The government clamped down on political opposition, tried to suppress speculation about the health of President Hosni Mubarak, and waged a steady offensive against critical journalists, bloggers, and foreign media workers. By year’s end, a full-fledged crackdown was under way, with Egyptian courts aggressively prosecuting several of the country’s leading independent editors and writers. Authorities appeared bent on setting tighter boundaries for the independent press and for bloggers, whose numbers and influence have grown. In 2007, CPJ designated Egypt one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom, citing a dramatic increase in attacks on the press.
In January, Al-Jazeera producer Howayda Taha Matwali was detained in connection with her work on a documentary about torture in Egyptian police stations. On May 1, a court in Cairo sentenced Matwali in absentia to six months in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,600). She was found guilty of “harming Egypt’s national interest” and “falsely depicting events.” Matwali was free on appeal at year’s end.
In February, Egyptian authorities convicted and imprisoned a blogger for the first time. A criminal court in Alexandria sentenced 22-year-old Abdel Karim Suleiman, widely known by his online name, Karim Amer, to four years in prison on charges that included “spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation,” “incitement to hate Islam,” and “defaming the president of the republic.” Over the previous two years, several bloggers had been harassed and detained briefly by state security forces for exposing government torture, nepotism, and corruption.
Suleiman, a former student at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the preeminent institution of higher education in Sunni Islam, had accused the school of promoting extremist ideas and had called Mubarak a dictator. Suleiman’s jailing was prelude to a similar prosecution. In mid-April, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, another young blogger, was arrested and detained for several weeks. His apparent crime was using his blog, Ana-Ikhwan (I Am a Brother), to expose the torture of civilians by Egyptian security forces and to denounce the country’s practice of trying civilians in military courts. Authorities charged him with defaming the government and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, which had been banned in 1954 but long tolerated as a behind-the-scenes political force. Throughout the year, the government continued to round up members of the Muslim Brotherhood in an intensifying clampdown.
In late summer, authorities turned their attention to the country’s boisterous independent press, which has been a source of growing concern among top government officials. Its vitality and rising popularity have come at the expense of state-run papers, which “are held back by their own sluggishness … and financial corruption,” according to Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama.
Independent journalists speculated about Mubarak’s health in August after the 79-year-old president was not seen in public for several days and his administration offered no explanation. The state security prosecutor charged Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent weekly Al-Dustour, with publishing reports on Mubarak’s health that were “likely to disturb public security and damage the public interest.” Official media and local rights groups reported that Eissa was to appear before an emergency state security court on October 1. CPJ expressed its deep concern, noting that such courts were notorious for not issuing acquittals or allowing appeals. Authorities later moved Eissa’s case to a Cairo misdemeanor court, where it was pending in late year.
Many journalists saw the prosecution of Eissa as a settling of scores with one of the most vocal critics of Mubarak’s 26-year rule: Al-Dustour. The paper was banned in 1997 but resurfaced in 2004 amid government promises to open up the political system. (That same year, Mubarak promised to reform laws that set prison penalties for journalists, a pledge that has gone unfulfilled.)
While prosecutors moved against Eissa, the state-backed press launched an intensive campaign against independent journalists who raised questions about Mubarak’s health.
Mursi Atallah, board chairman of the state-owned Al-Ahram, told his newspaper that Egypt’s “enemies” were resorting to rumor and exploiting “the chaos that prevails in the journalistic field.” He added that it was this “chaos which allows, under the deceitful cover of press freedom, traditions, ethics, and norms to be trampled and red lines to be crossed.”
First Lady Suzanne Mubarak also issued an unusual rebuke in an interview with the satellite television station Al-Arabiya, stating that her husband’s health was “excellent” and that “there must be punishment either for a journalist, a television program, or a newspaper that publishes the rumors.” The government-controlled Supreme Press Council, which issues licenses and guidelines to newspapers, announced it had formed two commissions to assess press coverage of Mubarak’s health and to “decide what legal measures should be taken.”
Eissa was among four independent and opposition editors convicted in a separate, “false information” case. Wael al-Abrashy of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of the weekly Al-Fajr, and Abdel Halim Kandil, former editor of the opposition weekly Al-Karama, were also convicted. The four men had published articles denouncing Mubarak’s comments about the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and criticizing high-level officials that included the president’s son, Gamal.
The controversial case was initiated by lawyers affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is headed by the elder Mubarak and guided by the son, seen by many as the country’s next president. The verdict prompted widespread condemnation among journalists and human rights defenders in Egypt and other Arab countries. “It looks like the government no longer tolerates the customary margin of freedom available for the press and NGOs and is planning to confiscate this margin,” a coalition of 33 civil-society groups said in a joint statement.
Speaking at a September 20 rally in Cairo, during which journalists and political rights activists decried the prosecutions, Eissa sarcastically thanked Mubarak for bestowing on him what he called “the honor of being among his top opponents” and for planning to jail him. “The long night of Egypt must end and the shackles broken,” Eissa said. “Many went to prison to help Egypt on the road to freedom.”
At the same rally, Galal Aref, then head of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate (EJS), warned against what he called “the attacks which were not only targeting a few journalists, but democracy and the whole political and cultural life.” And Hossam Eissa, a prominent legal expert, called the court ruling against the four editors “nonsense.” He said the editors were brought to trial simply because they stood against corruption and the perceived plan to pave the way for Gamal Mubarak to rule Egypt.
But the circle of journalists prosecuted for doing their jobs kept widening. On September 24, three editors with the opposition daily Al-Wafd were convicted of criminal libel and sentenced to two years in prison, the paper reported. Editor-in-Chief Anwar al-Hawari, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mahmoud Ghalab, and Politics Editor Amir Salem were charged under Article 102 of the penal code, which allows for the detention of anyone publishing news “liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage the public interest.” The three men were freed pending appeal.
NDP lawyers were behind that criminal complaint as well, accusing the journalists of “publishing false news and erroneously attributing it to the minister of justice, harming the Egyptian judiciary and judges,” the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm reported. In a January article, Al-Wafd had described Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei’s appearance before a parliamentary committee, during which he questioned the competence of lower court judges.
In October, 22 independent and opposition newspapers went on a one-day strike to protest the rising attacks on independent journalism. Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, used the occasion to criticize the independent press. “The Islamic Sharia [law subjects] all the people to be equally punished for the crime of libel, which is a flagrant aggression on the virtuous men and women,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
The EJS said on October 11 it was shocked by Tantawi’s remarks. The syndicate said he appeared to be “taking part in the escalating campaign of incitement against the press, the journalists, and opinion holders.”