Egypt: A war on the press?

Egypt: A war on the press?

The surprise verdict that came down this morning against the editors of four independent political tabloids is the herald of more repression to come — at least when it comes to dealing with President Hosni Mubarak, his son Gamal and other regime bigwigs. It also appears to mark the end of that the three-year window of openness to the press, which saw a multitude of new titles (including all of the ones whose editors were condemned) appear and freedom of expression widen significantly.

Let’s first focus on what happened today: Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Destour, Adel Hammouda, editor of al-Fagr, Wael al-Ibrashi, editor of Sawt al-Umma, and Abdel Halim Qandil, editor of al-Karama also face fines of LE20,000. Their bail to stay out of jail pending appeal was set at LE10,000. The prime target in this bunch was Eissa, who has been a thorn in the neck of the regime for over a decade (the previous incarnation of al-Destour was banned in 1997 and Eissa was blackballed from public and private newspapers and television by security interference) — and he will still face separate charges when another trial opens on October 1 for what he published on the rumors. Hammouda, who has run a series of nationalist-populist scandal rags, is a surprise target but even his al-Fagr needed to keep up with the sheer aggressivity of its competitors. al-Ibrashi was long Eissa’s second-in-command and has very much “Destourized” (the phrase is now commonly used among Egyptian journalists to mean making an article more provocative) Sawt al-Umma after he took it over from Hammouda. Finally, Qandil is a seasoned Nasserist activist who, in Fall 2004, was kidnapped by goons and told “not to write about the big people” (al-kubar) — he was one of Egypt’s first journalists to recently take on the institution of the presidency and the president himself.

Together, this group represents the core of Egypt’s political tabloids. It’s true that these newspapers don’t exactly have great journalistic standards, but they serve as (frequently impassioned and funny) pamphlets to vent political frustration. al-Destour, perhaps more than any other newspaper, appeared to specialize in not-so-subtle attacks on Mubarak, particularly in Eissa’s long front-page article that was frequently illustrated with a little cartoon of a king (who the king represented is pretty easy to figure out.) Eissa and a Destour journalist both given suspended sentences in 2006 (upon appeal) for printing an article on a lawyer’s plan to take Mubarak and his family to court for swindling foreign aid. Of course, he did not heed that warning shot. It should also be noted that in addition to the court case, the crony-run Higher Council for the Press is now urging the Journalists’ Syndicate to condemn alleged rumor-mongers, which include all the newspapers listed above.

Judging from reports that the judge praised Mubarak and his son Gamal as he read out the verdict, this crackdown appears very much related to the regime’s that any upcoming political transition, whether to Gamal or someone else, takes place in a controlled atmosphere.

These sentences are about the attacks on the NDP and the presidency that have taken place for well over a year, as if the newspapers were competing with one another in making the regime look bad. The recent furore over when Mubarak is dead, seriously ill or whatever — rumors that the newspapers stand accused of “maliciously spreading” are after all, even if they were not true this time around, plausible: Mubarak is 79 years old and sooner or later the inevitable will happen. Prosecutors are said to be arguing that the editors (more specifically, at least for now, Eissa) were responsible, because they published the rumors, of some $350 million capital flight from foreign investors worried about a chaotic transition. (I’m no Egyptian stock market expert, but surely there are all kinds of possible reasons for capital flight these days, considering high oil, high euro and the lingering malaise over the subprime mortgage business).

Yet, if there is little to no visibility on how presidential transition will take place, whose fault is that? Newspaper editors who are tempted to reprint (and add to) whatever rumor they hear because, let’s face it, the future of the country is a topic that sells? Or that of a president who has not designated a successor and refused to appoint a vice-president?

The entire past three weeks of rumors on Mubarak’s health (which we still have no idea whether they were even partly accurate) have been like an experiment in surrealism. The rumors appeared originally (in al-Badil, I believe) with a report that US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone had said Mubarak looked ill, as well as some speculation as to why Mubarak had not been in the public eye recently. Fast-forward a few weeks and you have the “nationalist” MP Mustafa Bakri calling for Ricciardone’s expulsion on grounds that he deliberately tried to destabilize the country, Ambassador Ricciardone having to categorically deny anything about the rumors a few days ago at a meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak appearing on TV to say her hubby is fine but that “as a private citizen, not the president’s wife” she feels the journalists who spread the rumors should be punished, those same journalists sentenced in a lightning trial and Gamal (who let’s remember holds no official position outside of the one in the ruling party) suddenly replacing the president in his public functions such as the annual “meeting with the students.”

In a country run like that, if I were a foreign investor I might want to divest too.

In the meantime, if 2006 (or even late 2005) saw the beginning of the crackdown on all opposition figures (jailing of Ayman Nour, campaign against the MB), 2007 appears to be dedicated to silencing the press when it comes to the president. Try as they may, that’s going to be a much tougher job.