By David Lepeska
Columbia Journalism Review, Oct 2010
Few leaders stay in power for thirty years without occasionally embracing their inner gangster. So it is that the aging, possibly ailing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, facing the end of his reign, has again all but eliminated the space for free expression in the run-up to this month’s parliamentary polls and next year’s presidential vote.
In the past few months, authorities shuttered nearly twenty satellite TV channels, a top judicial council banned media coverage of court cases, outspoken columnists Hamdi Qandeel and Alaa Aswany suddenly stopped writing, and the state began monitoring mass text messages and curbed the independence of NGOs. Nobel Peace Prize winner and possible presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei has spoken of the “culture of fear that the regime has created.”
Last month’s firing of Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s leading Arabic language opposition daily, Al Destour, has been the most high-profile gag action. Eissa was forced out of his post shortly after the arrival of new ownership led by Sayed al Badawi, president of the opposition Wadf party. Most observers believe Badawi and his partner purchased Destour and dismissed Eissa as part of a deal with Mubarak, who presumably promised more parliamentary seats for Wafd in return.
The ouster is nothing new for Eissa. Over the past couple decades the forty-five-year-old has regularly tangled with the Egyptian government, including a seven-year stint as a media outcast after authorities shuttered the original incarnation of Destour in 1998. On a recent Saturday at his home on the outskirts of Cairo he spoke amiably about his dismissal, the wiliness of the Mubarak regime, and policy differences between Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Why were you fired?
Destour is the only newspaper in Egypt that is owned by a publisher. Others are owned by businessmen and are part of conglomerates that are involved in industry, oil, and other concerns. For this reason the government could not control us, so they had a few options. The first was to threaten me; there have been sixty-five lawsuits against the newspapers where I’ve worked, four times I was put in jail, once I was given a presidential pardon. That did not work, so they threatened my publishers with 12 million pounds in taxes. That did not work either, so they got their pet opposition party to buy the newspaper for 20 million pounds. After one month the ownership transfer was complete, they had taken charge, and they immediately changed the editors.
And so this is the end of Al Destour. The Destour that is being published now is phony, it’s a voice of the government, it’s a pet newspaper.
Was there an agreement between Wafd and the government?
Absolutely, I’m confident there was a deal. I have no proof, but I know. Everybody now knows the real Wafd party, the real Badawi, they know they’re not good for the people. You can see that on Facebook and on Twitter everybody is now saying that the Wafd party is not an honest party.
After a period of restraint, it seems the Mubarak regime is again suffocating the media.
The growth in satellite channels and greater freedom in newspapers began shortly after George W. Bush started pushing Mubarak to liberate the media in Egypt, maybe around 2002, 2003. So people started writing more openly, broadcasting more satellite channels and stuff like that. This created a political movement and woke up the people and gave them more courage, and people started to stand up for their rights and protests. Now the Egyptian government seems to have gotten the green light from the Obama administration to go back to the way they were before. As a result, we are now collecting the corpse of the Egyptian media.
You feel Obama is not supporting the opposition in Egypt?
Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all, and I think the intelligence of Obama is overrated. He thinks that by petting the alligators, the Arab dictators, he can win their friendship and their love. But he’s not realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.
Is the media crackdown here harsher this time around?
The sad thing is that we are going backwards—that is the real loss. People like us should fight for their right to speak, because this is our right. Years back it seemed like a Christmas gift given to us by Mubarak, and now he’s taking it back. That’s what people see. But the truth is that freedom of speech is not a gift but a right.
In a column published just before you were fired you wrote that as part of this crackdown, “understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt.” What did you mean?
What I meant is that even CNN, BBC and those stations are going to have a hard time covering these elections, because they will probably not be allowed to shoot at polling stations and all the papers will be governmental or semi-governmental. They just won’t have access. And what’s more, this is an experiment for the big event next year. If this experience with the parliamentary elections works, the regime will continue with the same strategy for the presidential elections.
What’s the objective of this experiment?
The satellite channels and the newspapers have taken on the role of the opposition parties in Egypt, because the opposition parties here do not speak out. So they’re trying to shut us up for these coming elections. My sense is there’s going to be a lot of fraud.
The regime said they were shutting down the satellite channels because of religious violations.
It doesn’t matter what reason they give. They closed those satellite channels for two reasons: to gag the press and to put fear in the channels that were not closed. Plus, since a lot of them have relations with Muslim Brotherhood, this is an attempt to close off an avenue of campaigning for candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood.
What are Egyptians going to miss in their media coverage?
A lot. They won’t know what happens in the presidential palace, what’s behind political agreements between the regime and the opposition, the backgrounds of the people that make decisions, the stories behind companies that include politicians, government, and businessmen.
How well have foreign journalists covered these issues?
A lot of their reports are translated into our newspapers, and they often offer deep insight into events here and the Egyptian regime. But I will say that the foreign reporters that just come for a few days or a week and leave write better than the ones that stay here in Egypt. It’s because living in Egypt they become used to the garbage piles, the corruption, and these things begin to seem more normal.
Would you say that Egyptians are apathetic?
When you’re talking about Egyptians you’re talking about people that fifty-eight years ago, just a couple generations ago, lived under a military system. And Mubarak has been running emergency rule for thirty years now. So it’s understandable that it’s a society with ideas and ideologies different from the U.S. and other places. But the people thirst for change. They read newspapers, they go online and make it known that they want change. So, the people want change, and the media calls for change, but we are missing the key third part: politicians who are fighting for change. This is why Mohammed ElBaradei has stirred great hope.
Hosni Mubarak used to tell foreign governments, ‘If I go away, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take charge.’ Now they are scared, because ElBaradei gives us an option for a leader that is neither Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime realizes this and is trying to shut down all variety of media before the elections. ElBaradei is a man with the knowledge, with experience, with the people behind him.
What’s the chance he will run for president next year?
You can’t say. Elections can happen any time and the rules would have to change for him to run. But I’m confident ElBaradei is going to be the one that makes this change happen.
You’ve been working for change for a long time. Is that why you and this government don’t seem to get along.
(Laughs) It’s because I represent the true opposition. I do not feel this pressure, I don’t fear people. The government is what it is. Mubarak is Mubarak, I am a journalist. When the regime changes I will change.
Do you write whatever you want?
I don’t censor myself ever. I’m the only one who wrote about Mubarak’s health and who told him he was going to die eventually. This is my job.
You say you’re the true opposition. How large is this true opposition?
There are many: Alaa al-Aswany, Mohammed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, the kiffeyeh movement, people protesting on Facebook and other places. These are the true opposition and they are the ones who are keeping me going.
So what’s next for you?
I am going to sit in my garden (laughs). No, I’m not going to give up, I’m used to this regime. Whenever we have a disagreement they close the fire exits on me, but I can take it. I was just talking a few minutes ago on Skype with a friend about launching a new newspaper.
Being a journalist in Egypt, has it been what you’d hoped?
You are here in my home, you see it’s a nice place, it’s comfortable. I have my kids, I have my family. There’s nothing that I regret. Whatever the sacrifices, it’s always worth it.
originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review,