassem said. “And Mubarak knows Gamal isn”t up to the job. The bottom line is, the President has simply lost patience and there”s nothing to stop him.”