Obituary: Mustafa Amin

In the newspaper column that appeared on the day he died, Mustafa Amin wrote: "I don't know why everything related to justice in our country is slow; we should not tell those who suffer injustice to wait even 24 hours since this means subjecting them to further injustice." This daring criticism of one of Egypt's sacred institutions was typical of the best known columnist and journalist in the Middle East for decades.

Amin was regarded as one of the fathers of Arab journalism. Unlike his fellow columnists and editors who always considered the "national interest" - which often meant the official foreign policy of the government - he made the ideas of free press and democracy paramount in his widely read column.

Last year, when most journalists were welcoming the Sudanese opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi to Cairo - the Egyptian government is at odds with the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum - Amin criticised Mahdi for being a non- democrat who violated human rights and muzzled the press when he was prime minister of Sudan. Although Amin was a strong opponent of fundamentalist violence, he often criticised the Egyptian security forces' heavy-handedness and the government extension of the emergency law dealing with Islamic terror groups, arguing that their terror was no excuse to violate the constitution.

In spite of the fact that he was himself tortured in jail during the time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser - an unconstitutional emergency military court in 1965 found him guilty of spying for the United States because of his contacts with American diplomats, and sentenced him to life imprisonment - Mustafa Amin never grew tired of proving to his wide readership that his pen was mightier than the dictator's sword.

The late President Anwar Sadat freed Amin in 1974 on the recommendation of an administrative panel who investigated the original verdict. Back in the newsroom of Al Akhbar which he had founded in 1944, Amin did not spare Sadat's government - nor the current administration of President Hosny Mubarak's that followed - from the sharp end of his critical pen; he was a true believer in democracy and the freedom and the independence of the Fourth Estate.

Born in Cairo in 1914, Mustafa and his twin brother Ali grew up in what is known as Beit el-Uma ("the Home of the Nation"), their maternal uncle's house, and today a museum. This uncle was their spiritual father: the nationalist Sa'ad Zaghloul Pasha was the founder of Al-Wafd, Egypt's largest political party, which in 1919 led a delegation to London, demanding that Britain evacuate its bases in Egypt. Upon his return from exile in 1922, Zaghloul Pasha won a landslide electoral victory to become the first prime minister of Egypt after it had severed its links with the Ottoman Empire. Zaghloul Pasha captured the imagination of all classes and united the minority coptic Christians with the Muslim majority. His contacts with world leaders like Mahatma Gandhi in India gave the twins an early interest in foreign policy: Gandhi's trip to England via the Suez Canal and his speech in Port Said was reported by them in their attempts to produce their own "independent" paper at school.

From a young age, the twins' idea of journalism became inseparable from the struggle for justice, equality, freedom and democracy, the principles for which the Wafd party stood. Mustafa Amin's byline first appeared in Cairo papers in 1928, and by the time he graduated from the American University in Cairo in 1934 he had become a respected columnist in the weekly Akher Sa'a ("Last Hour") magazine.

After finishing his higher education at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1938, he became the editor-in-chief of Akher Sa'a, and a year later moved to Al-Ahram, the oldest and most prestigious Middle Eastern daily. He introduced objective and non- biased reporting and gave importance to news items according to their merit, rather than the political agenda of the day, which later led to confrontation with Nasser.

From the 1930s, Amin believed the American constitution to be the greatest piece of legislation known to mankind and struggled to model the Egyptian press on the free press in America. By the early 1940s he had a respected byline as a reporter and columnist, but in 1944 he took a leap into the unknown by resigning his secure post as editor of El-ethnin to launch, with his twin brother, the Saturday weekly paper Akhbar-el-Yom.

Based on the style of American Sunday papers, it still boasts the largest circulation of any weekly paper in the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world. Four years later the two brothers launched the daily Al-Akhbar, which some 50 years on is the most popular daily newspaper in the Arabic- speaking world, again with the largest circulation. Within two years, the Akhbar el-Yom group took over Akher Sa'a, then in 1951 founded two weeklies, Akher Lahza and Al-Guil, a colour magazine for the young.

Mustafa Amin always believed that young people are a nation's greatest asset. His editorial brief to his staff was to implant the ideas of democracy and free speech in young readers' minds. This led to an early clash with Nasser's oligarchy who took over government in a 1952 military coup; then in 1960 Nasser nationalised the Akhbar El-Youm group along with other press organisations. Unlike other editors, however, who either toed Nasser's line or went along with his unconstitutional reforms and semi-police state, the Amins defended press freedom and opposed censorship.

Mustafa Amin's loyalty to his readership was illustrated in his famous 1961 telephone argument with Nasser when Akhbar El-Yom gave more prominence to Marilyn Monroe's suicide than to Nasser's latest speech. Amin argued that his readership survey indicated that readers were more interested in the Hollywood star than the President's speech which they had been forced to listen to or view the night before on all radio and television channels. In his autobiography, Five Years in Jail, he described his relationship with a regime that had no comprehension of free press.

After his reprieve by Sadat in 1974 he was restored to the editorship of Akhbar el-Yom in 1974, but from 1976, when his brother died, he concentrated on writing a daily column which was syndicated to many pan-Arab papers, including the prestigious Saudi-owned London daily Asharq-Alawsat. His choice of subject was always Egyptian, yet Arab readers loved his writings.

He was also the author of many political and non- political books and some of his semi-autobiographies and stories were turned into screenplays. He was awarded the Missouri Press Award in 1978. He also founded Lailat al-Qadar, a charity that assists the poor and needy worldwide.

In his last column, which appeared yesterday, he took a spiritual view that hearts and souls unite all humans whether they are friends or foes, thus differences and quarrels should be confined to ideas and opinions. To many Egyptian intellectuals his death has closed one of the most important chapters in the history of Egyptian press.

Mustafa Amin: journalist, writer, and publisher: born Cairo 21 February 1914; married Isis Tantawi (one daughter); died Cairo 13 April 1997.