Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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Has repression of the freedom of expression taken on a new form in Egypt?

  • Tuesday, 5 October 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • The start of this week witnessed an important event in the history of journalism and the reform movement in Egypt. On Sunday, 3 October, veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of the independent Egyptian Al-Dostor was ousted by its new owners after a very brief confrontation with them over their decision to censor an article by Nobel Prize laureate and former IAEA director-general, Mohammed El-Baradei.


    Ibrahim Issa, who's been charged with defamation of the president and endangering national security a year ago, was pardoned by President Mubarak after a national and international out roar against what was deemed a violation of the right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, months later, businessmen As-Sayyid Al-Badawi and Reda Edward surprised everyone and declared they had bought the newspaper off its founder and publisher Essam Ismail.

    Al-Badawi is also chairman of the liberal right-wing Wafd party.

    The party had more surprises to come. The party had been engaged in a lengthy reform process aimed at increasing its share of parliamentary seats which have thus far been monopolised by an NDP majority and a sizeable Muslim Brotherhood minority. The Wafd started the process with a professed intention to co-opt six independent MPs to its ranks within the current parliamentary session.

    The Wafd however took the nation by surprise when it announced Al-Badawi’s bid to purchase Al-Dostor. Since the day of Al-Dostor’s purchase by Badawi and Edward, everyone expected a confrontation between the two men and its highly-independent and politically-defiant editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Issa.

    Public opinion expressed via emails and faxes on the Egyptian O-TV

    This materialised on Sunday when Issa was asked to decline publishing an article by Baradei whose engagement and leadership of the pro-democracy movement in past months has alarmed the Egyptian regime and split the opposition. It’s not hard to guess however: Al-Wafd championed the cause of negotiating with the ruling NDP and running in upcoming legislative elections . With the exception of the Wafd, t majority of Egypt's opposition were engaged in the -democracy movement under the umbrella of Baradei in one way or another.

    Prominent opposition parties agreed to boycott upcoming elections: whereas the Muslim Brotherhood remain undecided, and the Wafd refuse to boycott.

    Al-Baradei’s article on the October 1973 war with Israel “revisited the causes for victory which are more important than the victory itself.” For Baradei, the 37th anniversary of the October War was a cause to celebrate the “organisation and planning efforts” which are in clear contrast to “a culture of arbitrariness and chaos that has reigned since then.” He then mocks the Egyptian regime claiming that “we failed to capitalise on the lessons of the 1973 war for our peaceful battle [for development]” and therefore, “citizenship hasn’t developed; collective work hasn’t been nurtured; rational thinking hasn’t been promoted; and planning, loyalty, transparency and commitment continue to be lacking.”

    Needless to say, the opinion piece carries nothing new. On the one hand, it is emblematic of Baradei's rhetoric which he has written in numerous newspapers and said in a number of televised and live gatherings. On the other hand, Issa and Al-Dostor are well-known for their outspoken criticism of the Mubarak family, corruption and other sensitive issues.

    In other words, it doesn't take much to realise the article was only a pretext for a pre-fabricated confrontation.

    As expected, Issa refused to succumb to the demands of Badawi and Edward who finally asked him to postpone publication for two days . Minutes later, Issa was informed he was fired over the phone.

    Bloggers too are protesting in solidarity with Issa (photo by Mahmoud Saber)

    Since Monday, the Al-Dostor staff has been on strike in support of Issa and in protest against Badawi and Edward’s decision. In a statement issued by the Al-Dostor staff, the journalists declared their outrage and disbelief at what they claim is “an indication of a new form of repression that aims to resume the ridiculous play surrounding Gamal Mubarak’s takeover from his father.”

    The journalists accused the new owners of Al-Dostor of harnessing a plan determined long before their purchase of the newspaper to eliminate Issa and liquidate the newspaper and its legacy as a beacon of free expression, a role model and a spearhead in the fight against corruption.

    In return, protesting journalists faced abuse and insults by an outraged Reda Edward who physically and verbally insulted a number of them before confiscating the newspapers computer from the premises. Edward told the protesting journalists that he is “capable of running Al-Dostor with his feet” if they insisted on Issa.


    After insulting Al-Dostor journalists, Edward confiscated their computers

    This episode is perhaps more dramatic than many of us had imagined, but falls in line with the general expectations many of us had. The Wafd, an opposition party whose aspirations for a share in power supersedes its commitment to reform would naturally mark the end of a confrontational journalistic experience as that of Al-Dostor and Isaa.

    In other words, the Wafd did what Mubarak couldn’t do through traditional means of repression. Taking Issa to court and trying him according to laws criticised as infringing on the right to free expression and in violation of international conventions on civic and political rights created an out roar amongst a national and international civil society that has become experienced in escalating cases and abuses as these.

    Instead, the Wafd guaranteed a safer and less costly means to liquidate Al-Dostor and Issa: buying the newspaper, entering into a confrontation with Issa and liquidating the entire experience. Badawy seems to be an experienced politician when it comes to intra-partisan and intra-oppositional schisms: he played a major role in the schism between ousted chairman Nu`man Goma`a and Mahmoud Abaza in 2006 before defeating and succeeding the latter in May 2010.

    Whether or not Al-Dostor will ever recover: only time will tell. And whether or not Ibrahim Issa can re-emerge: again, only time will tell.

    "Starting today, there is no Dostor (meaning constitution)... I am the Constitution"

    From the protests at the Al-Dostor offices (photo by Mahmoud Saber)

    But this new tactic in the liquidation of opposition is alarming, especially with the Wafd’s recent cooptation of some prominent opposition figures like veteran sociologist, pro-democracy advocate and director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, Sa`ad El-Din Ibrahim and iconic vernacular poet Ahmad Fouad Negm.

    Speaking of which, the Wafd took many by surprise when Negm’s membership of the Wafd was announced. The non-partisan, ultra-leftist, revolutionary poet who spent a big share of his career in the prisons of Egypt’s various presidents is a folk hero for Egypt’s underclass and their likes throughout the Arab world.

    Negm continues to write his poetry to date. After being sung by his lifetime companion Sheikh Imam, Negm’s poems in vernacular Egyptian are popular amongst the Arab left and continue to be sung by a number of young singers. including the Tunisian Latifa and the Lebanese singer of Palestinian origins Ziyad Sahab.

    Anyhow, back to Issa before I wrap up though. In his last editorial published on Monday 4 October, Issa wrote a piece in which he compared Ahmad Zuweil and Mohammed El-Baradei as examples of an intellectual Egyptian “crust” and an Egyptian elite that is ignorant and proud of its ignorance. The piece is the last Issa wrote since the crisis erupted, and might be last he’ll ever write for Al-Dotsor – at least until (if) the crisis is resolved.

    Egypt’s rich elite which is divided between a pro-Gamal Mubarak and pro-NDP business class, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood mercantile class, a pro-Wafd clique of wannabe NDP businessmen who aren’t making it to Gamal Mubarak’s hall of fame, and an indifferent majority.

    Does this mean the ruling party has indeed bought up the Wafd, then Al-Dostor before co-opting the Muslim Brotherhood and overtaking the opposition in its entirety as one opinion suggested some two months ago?

    I just wonder: who will buy Al-Masry Al-Youm and liquidate it? Who will buy the Egyptian blogosphere and censor it? Who will partake in the undoing of Egypt’s recent reform movement? Will co-opting Negm into the mean the poet's legacy as the artistic and revolutionary mouthpiece of the Egyptian underclass be a legacy of the past? Who will be co-opted next? Is this the end of independent opinion in traditional media? Will every Ibrahim Issa opt to blog and enagge in citizen journalism instead?

    Too many things to wonder about, and only time will tell.

    1 Responses to “Has repression of the freedom of expression taken on a new form in Egypt?”

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    6 October 2010 at 11:09

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