Forsaking the Egyptian Free Press

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 24, 2007

The Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem was in Washington last week to pick up the National Endowment for Democracy's prestigious annual Democracy Award, in recognition of his role in jump-starting a free Egyptian press. Along with two other honorees, he spent nearly an hour in the Oval Office with President Bush, who spoke with feeling about his "freedom agenda" and his intention to pursue it after he leaves office.

But Kassem could not help but feel a little depressed. While he was being honored, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was directing a frontal assault against the island of liberty Kassem helped to create in Cairo -- independent newspapers that have subjected Mubarak's rotting autocracy to serious scrutiny for the first time. And hardly anyone in Washington seemed to care.

"Egypt was the least of his priorities," Kassem said of Bush, who spoke more enthusiastically during their meeting about pushing for democracy in Burma, Venezuela and Russia. "You can feel Egypt is on the back burner right now. Everyone is in despair about the situation."

Two years ago, political liberalization in Egypt was at the center of Bush's attention, and Kassem's newspaper, al-Masri al-Yom (the Daily Egyptian), was at the forefront of a fragile Cairo Spring. With Mubarak under pressure from Washington, Kassem was able to employ journalists who reported critically on domestic issues and secular liberal columnists whose voices had previously been stifled. Other newspapers soon rushed into the gap, some of them aggressively populist. Taboos on criticism of Mubarak and his family were broken. By this year, the new independent press had captured a quarter of overall newspaper circulation, compared with just 3 percent four years ago.

The free press survived even as Mubarak moved methodically to crush other nascent centers of opposition in the past 18 months, including liberal political parties, a movement of judges seeking greater independence for the courts, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this month, irritated by press speculation about his failing health, the 79-year-old president turned on the newspapers. First, one of the most fiery independent editors, Ibrahim Eissa of the newspaper al-Dustor, was charged by a state prosecutor with disturbing the peace and, even more absurdly, harming Egypt's economic interests. A trial date was set for Oct. 1.

Two days later, on Sept. 13, Eissa and three other newspaper editors were hauled into court and sentenced to a year in prison for publishing articles critical of Mubarak; his son and presumed heir, Gamal; and other government officials. It was the biggest single assault on the press in Mubarak's quarter-century in power and one of the worst blows in years to media freedom in the Arabic-speaking world.

Yet there was no reaction from the State Department or the White House, which Kassem once credited with helping to create the space his newspaper occupied. "We were getting air cover from the Bush administration," the publisher told me. "But when the fighting started last month they were not out there with us in the outposts. Instead, they effectively said, 'You are on your own.' It's put us in a very difficult position -- and I mean all of us who supported democracy in the greater Middle East."

The battle is not over. The newspaper editors are free on appeal and are fighting back, publishing blistering responses to Mubarak in their newspapers. "What [are the] red lines?" wrote one of the convicted, Wael Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma. "Is it a red line to expose the corruption of prominent figures, to report on demonstrations and the discontent of large segments of society? To report that there is a scarcity of water and that prices are going up?"

"There is no place for a respectable and honorable journalist anymore," Eissa wrote in al-Dustor. "He must be an employee working for state security. He must either be raised on writing reports and selling his friends out, or be a hypocrite and a coward."

"These people are not going to backtrack," said Kassem. "This is a very hard-earned space we have, and it is not going to be given up easily. It's really too early to see what the outcome of this is going to be."

For his part, Kassem, who sold his interest in his groundbreaking newspaper last year, is raising money to start another one, carefully screening investors to ensure that his journalists will be free to report with American-style objectivity. He'll need a license from Mubarak's government, and he expects he might have trouble. "But I will get that license," he vowed, "even if I have to stage a sit-in or a hunger strike in one of the government offices."

His conviction and courage, along with those of his fellow editors, are impressive. Too bad the air cover from Washington is gone.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company