Ibrahim Eissa, the iconic editor-in-chief of Egypt’s al Dostour daily newspaper, practically telegraphed his own professional demise. In a column last week, discussing the recent shutdown of a satellite news programme, Eissa made ominous predictions about a looming press crackdown.
Parliamentary elections are coming this autumn with a presidential vote next year. President Hosni Mubarak is 82 and frail, with no clear successor in place. With both elections widely expected to be marred by vote-rigging and intimidation tactics, Eissa predicted that the government would move to suppress the country’s independent media voices.
“The Egyptian regime cannot give up cheating in elections, so the only solution for the authorities is to stop any talk about rigging, rather than stopping the rigging itself,” Eissa wrote. He wrapped up by saying that the government was only starting with the satellite channels, “and then the turn of the newspapers will come.”
On Tuesday, according to Eissa’s supporters, his turn came. He was abruptly fired by al Dostour’s new owners, prompting protest sit-ins by his staff and predictions of a widening media crackdown.
Known as a talented writer and savagely witty government critic, Eissa’s al Dostour was one of the main players in a crowded independent newspaper scene. The paper has displayed a passion for uncovering government scandal and offered lavish coverage of Mohammed ElBaradei’s campaign for domestic political reform.
But al Dostour’s real trademark has been Eissa’s own front-page columns, where he gleefully made a regular habit of targeting the government’s sacred cows. Last year, when Mubarak’s son, and rumoured successor, Gamal was giving a high-profile string of speeches and interviews, Eissa responded with a column bearing the simple headline: “Mr Gamal Mubarak, sir, would you please shut up?”
Not surprisingly, Eissa has been in trouble before. He was al Dostour’s first editor-in-chief when the independent paper was launched in 1995. Three years later, the paper was forcibly shut down and Eissa was essentially blackballed after publishing a letter allegedly from an Islamist terrorist group threatening attacks on Christian businessmen.
In 2005, al Dostour was allowed to return with the same ownership and with Eissa at the editorial helm again. The country’s political dynamics had changed by then, thanks partially to the emergence of the feisty Kefaya movement–which directly challenged the taboo on criticising the president or his family.
In 2006, he was sentenced to a year in prison for writing about a lawsuit personally accusing Mubarak of corruption. That sentence was reduced to a fine. In 2007, he was sentenced to two months in jail for crossing a major red line by writing that Mubarak’s health was deteriorating. His sentence was eventually commuted by presidential decree.
Al Dostour was purchased last month by a group led by business tycoon Sayyed al Badawi, who also heads the liberal Wafd party. Eissa’s problems with the new ownership appear to have begun almost immediately. In a series of interviews, Eissa said the final conflict with the new owners surrounded an editorial written by ElBaradei and timed to run this week on the anniversary of Egypt’s 1973 attack on entrenched Israeli positions in the Sinai, known as the October war or the Yom Kippur war. Eissa said the owners felt it would be disrespectful to run such a critical article on a patriotic national holiday.
“They wanted me to remove the article written by ElBaradei… I objected, they asked me to refrain from publishing it for a few days but then a few hours later I was informed of (my dismissal),” said Eissa.
Al Badawy, the head of the new ownership group, denied that the ElBaradei article was the source of the conflict, and indeed the editorial ran on the front page of the Wednesday edition.
For what it’s worth, it’s hard to see why this particular editorial prompted Eissa’s sacking. ElBaradei’s article hails the 1973 Egyptian assault as “a victory for precision and planning. It was the opposite example of the chaos and randomness that Egyptian society has known since then”.
Whatever the reasons, Eissa appears to be on the verge of his second major blackballing. His regular satellite television show was pulled by the government less than a month ago.
“I do not know what to call this, except a systematic removal from the media,” wrote Zenobia, a prominent local blogger who has closely tracked the case. In a series of interviews, he pointed to a systematic effort to muzzle the independent media before what could be an unstable and messy election/succession cycle.
“There’s a silencing of many of the independent voices present,” Eissa told the Shorouk daily newspaper. “It’s another return to the atmosphere before 2004 when the Kefaya movement appeared on the Egyptian street.”