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Censorship row fuels public's fears over Egyptian election

Newspaper article which criticised military ruler is banned

As Egyptians await the final results of their first free elections in decades, which they hope will herald a new era of freedom and openness, a censorship row has broken out at the country's newest newspaper after staff were ordered to shelve an entire print run of 20,000 copies over an article that suggested the leader of the governing Military Council could go to prison.

Employees at the Egypt Independent, an English-language weekly, were told the latest edition could not be distributed because of the final two paragraphs of an opinion piece about Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who became de facto president after the demise of Hosni Mubarak in February.

It is another blow for those who have raised concerns about the direction of Egypt's revolution, with critics alleging that the country's top brass appear intent on undermining the popular uprising to preserve their decades-old networks of power.

The offending article, headlined, "Is Tantawi reading the public pulse correctly?", had suggested that many in the military believed their reputation was being abused. "The military institution could remove him to save itself," argued the opinion piece, by American historian Dr Robert Springborg. It concluded that a group of "discontented officers" might decide that a "coup within the coup" was the best way to deal with Tantawi, and mentioned a possible contender for the Field Marshal's post.

"The present rumblings of discontent among junior officers, Chief of Staff General Sami Anan's greater popularity than the Field Marshal in the military and among Egyptians as a whole, and intensified pressure from the US could all result in the Field Marshal sharing President Mubarak's fate," Dr Springborg wrote. Editorial staff had cleared the article for printing last Wednesday. But, as the presses were rolling, the paper received a phone call from Magdi el-Galad, editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Arabic-language sister publication of the Egypt Independent.

Mr el-Galad, who has overall editorial control of both publications, ordered staff not to distribute the paper. "Nobody's happy about this," said one source with detailed knowledge of what transpired. "They feel that to be censored politically is not acceptable."

The intervention by Mr el-Galad, which left the publication in crisis after only its second week of circulation, is especially significant as he was recently offered the post of Information Minister in Egypt's new cabinet. Mr el-Galad refused, citing work commitments, but his attempt to muzzle mention of army discord raises questions. One source close to Mr el-Galad said he had developed close ties to the military and security services over the years. The Independent approached Mr el-Galad for a response, but he declined to comment.

The censorship row came as official results from the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections showed that Islamist parties had captured nearly two-thirds of the vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood took 36.6 per cent of the 9.7 million votes cast, but it was the success of the ultra-conservative Al-Nour Party that startled many Egyptians. Candidates for the party, which draws support from hardline Salafi Muslims and advocates strict curbs on art and personal freedoms, polled nearly 25 per cent.