The Freedom to Describe Dictatorship

Following the first day of Egypt’s deeply flawed parliamentary election last November, the country’s largest newspaper, the state-controlled al-Ahram, appeared with an equally flawed headline: “The Fairest Parliamentary Elections in 50 Years.” Its sister, al-Gumhuriya, proclaimed to its readers that “Egyptians Spoke Yesterday — They Chose True Democracy Rather Than Slogans and Heeded President Hosni Mubarak’s Call.”

But for the first time in the 24 years of Mubarak’s rule, there was another voice that day on the newsstands. The newspaper al-Masri al-Yom, or the Daily Egyptian, reported “death threats, bribes, violence and partisan security forces.” It said that “the elections were marred by irregularities and violations carried out by a large number of [Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party and independent candidates and their militias, which prevented people from entering polling stations.”

This was no more or less than the truth. But the fact that it was published in Cairo, and in Arabic — and that the newspaper’s publisher remains a free man who can travel to Washington and talk about it — is perhaps the strongest single sign that Egypt’s stifling and stagnant autocracy has begun to unravel. “Egyptians have discovered dissent,” says Hisham Kassem, the stocky, graying and once-lonely liberal who created al-Masri al-Yom. “And it’s no longer possible for the regime to manage information in the old ways.”

Kassem is actually pretty pessimistic about where Mubarak is taking Egypt in the short term. But, before we get to that, it’s worth marveling at the mini-revolution his paper has wrought. Until two years ago Egyptian media consisted of official organs such as al-Ahram, whose editors are appointed by Mubarak and routinely order up headlines like those above, and an “opposition” press that specialized in slanders against Israel, the Jewish people, the United States, Western culture — anything other than Mubarak. Ten years ago this spring, the biggest story in Egypt, thanks to such media, was the allegation that Israel was trying to corrupt Egyptian women by distributing chewing gum that created irresistible sexual urges.

“From 1993 to 2003 Mubarak was criticized once,” Kassem told me last week. “He closed down the newspaper, as well as the political party that published it.” Kassem himself published a spirited paper called the Cairo Times, but it was in English and appeared only weekly.

In 2003 he was approached by a group of businessmen who proposed to start a new daily and asked Kassem to run it. He agreed, on condition that he be allowed to create “a paper of record,” with objective reporting, no sensationalism — and no self-censorship. “I said we would cover human rights and civil liberties on the front page,” Kassem says. “I said, ’Enough xenophobia. Anyone who wants to destroy Israel can join the jihad. And I want to be the oldest person in the paper.’ ” (He’s 46.)

Al-Masri al-Yom was launched in June 2004. Though the first months were rocky, the paper took off as Mubarak opened his campaign for another term as president a year ago. Early on, it covered an anti-Mubarak protest with the once-unthinkable headline, “Angry Demonstrations Demand Information on President’s Health.” The next day Kassem brushed off the inevitable threats from the mukhabarat , or state security, and never looked back. In the past year the paper’s daily circulation has grown from 3,000 to a peak of 40,000. Meanwhile, other opposition papers are springing up, including several that attack Mubarak so unmercifully that even Kassem is put off.

How did this space for press freedom open? Kassem doesn’t hedge: “U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime has been the catalyst for most of the change we have seen,” he said. He traces the turning point to an April 2004 summit between Mubarak and President Bush in Crawford, Tex., at which the aging Egyptian strongman heard for the first time from an American president that political liberalization would be necessary to maintain good relations. After stalling a few months in the hope that Bush would lose the 2004 election, Mubarak reluctantly concluded that he must take some visible steps, Kassem says. One was the allowance of greater press freedom; another was the conversion of his reelection from a referendum into a multi-candidate competition.

The problem, Kassem says, is that once his reelection was secured and accepted by Washington, Mubarak froze the reforms. Though he promised a long list of political and economic liberalizations before the election, not one has been implemented in the six months since. Instead, Mubarak has imprisoned his chief liberal opponent, Ayman Nour, on bogus criminal charges; postponed scheduled municipal elections; and refused to legalize the centrist political parties that might provide an alternative to his regime and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Kassem says he fears the 77-year-old president plans to die in office without leaving either a successor or a democratic mechanism for choosing one.

Ask him for a remedy, and once again he doesn’t hedge. “The United States has to continue pressuring,” he says. “We’re all willing to accept a controlled process of reform under Mubarak. But leave him alone and he won’t do it.”