- September 25, 2007
Egyptian editors jailed for defaming Mubarak
· President reverses policy of media liberalisation
· Case highlights concern over who will lead nation
Four outspoken Egyptian newspaper editors have been sentenced to a year in prison and fined for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal, who is widely expected to succeed him.
In the latest example of a gradual muzzling of the country”s independent media, a Cairo court yesterday allowed Ibrahim Issa, Adel Hammouda, Wael el-Ebrashi and Abdel-Halim Qandil to pay bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (£873) each to stay out of jail pending an appeal.
The four editors had benefited from a relative liberalisation of the press in recent years, allowing their privately owned – and often sensational and highly opinionated tabloid papers – to poach readers from the country”s turgid official and semi-official publications.
“The regime is retreating from its only bit of progress, which was to give some freedom to the press to reflect public opinion,” said Mr Hammouda, editor of al-Fajr. “Now the whole thing is turning around. The judge praised the president and his son and the ruling party while reading the verdict – it was unprecedented.”
Mr Issa, editor of the daily ad-Dustour and a scathing critic of the Mubarak family, was charged separately earlier this week with disturbing the peace and damaging national economic interests after publishing rumours about the president”s health, claiming that the 79-year-old was either dead or seriously ill and in a coma.
Mr Mubarak and the state-run media neither commented on nor denied the stories for several weeks until the president was shown on TV receiving foreign visitors and paying an unannounced visit to an industrial zone near his summer home on the Mediterranean coast – although some hardline sceptics insisted he had in fact been replaced by a double.
The Mena news agency quoted Egypt”s central bank as claiming that the al-Dustour stories prompted the withdrawal of more than $350m (£170m) worth of foreign investments in just two days.
The issue is particularly sensitive because the question of who will succeed Mr Mubarak, now in his fifth consecutive term, is a central preoccupation of Egyptian politics.
It is widely believed that Gamal Mubarak, a 43-year-old former investment banker and now a senior official of the ruling National Democratic party, is being groomed for power – though he firmly denies having any such ambitions. Others still think it is more likely that the next president will be a military man.
Gasser Abdel-Razek, of Human Rights Watch, said Mr Issa”s trial was intended “to put pressure on those who are the most critical” and “a convenient way to try and silence the independent press”.
Mr Issa said: “Press freedom means the freedom to criticise the president. It”s time for the president to come down from the status of pharaoh to that of a human being.” Several bloggers have also been prosecuted in high-profile cases that have been damaging to Egypt”s image abroad.
But the government has repeatedly brushed off western criticism about domestic freedoms after the US eased its attempts to encourage greater democratisation following the Iraq war.
Mr Mubarak hinted that the banned but semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood was feeding the stories about his health. “The illegitimate movements behind these recent rumours do not want stability for the people and have no aim but to detract from the achievements of Egypt and its people,” he told Al-Ahram, the state-owed daily, late last month.
But Egyptians remain fascinated by the question of who – and what – will follow him. Recently more than 2,000 people joined a discussion group on Facebook, the social networking website, to ponder the question.