Few leaders stay in power for thirty years without occasionally embracing their inner gangster. So it is that the aging, possibly ailing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, facing the end of his reign, has again all but eliminated the space for free expression in the run-up to this month’s parliamentary polls and next year’s presidential vote.
In the past few months, authorities shuttered nearly twenty satellite TV channels, a top judicial council banned media coverage of court cases, outspoken columnists Hamdi Qandeel and Alaa Aswany suddenly stopped writing, and the state began monitoring mass text messages and curbed the independence of NGOs. Nobel Peace Prize winner and possible presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei has spoken of the “culture of fear that the regime has created.”
Last month’s firing of Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s leading Arabic language opposition daily, Al Destour, has been the most high-profile gag action. Eissa was forced out of his post shortly after the arrival of new ownership led by Sayed al Badawi, president of the opposition Wadf party. Most observers believe Badawi and his partner purchased Destour and dismissed Eissa as part of a deal with Mubarak, who presumably promised more parliamentary seats for Wafd in return.
The ouster is nothing new for Eissa. Over the past couple decades the forty-five-year-old has regularly tangled with the Egyptian government, including a seven-year stint as a media outcast after authorities shuttered the original incarnation of Destour in 1998. On a recent Saturday at his home on the outskirts of Cairo he spoke amiably about his dismissal, the wiliness of the Mubarak regime, and policy differences between Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Why were you fired?
Destour is the only newspaper in Egypt that is owned by a publisher. Others are owned by businessmen and are part of conglomerates that are involved in industry, oil, and other concerns. For this reason the government could not control us, so they had a few options. The first was to threaten me; there have been sixty-five lawsuits against the newspapers where I’ve worked, four times I was put in jail, once I was given a presidential pardon. That did not work, so they threatened my publishers with 12 million pounds in taxes. That did not work either, so they got their pet opposition party to buy the newspaper for 20 million pounds. After one month the ownership transfer was complete, they had taken charge, and they immediately changed the editors.
And so this is the end of Al Destour. The Destour that is being published now is phony, it’s a voice of the government, it’s a pet newspaper.
Was there an agreement between Wafd and the government?
Absolutely, I’m confident there was a deal. I have no proof, but I know. Everybody now knows the real Wafd party, the real Badawi, they know they’re not good for the people. You can see that on Facebook and on Twitter everybody is now saying that the Wafd party is not an honest party.
After a period of restraint, it seems the Mubarak regime is again suffocating the media.
The growth in satellite channels and greater freedom in newspapers began shortly after George W. Bush started pushing Mubarak to liberate the media in Egypt, maybe around 2002, 2003. So people started writing more openly, broadcasting more satellite channels and stuff like that. This created a political movement and woke up the people and gave them more courage, and people started to stand up for their rights and protests. Now the Egyptian government seems to have gotten the green light from the Obama administration to go back to the way they were before. As a result, we are now collecting the corpse of the Egyptian media.
You feel Obama is not supporting the opposition in Egypt?
Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all, and I think the intelligence of Obama is overrated. He thinks that by petting the alligators, the Arab dictators, he can win their friendship and their love. But he’s not realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.
Is the media crackdown here harsher this time around?
The sad thing is that we are going backwards—that is the real loss. People like us should fight for their right to speak, because this is our right. Years back it seemed like a Christmas gift given to us by Mubarak, and now he’s taking it back. That’s what people see. But the truth is that freedom of speech is not a gift but a right.
In a column published just before you were fired you wrote that as part of this crackdown, “understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt.” What did you mean?