(English IPS News Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) CAIRO, Oct. 20, 2010 (IPS/GIN) - Media watchdogs see the "invisible hand" of the ruling party behind a string of firings and resignations that have removed some of Egypt's most prominent government critics from their soapboxes just weeks before parliamentary elections.
"Oblique threats and backroom deals that are not visibly linked to the government have started silencing some of Egypt's most critical independent voices," says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Earlier this month, the new owners of Al-Dostour newspaper gave its maverick editor his marching orders. Ibrahim Eissa, an outspoken critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, had stewarded the independent newspaper through its establishment in 1995 to its closure by authorities in 1998 and its re-launch in 2005.
Eissa's adversarial brand of journalism brazenly overstepped red lines, and made the 46-year-old dissident a primary target of the regime. Over the last 15 years, Eissa has had to defend himself against state-orchestrated smear campaigns and at least 65 lawsuits for alleged violations of the country's draconian press laws.
Eissa was sacked less than 24 hours after Al-Dostour's transfer of ownership was finalised. Al-Wafd Party chairman Sayed El-Badawi, one of the new owners, said in a press conference that he fired Eissa for "administrative reasons" following a labor dispute concerning staff salaries and the deduction of taxes.
Eissa said he was relieved of his duties for refusing orders not to publish an article written by former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, a possible contender in the 2011 presidential race. But even this, he stressed, was just a pretext to remove him.
Al-Wafd leaders recently rebuffed ElBaradei's call for opposition groups to boycott next month's parliamentary elections, fuelling rumours that El- Badawi brokered a secret deal with regime leaders whereby he removed Eissa in exchange for more seats for his party in the next parliament.
"Elections in Egypt are usually determined before the polls," says democracy activist Negad El-Borai. "The government chooses its supporters in parliament, and sometimes it chooses its opposition too." This year's parliamentary vote is critical to preparations for the presidential race in 2011. Mubarak has not declared whether he will run for a sixth term, but with the 82-year-old leader's health in question and succession plans for his son reportedly in trouble, the regime appears increasingly wary of criticism.
Abdel Dayem says Eissa's dismissal should be viewed as part of a wider campaign to silence dissent and tighten control over the flow of information to the public.
Critical thinkers Alaa El-Aswani and Hamdy Qandil recently stopped writing their columns for Al-Shorouk independent newspaper, reportedly after management warned them of "external pressure" to tone down their content.
Al-Qahira Al-Youm (Cairo Today), a live TV current affairs show hosted by popular presenter Amr Adib, was ordered off the air in late September, ostensibly for its parent network's unpaid bills. Eissa was axed from his own political talk show, Baladna Bel-Masry, a week later. No reason was given.
Political commentator Salama A. Salama, writing in the semi-independent Al- Ahram Weekly newspaper, sees the Mubarak regime's invisible hand at work.
"This invisible hand uses the owners of the media, forcing them to shut down mouths that talk and to break pens that have gone too far. The whole thing is designed so that those in power look innocent from what is described as 'media clashes', and 'internal disputes' involving papers, owners and writers," he wrote.
The government has been more direct in its clampdown on satellite broadcasters operating on Egyptian soil, ordering the closure last week of four private TV channels and issuing warnings to two others for content violations. Earlier this month, authorities shut down Saudi channel Orbit and Jordanian channel Al-Badr for allegedly inciting sectarian hatred.
More worrying, say media experts, is the government's decision that private companies that provide satellite feeds must obtain new live broadcasting permits. Without these permits, the broadcasters will be required to transmit from state facilities, making news coverage more time-consuming and easier to censor.
The new restrictions on satellite broadcasts coincide with tightened controls on services to Egypt's 60 million mobile phone subscribers.
The National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) announced Oct. 11 that organizations would require licences to utilise SMS aggregators that send text messages in bulk. It said the content of group messages would have to be reviewed and approved by various state agencies before it could be disseminated.
Minister of Communication and Information Technology Tarek Kamel denied any political motives behind the new restrictions. He assured reporters the ministry's aim was only to limit "inappropriate SMS content" such as false religious edicts and "disinformation" that could negatively affect the stock market.
Rights activists, however, claim the restrictions will hinder the opposition's ability to mobilise supporters for voting, protests and demonstrations. They expect that only "favoured" political movements will be granted permits, excluding ElBaradei's National Association for Change, the anti-regime Kefaya movement and Egypt's largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The restrictions could also impact the work of human rights organizations and NGOs that monitor elections, as well as various independent news channels.