Egypt extends crackdown to press

The arrest of Ibrahim Eissa and three other opposition journalists is the latest signal of tightening government control, reflecting anxiety over presidential succession.

Ibrahim Eissa, an Egyptian editor and columnist whose newspaper, Al Dustour, has become a byword for the kind of journalism that courts controversy and attacks government limits on free speech, doesn't look like a man facing a year in prison.

He's smiling and almost jolly in his downtown Cairo office as he attacks the verdict against him – for the crime of defaming President Hosni Mubarak – and predicts he'll lose his appeal.

"If you make the decision to be an opposition journalist here, you have to have the demeanor to carry yourself through all sorts of situations," he says. "But am I hearing that there's some kind of deal out there to keep me out of jail? No. The regime has given up on me. The regime is panicking and sees anyone that writes the truth about them as dangerous."

The jail terms for Mr. Eissa and three other antigovernment journalists are the latest in a cascade of repressive measures by the Egyptian security state in the past year seemingly designed to tighten the government's control as speculation grows over who will succeed President Mubarak.

First, the regime went after the secular-leaning Kifaya movement, which was dedicated to replacing President Mubarak, by beating and jailing dozens of its leaders. Then it moved on to the strongest opposition political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its activists in jail. Labor organizers and even an antitorture nongovernmental organization have been targeted. And now it appears to be the media's turn.

"For some time the government has been hardening its position on opposition movements, and the sentences for the journalists are within this context," says Mustapha Kamel al-Said, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "This kind of nervous reaction on the part of the government reflects its anxiety about what comes next."

Double charges against Eissa

Eissa was sentenced along with three other editors last week on charges of defaming Mubarak and his son Gamal, a rising political star in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). According to the court, their writings "could denigrate [the NDP's] status in the eyes of the community."

Eissa is now facing further charges stemming from reporting earlier this month in his newspaper on rumors that Mubarak's health is failing, something the government has strenuously denied.

"We really did report the rumors that Mubarak's health isn't good," says Eissa. "This is something strange, reporting on a leaders' health?"

The mid-career editor has been an irritant to the Egyptian state for most of his adult life, having worked with 10 different publications that have been shut down by the government.

His Dustour, which started out as a weekly before going to a daily print run, was the most directly confrontational of a new batch of opposition papers that emerged a few years ago, at a time when the US, which provides over $2 billion a year to Egypt in military and economic aid, was pressing the regime to democratize.

He seized the opportunity with both hands. And while other new daily's like Egypt Today focused on sober discussions of national issues and emerging political parties, his publication made no bones about its distaste for Mubarak and the country's ruling clique.

Eissa's front-page commentaries on Mubarak often come with a little cartoon illustration of a king and he refers to the president as "The Pharaoh." He has also directly attacked Gamal and Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, a political force in her own right who was considered off limits in the press until his publication got up and running.

"We were left alone for a while because there was US pressure to have free elections, complaints about the threats against politicians like Ayman Nour," an opposition politician who was jailed after opposing Mubarak for the presidency, says Eissa. "Then the elections ended, Ayman was jailed, independent judges were attacked and US pressure ended. Now Mubarak is reasserting himself as an untouchable pharaoh."

Egyptian and foreign human rights activists say the crackdown on the press is unprecedented in recent Egyptian history. While state harassment comes with the territory for independent journalists, never before have four editors been tried and convicted at the same time.

"Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement on the convictions. "This ruling and the new charges against [Eissa] are incompatible with Egypt's Constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, not to mention Egypt's current membership on the UN Human Rights Council."

Why a crackdown now?

Political analysts believe the crackdown comes now for two reasons. One is simple opportunity, with tough American criticism of Mubarak a thing of the past. The other is concerns over succession ahead of the ruling party's annual conference in October.

Many journalists like Eissa believe that Mubarak and his wife want his son Gamal to succeed him. The son, a former international banker, has quickly risen through the ranks of the NDP, though he does not yet hold public office.

"Look, we all know the Egyptian system has to change, but you have to start with the Mubarak family," says Eissa.

Mr. Said, the political scientist, argues that the current crackdown reflects the cycle of Egyptian politics since independence.

"Towards the end of regimes they engage in harassment of opposition leaders, close newspapers and so forth," he says. "It's like in September 1981 when [Anwar] Sadat arrested many politicians of many political persuasions." Shortly after that, Sadat – then president – was assassinated. "That's why many people are calling what's happening now the winds of September," says Said. "These are the last years of Mubarak's life, and whenever the government feels it has to ensure a favorable successor, it does this."

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