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THE WORLD

Journalists grow bolder in Egypt

Criticism of Mubarak at times goes unpunished. Though less repressive, the climate for the press remains unpredictable.

June 27, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — A contemptuous editor hemmed in by only his suspenders, Ibrahim Issa has been sued more than once for "humiliating the president." It's a distinction he rather likes, given that over the last two years he's written 84 unflattering columns about Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

"I'm either with my lawyer or in the office of the prosecutor-general," said Issa, whose newspaper, Al Dustour, is tangled in 14 lawsuits, most of them filed by supporters of the president. "Do you know there are 33 articles in our Constitution that can send a journalist to jail? Political opponents have to be willing to commit suicide to express their views."

Such are the perils of pricking the political elite. Despite court cases and threats of imprisonment, however, Issa is writing in a less repressive, if more unpredictable, climate than five years ago. "Insulting" Mubarak can still be a dangerous rite of journalistic passage, but editors and columnists are emboldened.

"The only thing you can't touch now is the army," said Hisham Kassem, a writer and former publisher of the bankrupt English-language Cairo Times, which the government frequently condemned. "But as far as criticizing Mubarak, things have loosened up immensely. There was a headline recently by a writer that said, 'I am embarrassed that you are my president.' You could have never done that before."

U.S. pressure a factor

The better atmosphere is partly the result of Bush administration pressure on the Mubarak regime, which began in 2003 to improve Egypt's repressive record on democracy and human rights. Writers also sense that Mubarak, a 79-year-old former air force commander who has led the nation since 1981, is a man in his twilight, less concerned about journalists than the widening influence of Islamists and the maneuvering over who will succeed him.

"You could say this regime is adrift," said Magdi Mehanna, one of the country's leading political writers and a columnist for the newspaper Al Masri al Youm. "It only cares about protecting itself.... The regime is giving leeway to freedom of expression because it knows the media can't mobilize the masses. The press alone can't change things."

While columnists and editors appear to be drawing less retaliation, bloggers are under attack, including one who was imprisoned for four years in February on charges of insulting Islam and Mubarak. The power of the Internet embarrassed the government late in 2006 when a video showing a man being sodomized with a stick while allegedly in police custody appeared on blogs across the country.

Mehanna, a suave, quiet man, sees both advantages and limits to the relative openness in newspapers and magazines. "It's very easy to criticize the president, but this freedom journalists are enjoying now can be usurped at any time," he said. "My paper is influential among the elite, but it's still too early for this paper to bring about change."

Kassem's recent articles suggest that the boundaries regarding criticism have softened. One dealt with his opinion that Mubarak was a military man who never adapted to politics; the other surmised that if the president stepped down he would hand power to the military rather than his son, Gamal. Kassem wrote that Gamal "has no real knowledge about the fundamentals of military rule and lacks the strictness needed" to run the state.

"I would have been in deep [trouble] if I would have written about this five years ago," Kassem said. "A lot of us have fought the press battle. Lots of people were thrown in jail. It wasn't easy, and I think now a lot of people have no intention of being gagged again."

On a recent evening, Issa read over copy for the next day's edition of Al Dustour while tallying how many times he'd been sued by allies of Mubarak. His new book, called "My Book," is a collection of his anti-Mubarak columns that will gain him no fans among the ruling National Democratic Party.

"What you see now in Egypt has nothing to do with freedom -- it comes down to a writer's courage or maybe his craziness," said Issa, who says his weekly has a circulation of 127,000. "Any story, any column can lead to a suit."

Issa's prose is pointed and personal. He started his newspaper in 1995; it was closed three years later when he was accused of "jeopardizing national unity." From 1998 to 2001, Issa unsuccessfully attempted to publish nine newspapers. In 2005, he won an appeal to reopen Al Dustour. His missives against the government drew a jail sentence last year, but Issa appealed and ended up paying a fine instead.

He is anything but chastened, recently drawing another lawsuit for his criticism of Gamal Mubarak.

"I wrote of how he is not qualified to rule Egypt because he doesn't know Egypt," Issa said. "He never rode in a taxi, was never stuck in traffic. He never ate beans from a street vendor. This man doesn't know us. How could he rule us?"

Still a crime

Issa and other writers are more skeptical than pleased about parliament's lifting of some minor restrictions on the press. It is still a crime to "insult" Mubarak or any head of state. Perhaps the biggest concern, journalists say, is the perception that Washington fears the rising popularity of Egypt's opposition Islamist political party and has eased its demands for the Mubarak regime to act more democratically.

"I'm foolish, I suppose," Issa said.

"I'm determined to keep up with writing and challenging the government until the last moment of my life. I want to contribute to help determine that the priority for all Egyptians is to be free thinkers. That's my job."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Noha el Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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