Egypt: The art of silencing Gamal Mubarak’s political critics

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Next month’s Parliamentary elections in Egypt will be followed by the presidential elections next year. The stakes are high as it is still not clear who the candidate for the presidential office, especially from the ruling party, will be. Bitter behind the scenes tussles are rocking the corridors of power as the President seeks to impose his son. And measures to silence those who question the wisdom of this choice are relentless. Two top Egyptian journalists have found themselves in the cross-hairs of the authorities.

Measures to silence those who publicly question the presidential aspirations of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s son began last month with the suspension of the Saudi-owned Orbit satellite TV program Al-Qahera Al-youm (Cairo Today), broadcast live from Cairo. The show’s host, Amr Adib was guilty of daring to question the heavy media coverage of Gamal Mubarak as heir apparent to his father.

Observers claim that in spite of being affiliated to the ruling regime, Amr Adib crossed the line in the August 7th episode of his show when he commented on a campaign launched by opposition politician Dr Ayman Nour (The first runner-up in the 2005 Egyptian presidential election) against the candidacy of Gamal Mubarak to the presidency. The anti-Gamal Mubarak campaign slogan which read: “Egypt is too big for you” had been understood by many as saying “Gamal Mubarak does not have the caliber of a statesman.”

According to Amr Adib, the general lack of hostility towards Dr. Ayman Nour’s campaign banners translated into a powerful expression of Egypt’s rejection of Gamal Mubarak as the ruling party’s presidential candidate. Adib didn’t stop there. Adding that it frustrates most Egyptians to think that the result of the upcoming presidential election would be settled in favor of President Mubarak or His son, the talk show host encouraged viewers to get their voting registration cards and vote in the upcoming presidential election whilst reminding them that President Mubarak had won the 2005 election with only 7 million votes in a country with 80 million people.

Crushing the Mastaba

Amr Adib’s Cairo Today talk show had succeeded in reviving the Mastaba (colloquially known as a place in front of a house where people gather to share their views on social matters) culture on Egyptian television. His shows often included panel, group or one-on-one discussions after which viewers would phone in to ask questions or make comments, almost freely. The Talk Show had become a way of life for millions of Egyptians who sought to express their opinions, albeit inconsequential. And Cairo Today was one of the most watched Talk Shows across the Arab World reaching Europe and as far as Australia and the United States.

Following Adib’s sudden disappearance from the screen, Egyptian authorities explained that the show was stopped for financial and administrative reasons, while claiming that the popular Talk Show’s demise had nothing to do with its take on political issues. But although the channel announced that they had settled their debts with the production company (Media Production City), the same production company went ahead to terminate their contract with Orbit, the satellite network that hosts the channel.

And while the government insists that their decision remains non-political, a set of restrictions have come at the heels of the talk show’s demise. Almost immediately after the show was halted, a daily independent newspaper, Al-masry al-youm (The Egyptian Today), published an article which said that the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority had imposed new restrictions on the service that sends news via mobile phone text messages in an apparent attempt to anticipate and stop any anti-government activities during the parliamentary elections.

Eissa gets the boot

Early October, an independent journalist, Ibrahim Eissa’s daily segment on a local TV show, Baladna Bel-masry, broadcast on On-TV satellite channel was stopped. This was to be followed by his sacking on Monday October 5, 2010 as editor in chief and founder of a local newspaper, Al-Dostor (The Constitution), known to be critical of the government, by its new owners.

Prior to Ibrahim Eissa’s sacking, Al-Dostor had been bought by Dr. Al-Sayed Al Badawy and Reda Edward, two of the most influential figures in Al-Wafd party, who had promised to respect the editorial freedom of the newspaper’s journalists. But after their decision to dismiss Ibrahim Eissa from his post, analysts have argued that the decision could have been made to please the government in order to get some members of Al-Wafd party elected to the new parliament.

Although Al-Dostor journalists have expressed anger over Ibrahim Eissa’s sacking, the unfortunate departure of the two men from active journalism in Egypt has led to a crippling auto censorship and affected the way other media personalities handle political issues. But above all, Ibrahim Eissa and Amr Adib’s demise, among many others, reveals systemic cracks as concerns freedom of expression in the Northern African country.

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