Egyptian journalist defiant despite tough struggle

Egyptian writer and journalist Ibrahim Issa likens his role in his nine-year-old struggle with the authorities to that of Zorro or Robin Hood — a mischievous, resourceful folk hero who keeps one step ahead of the enemy.

Known for his sharp criticism of President Hosni Mubarak — still a risky venture in Egypt — the outspoken journalist has long played a cat-and-mouse game with exasperated officialdom. When his weekly newspaper Al Dostour was shut down in 1998, Issa bypassed a ban on his writings and wrote a front-page article in another newspaper attacking the government under a pseudonym, but with his picture next to it.

“It was like Zorro sending his opponents a message saying ‘I Gotcha,” he said. When Al Dostour was banned, Issa ran newspapers from behind the scenes and presented a television show. When the authorities stopped his political show, he presented a religious show and worked as a producer for others.

And when they confiscated his 1999 novel The Killing of the Big Man because of its obvious allusions to Mubarak, dozens of copies leaked into the market.
“At first I kept fighting back because I could not believe the regime was so stupid, so narrow-minded and fragile as to target a single journalist,” Issa, a chubby, cheerful man with a thick black moustache said at his office in Al Dostour, which he republished in 2005.

“But then it became like a folk hero who plays tricks on the sheriff and hits him on the back of the neck. I would prepare a newspaper for print, and laugh watching them nervously scramble to confiscate it right before publication,” he laughs.
His novel finally made it to the newsstands in 2006, during a period when a US campaign for democracy in the Middle East made more space for political and intellectual dissent.

Issa’s resistance and apparent triumph elevated him to hero status among many journalists and government critics. But when the US campaign lost momentum, he suffered a fresh setback.

In June, a Cairo court found Issa guilty of defaming Mubarak and sentenced him to a year in jail. He has appealed against the verdict, which was condemned by local and international rights groups, and his trial resumes today. “I am apprehensive,” he said before the court session. “I don’t want to discuss the possible scenarios with anyone so that I won’t appear pessimistic.”

But the trial has not dampened his criticism of the political and economic policies of Mubarak, whom he regularly describes as a “pharaoh dictator”. The government says such criticism goes beyond the legal limit. Government supporters accuse him of being a US stooge, while others link him to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Egypt. Others say he is a pro-Iranian Shi’ite Muslim, partly because he has written favourably about Shi’ites.

“How can I be pro-US and pro-Iranian at the same time? How come I can be with the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood and be a Shi’ite?’ asked Issa, a Sunni who has written frequently about notable figures in both sects.
“This is foolishness.” Behind his desk are two posters — of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah, and of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.

His followers hail him as a gifted writer who has revived political satire in the Egyptian press, introduced colloquial Arabic to the print media to appeal to the public and still managed to write seven novels and 11 non-fiction books.
The Killing of the Big Man chronicles with touches of humour the last hours in the life of a Middle Eastern dictator and the power struggle that follows his murder. Issa says the dream of his life is to quit everything else and write only novels and other books. “I already have one in mind if I go to jail,” he said with a smile.

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