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Egypt Muzzling Independent Voices
Egypt Muzzling Independent Voices
The Egyptian government appears to be cracking down on press freedom as Hosni Mubarak prepares the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. But concerns and complaints in other areas of Egyptian society - such as labor - are not as easily quelled, says Mona Eltahawy.
Tuesday, October 2,2007 08:33
by Mona Eltahawy, MEOL
The first time I met Ibrahim Eissa, the editor in chief of the independent Egyptian daily al-Dostour, I asked him how he was still a free man. Eissa is known for blistering essays that skewer President Hosni Mubarak and his family -- by name and not by insinuation, which is the safest way to criticize leaders in the Arab world.

Instead of answering my question, he took out a letter from a prisoner who had written to tell him that al-Dostour was the most popular newspaper in jail -- much to Eissa’s delight -- and to ask him a series of questions that he urged Eissa to answer.

“I’m thinking of writing to tell him that I’ll probably be able to answer him in person soon,” Eissa said in December 2005, keenly aware how swiftly the Egyptian government could run out of tolerance.

And run out it has in the form of a trial that opened on October 1, that put Eissa on the dock on charges of reporting rumors that Mubarak was ill, and which could send him to jail for three years.

The case was the latest manifestation of a trend that signals it isn’t just individual journalists who are being targeted by the government but rather the very notion of a free press. In the past month alone, Egyptian courts have issued custodial sentences against at least seven journalists on charges ranging from misquoting Egypt’s justice minister to reporting the rumors over Mubarak’s health

The recent trials, including the latest involving Eissa, were brought by private individuals who claim to be acting out of concern for society at large but whose affiliations clearly ally them with the ruling party in Egypt. Under Egyptian law such lawsuits can carry criminal convictions. Eissa is the target of eight such private cases.

In recognition of the dangers they face -- the Committee to Protect Journalists in May named Egypt one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom -- editors from 15 opposition and independent Egyptian newspapers have said they will not publish editions on October 7, to protest the growing clampdown against the press.

Eissa and most of the other journalists targeted by the recent press trials have become thorns in the side of a regime increasingly sensitive to criticism as it reportedly prepares Gamal Mubarak to take over from his father. As the case with the rumors over Mubarak senior’s health that got Eissa and the others in trouble, nobody is really sure what’s going on. Will the Mubaraks be able to pull off such a scenario? And, will the powerful armed forces accept Gamal as the first civilian president since a 1952 coup that ended the monarchy?

Eissa’s paper is one of a new crop of privately-owned, independent publications that crowd Egyptian newsstands and are happy to point out the absurdity of such uncertainty in such a powerful Arab country. They have made important allies in their fight to push the red lines that long dominated the Egyptian media.

During the 2005 parliamentary elections, for example, a young judge leaked to another independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm, documents that she said proved how the ruling party snatched victory in a constituency she was overseeing from a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and gave it to one of their own. Al Masry Al Youm is now one of the most popular and trusted papers in Egypt.

Soon after that leak, the Egyptian regime began to silence judges who spoke out against election forgery and it has spent the past two years rounding up its opponents -- including bloggers, secular activists, and the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, which holds one-fifth of parliamentary seats.

While the regime doesn’t hesitate to employ the courts and intimidation against journalists, judges and other opponents, it is having a harder time silencing the increasingly restless public sector which employs hundreds of thousands of workers who seem to be recognizing their power in what analysts have called the biggest wave of strikes in Egypt since the 1950s.

At least 200 instances of labor unrest took place in 2006, according to the Center for Trade and Union Services, a pro-labor non-governmental organization that the regime shut down in April, accusing it of fomenting labor unrest.

The most recent and impressive show of labor force came at the end of September, when 27,000 employees at Egypt’s largest textile factory took over their factory for a week in their second strike in less than a year to protest pay and work conditions.

The various opposition groups in Egypt never commanded such impressive figures of dedicated and mobilized followers at the height of anti-government demonstrations in 2005. Recognizing that, the government sent representatives to resolve the strike, which coincided with a World Bank report that inadvertently made clear the injustice of the public sector’s plight and how little Egypt’s ruling class cared for it.

While the striking textile workers complained they made $43 - $57 a month, the World Bank ranked Egypt as the world’s most improved economy for investors in 2007. The country’s average rate of growth had risen to 7 percent for the last three years thanks to the new government"s wide-ranging economic reforms.

Why hasn’t such an improvement translated into a better life for the average Egyptian?

Just as with the questions over Mubarak"s health and Egypt’s political future, the independent press will continue to demand answers because it too has recognized its power. And whether Eissa remains a free man or ends up in jail with that prisoner who sent him a letter full of questions, his demands of accountability are sure to be as blistering as ever.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.


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