Egypt's dissident press fights to be heard above the fawning

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The Independent Online

By Robert Fisk in Cairo

By Robert Fisk in Cairo

17 October 1999

JUST OFF Port Said Street, up a hot, dusty alleyway, hangs a sign, handwritten in blue paint. Al-Shaab (The People), it says, Egypt's most irritating, provocative newspaper.

Up some filthy stone steps is a little wooden office, where a small, smiling man sits at a desk with a broken typewriter. Is this, I ask him, the building which makes even presidents tremble? Sayed el-Mullah grins. The chair he is sitting in belongs to the editor, and he is in jail.

"Magdi has already been in the Tora prison complex for two months," Mr el-Mullah says. "He was treated badly at first, put in with the other criminals, forbidden from getting food from outside - and you know what prison food is like in Egypt." Magdi is Magdi Hussein, gadfly of Egyptian journalism, the plague of corruption - or so he would have the world believe - and one of the few journalists in Cairo who doesn't play the amanuensis to government officials.

In front of Mr el-Mullah lies the latest edition of the paper, with photographs of the Al-Shaab Three - Mr Hussein and his two imprisoned colleagues, Salah Bdeiwi and Assam Hanfi - at the top of page one. The paper is campaigning for their release, just as the press syndicate campaigned for their better treatment in prison - eventually persuading reluctant officials to move the men to the prison hospital and allow them to receive food from relatives and books and newspapers.

Magdi Hussein's sin is clear. He accused Youssef Wali, President Hosni Mubarak's agriculture minister and deputy prime minister, of being a "traitor" to his country after signing several agreements with Israel for the supply of seeds and agricultural technology to stop the spread of the desert. Mr Wali took Mr Hussein and his two colleagues to court, where the judge ruled that their claims had "nothing to do with the freedom to criticise" and that "they filled their pens with black hatred instead of black ink", adding - to the detriment of his earlier remarks - that even if the accused had provided proof of their allegations, "their words are still libellous".

The three men got two years and a total fine of 60,000 Egyptian pounds (about £10,500), a hefty sum in one of the Arab world's poorest countries. The journalists' union appealed for a suspension of the sentence before appeal, and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights argued that even if they were fined, journalists should never be imprisoned. "The government did this to intimidate all opposition journalists," Mr el-Mullah says. "The government wants journalists to write only pro-Mubarak articles. This is also a warning to reporters who might be tempted to stray from their good relationship with the government."

Not that this is Mr Hussein's first brush with the law. He was locked up and his paper banned for three issues after printing charges of corruption against the interior minister, Hassan Alfi, in 1997, a highly-personalised tale that involved alleged non-payment of a restaurant bill by a member of Mr Alfi's family in the new Cairo Trade Centre. Al-Shaab, which is linked to the Islamist Liberal Party, outraged the government by printing further articles about Mr Alfi during the court hearing, adding they had "many" documents incriminating the minister.

Egyptian journalism, it should be said, does not exactly set high standards. Uncorroborated stories of scandals involving another ex-minister and a Cairo nightclub belly dancer have regularly found their way into the press. And government-controlled newspapers are fawning in their praise for the authorities. But press freedom is slowly being eroded.

Negad Borai of the Group for Democratic Development has no doubts about how pressures are applied to journalists. "If you want to open a newspaper in this country, you need an old title in order to obtain a government licence," he explains. "There are no old titles available. So, if you're prepared to behave like a mouse, they'll let you open a paper with a licence from another country - from Cyprus, for example. Then the moment you criticise the government, they tell you that your paper has no Egyptian licence and it's therefore illegal."

Ibrahim Issa found this out for himself. He decided to open a newspaper called Al-Dastour (The Constitution) and used a Cyprus licence. He then began to criticise the government for suppressing freedom of expression and for corruption. His paper was promptly declared "illegal" and shut down. When Adel Hammouda, a former editor-in-chief of the daily Rose el-Youssef, wrote an article defending Mr Issa, urging President Mubarak to fight corruption in government, he was gently moved from his own newspaper to write a social diary in the pro-government Al-Ahram. Instead of criticising the authorities, Mr Hammouda found himself writing about love and marriage.

Messrs Issa and Hammouda later went to a small existing newspaper called Saut el-Umm (Voice of the Motherland) which already had an Egyptian licence. They bought 57 per cent of the business from the owners and relaunched it. Even the well-known author and journalist Mohamed Heikal - former editor of Al-Ahram and a close personal friend of the late President Nasser - wrote for it.

"Then the printers refused to publish it," Mr Borai says. "Why? The printers said they had an order from the minister of information that the paper was illegal. When Issa and Hammouda protested that this was untrue and that it had an Egyptian licence, they were told they could take their complaint to the courts. 'This is a judicial state,' the minister told them. And you know the Egyptian courts - they take a long time. The two journalists lost their money and their case is now in the courts - it could be 10 years to resolve. And they have no newspaper."

Magdi Hussein is appealing against his two-year sentence, but nobody is betting that he will win. As for his deputy, Mr el-Mullah, he gives me a very wide but not entirely convincing smile. "Maybe I am next," he says.