Mubarak Curbs Dissent, Paves Way for Next President (Update1)

Mubarak Curbs Dissent, Paves Way for Next President (Update1)

he editors of four newspapers were sentenced to year-long prison sentences in Egypt. Their crime: reporting that President Hosni Mubarak was grooming his son to succeed him, which the government called “false information.””

Mubarak, 79, is entering what is probably the twilight of his reign determined to ensure an orderly transition of power with little scrutiny or dissent. By clamping down on opponents, the media and rights groups, he”s reversing a move toward increased freedom undertaken in 2004, after President George W. Bush predicted that Egypt would “set the standard”” for Middle Eastern democracy.

“Anything can happen in Egypt now, and there”s a certain amount of fear,”” said Nabil Shawkat, a writer and commentator. “There”s no pressure on the government to democratize. It can do whatever it wants.””

As Egypt prepares for its next presidential election — in 2011, unless Mubarak departs earlier — the reports about his son now seem prophetic. The president”s National Democratic Party on Nov. 4 named Gamal Mubarak, 44, to its Supreme Council. Only council members can run for president, making it a stepping stone for Gamal, the party”s assistant secretary general.

While Egypt allows elections, it is hardly democratic. President Mubarak has ruled since 1981 under emergency laws imposed after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. They still ban public gatherings of more than five people and prescribe jail for besmirching Egypt”s image. For much of Mubarak”s rule, there were no independent newspapers, and opponents routinely were jailed, many without charge.

Fostering Democracy

As President Bush sought to foster democracy in the Middle East after invading Iraq, he looked for leadership to Egypt, which gets about $2 billion a year in U.S. foreign aid, second only to Israel.

Bush made his prediction about Egypt setting the democratic standard in April 2004, with Mubarak at his side on a visit to his Texas ranch. In response, Mubarak promised to “widen the scope of democracy, freedom and political participation.””

Later that year, Mubarak relaxed his rule, convinced he could “manage”” reform, advisers say. He tolerated demonstrations and lively independent newspapers. After repeatedly winning new terms in opposition-free referendums, Mubarak decided to allow a presidential election. “The trend is clear: Freedom is on the march,”” Bush said in March 2005, pointing to developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

`Trumped Up”

An early sign of the crackdown was the prosecution of Ayman Nour, Mubarak”s opponent in the September 2005 race. After complaining that the election was rigged, Nour was convicted in December 2005 of falsifying documents to legalize his Tomorrow Party and given a five-year sentence. New York- based Human Rights Watch called the charges “trumped up.””

Nour”s case returned to the public eye on Sept. 7, when Ayman Ismael Hassan was found hanged in Tora prison near Cairo. Wardens declared the death a suicide. Hassan, an auto- parts salesman, had been a prosecution witness until he accused the police of threatening to harm his sister to force him to lie about Nour. Hassan then was prosecuted on false- document charges himself and sentenced to five years.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which favors the creation of an Islamic state, was targeted after winning 88 out of 454 available seats in 2005 parliamentary elections. The candidates ran as independents because the group long has been formally banned.

Illegal Organization

Hundreds of Brotherhood members have been jailed since, press reports say. Authorities in August charged 16 leaders with belonging to an illegal organization after Brotherhood officials announced plans for a party platform.

The newspaper editors were sentenced on Sept. 14. They were released on bail, pending appeal. In addition to finding offense in articles about Gamal Mubarak, prosecutors questioned one of the editors about stories saying Mubarak may be ill.

“Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president,”” Human Rights Watch said.

Mubarak defended the prosecutions, telling the weekly Osboa newspaper, “Going too far in publishing lies and false information are issues that have nothing to do with freedom of the press but aim at causing chaos.””

Torture Allegations

On Sept. 11, the government shut down the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid. Police said the group raised funds without informing the proper ministries. “The government wants to close us because we work on torture”” allegations against Egyptian authorities, said Tarek Khater, AHLRA”s director.

Among them was the case of a 13-year-old boy who was arrested for stealing flour and died on Aug. 16 after six days in jail, according to newspaper accounts. Videos of his body showed burn marks and a wound on his back. Police said he died of a lung infection.

“Torture in Egypt is methodical and systematic,”” said Tariq Zaghloul of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

“We are deeply concerned”” by the AHRLA closure and the sentences imposed on the newspaper editors, said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “These latest decisions appear to contradict the Egyptian government”s stated commitment to expand democratic rights.””

Egypt”s Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit dismissed the U.S. criticism, saying “Egypt does not accept any interference”” in its domestic affairs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Cairo at [email protected] .