Egypt Strives to Quell Mubarak Rumors

Egypt Strives to Quell Mubarak Rumors

A prosecutor plans to question the editor of a newspaper that raised questions about the health of Egypt”s leader, a judicial official said Tuesday in the latest step by the government to quash rumors that President Hosni Mubarak is ill.
Over the past two weeks, several opposition and independent newspapers published stories speculating on the health of the 79-year-old Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century.

One paper, the independent Al Dustour, carried front-page stories for several days, including one that contended the leader sometimes lapses into comas. The government accused Al Dustour”s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Essa, of spreading rumors that could damage the nation.

A judicial official said Essa would be questioned by a state security prosecutor Wednesday about allegations he spread false rumors “causing a public disturbance and harming Egypt”s economy.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Mubarak is known to have knee, ear and back problems, but he has seemed generally healthy in recent appearances, including separate meetings Tuesday in Alexandria with Jordan”s King Abdullah II, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D”Alema and former British leader Tony Blair.

Mubarak has no designated successor, but his son Gamal”s swift rise through the ruling party has fed speculation that the way is being paved for a hereditary succession, something that worries many Egyptians.

A concerted campaign in Egypt”s state media in recent days has sought to counter the media speculation about the president.

On Sunday, first lady Suzanne Mubarak said in a rare television appearance that her husband is healthy, adding that she felt journalists who published the reports contending he was ailing deserved to be punished.

“The president”s health is excellent, and his activities are continuing and are not on hold,” Suzanne Mubarak told the satellite channel Al-Arabiya. “Frankly, I feel sad as a citizen, not as a president”s wife. There must be punishment either for a journalist, a televised program or a newspaper that publishes the rumors.”

Her appearance came two days after Mubarak, in an interview published in the pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper, accused “illegitimate movements” of being behind the rumors — a reference to Egypt”s most powerful opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef denied the allegation.

On Monday, the government-controlled Press Supreme Council, which issues licenses to newspapers, said it had formed two commissions of media experts and legal consultants to evaluate press coverage of Mubarak”s health and decide what legal measures should be taken.

That announcement, along with Mubarak”s comments and the accusations against Essa, raised worries that the government might move to curtail the press, which has enjoyed more freedom in recent years.

Essa said Tuesday that he feared he would be thrown in jail and his newspaper shut down. The government closed Al Dustour for seven years, beginning in the late 1990s, after it published a statement by an Islamic group that threatened Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt.

“When a political regime reaches its end, it turns into a monster,” Essa told The Associated Press.