While 40 senior officials of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) were being dragged through the Egyptian courts, four editors were recently fined and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for defaming president Husni Mubarak (right) and his son Gamal. That the action against the editors was as misconceived and miscalculated as the crackdown on the Ikhwan was demonstrated by the defiance of the editors and the escalation of press attacks on both Mubarak and Gamal.
The court issued its decision on September 13, sentencing the four editors to prison and fining each of them 20,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$3,600, or £1,700 sterling). But they were allowed to pay bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds each to stay out of jail pending their appeals. On September 17 a court in Cairo announced that their appeal would be heard on December 1. The four indicted editors are Ibrahim Issa of al-Dastour daily, Wael el-Ebrashi of Saut al-Ummah, Adil Hammoudah of al-Fajr and Abdel Halim of al-Karamah. Al-Karamah belongs to a political party; the other three are privately owned.
The privately owned press in Egypt has been highly critical of the regime, of Mubarak and of Mubarak’s family since he introduced legislation relaxing the notoriously strict control of the media several years ago. The president was, of course, not serious about introducing a genuine relaxation; he was only responding to dubiously motivated pressure from Western governments that were demanding the introduction of “more democratic” rule. That the two sides were playing a political game was demonstrated when the US government withdrew its pressure not only on Egypt but also on other Arab allies of the US as a result of the Iraqi war.
Another inconsistency in the West’s pressure on Mubarak and other Arab leaders to introduce “more democratic attitudes” is that this pressure does not apply to Islamic leaders or groups, such as the Ikhwan. In fact, the “war on terrorism” – conceived and managed by the US government, with which Egypt strongly cooperates – classifies Islamic groups and leaders as terrorists and seeks their suppression by Muslim countries. This explains why the assault on leaders of the Islamic movement has been much more severe than that on press editors. For example, the number of senior officials of the Ikhwan being prosecuted is 40, including the deputy leader, compared to only four editors. Moreover, the Ikhwan’s leaders are being tried in civilian courts. Unlike the editors, the leaders of the Ikhwan have not been allowed to pay bail to stay out of jail during their trials. Far from allowing them bail, the military court trying them postponed the proceedings to allow prosecutors to call additional security officers as witnesses against them.
Equally significantly, Mubarak’s decision to retract his relatively more tolerant attitude to dissent is attributable to the Ikhwan’s success in the general election of 2005, when it won 88 seats. The movement showed itself to be the most organised opposition to the government, and its electoral success shocked the ruling National Democratic Party. The NDP, which is controlled by the president’s son, Gamal, did all it could to organise secular voters and media to deny the Ikhwan any degree of success, but clearly failed. Gasser Abdel Razak of Human Rights Watch is in no doubt that the regime’s current intolerance of dissent is a reaction to that success.
In the eyes of the regime, the dissenting roles of the movement and the secular press are not disconnected. In fact, Mubarak has more than hinted that the Ikhwan is behind the “false stories about his health” circulated by the independent press. “The illegitimate movements behind these recent rumours do not want stability for the people and have no aim but to detract from the achievements of Egypt and its people,” he told al-Ahram, a state-owned daily, in July.
Mubarak and the NDP are particularly nervous about the reports on his health, which the independent press – particularly al-Dastour, edited by Ibrahim Issa – circulated. Issa, one of the four convicted editors, had published rumours about the president’s health, claiming that the 79-year-old was either dead or seriously ill and in a coma. Mubarak decided to play for time and refrained from denying the rumours, as did the state-owned media. It took them several weeks to do so, and that was “only after he was shown on TV receiving foreign visitors and paying an unannounced visit to an industrial zone near his summer home on the Mediterranean coast,” as one of the Western dailies covering the issue put it (September 14). But no one appeared to take his ploy seriously, and even some sceptical politicians claimed that the man appearing on the show as Mubarak was in fact a “double”.
The rumours about the president’s health and his anxiety about those rumours are not misplaced. He is 79 years old, has been ruling Egypt since 1981, and is known to have had medical treatment for his back in Germany. Apart from the insensitivity of a ruler seeking medical treatment abroad when such treatment is not available to the vast majority of Egyptians, it was to be expected that the event would be recalled when the rumours about his health were circulated by Issa. This explains the strong response to his reports in al-Dastour and the fact that he was singled out for greater punishment. Apart from appearing in the same court with the other three editors, he was also referred by state prosecutors to a separate court for “defamation”. Even Egypt’s central bank joined in against him by claiming that the reports in al-Dastour damaged the national economy by causing the withdrawal of more than $350 million (£170 million)-worth of foreign investments in only two days. On the contrary, one must wonder whether these withdrawals had anything to do with the fact that 43-year-old Gamal is a former investment-banker.
The strong reaction to Issa’s claims about Mubarak’s health can be partly explained by the fact that it brings to the fore the issue of who will succeed him. Most Egyptians believe that Gamal is being groomed to take over from his father, and resent the prospect. Issa has reinforced their resentment by comparing Mubarak to an ancient pharoah. “It is time for the president to come down from the status of pharoah to that of human being,” he wrote in al-Dastour recently. But despite all this, Mubarak believes that his most obdurate enemy is the Ikhwan, whose members, unlike editors, are very difficult to bribe or intimidate. Not surprisingly, the greatest punishment is reserved for them.