The Death of Egypt’s Free Press
In the run-up to November's parliamentary elections, President Hosni Mubarak's allies are silencing what remains of the independent media.
For years, the newspaper al-Dostour has been one of the few independent voices in the Egyptian press. No longer: Its editor in chief, Ibrahim Eissa, was fired today for refusing to toe the government line.
The immediate reason for Eissa’s firing appears to be his plan to publish an article written by opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei commemorating Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. But in an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Eissa said that his dismissal had been planned since the paper was purchased by Sayyid Badawi, a businessman and head of Egypt’s Wafd Party, a liberal party that has nonetheless been co-opted by the regime. Eissa referred to Badawi as a member of Egypt’s "soft opposition" — someone publicly pushing for reforms, but who isn’t willing to challenge the regime in any serious way.
"They bought the newspaper for $4 million, just to stop me from writing," Eissa said. "They had begun interfering within one week of taking over the paper, and the sale was only finalized 24 hours before I was fired."
Eissa said that the controversy over the ElBaradei article was simply the latest attempt by al-Dostour‘s board of directors, chaired by Badawi, to censor controversial and anti-government content from the newspaper. ElBaradei, in his article (since published on al-Dostour‘s website by its staff), argues that the spirit of self-criticism and rational planning, which allowed Egypt to come back from its defeat in the 1967 war with its victory in 1973, is absent from President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The board, Eissa said, was staunchly opposed to publishing the article: "They said that it would lead to revolution in Egypt."
With the 82-year-old Mubarak laying the groundwork for his son Gamal’s succession to the presidency and Egyptian parliamentary elections scheduled for November, Eissa’s dismissal appears to be part of a larger effort to mute Egypt’s most vocal anti-government figures before this leadership transition. Some analysts, including other editors at al-Dostour, have suggested that Eissa’s firing might be an attempt by the Wafd to ingratiate itself with the government and thereby secure a larger number of seats in the parliamentary elections.
All signs suggest that the Egyptian government does not intend to loosen its grip on Eissa or allow the democratic process to run its course. A few weeks ago, a television show offering political commentary hosted by Eissa was canceled. Mubarak’ s regime has also shown little inclination to allow international monitors to observe the parliamentary elections.
Being silenced by government censors is nothing new for Eissa who, according to Foreign Policy contributor Issandr Amrani’s excellent profile, spent seven years as "persona non grata" in the Egyptian press after his first iteration of al-Dostour was shut down. However, he says that he will remain outspoken. "I will continue to be a part of the opposition and will continue to criticize the government," he said.
Eissa will no doubt continue to be as vocal as Mubarak’s regime will allow him — but can al-Dostour, which he labored to transform into a legitimate news source over the past five years, maintain its reputation as a bastion of Egypt’s independent press? Eissa spoke throughout the interview in Arabic, with his wife helping to translate his remarks — but he answered this last question in English himself: "Absolutely not."